We’ve all heard the Chinese proverb, “Give a poor [wo]man a fish and you feed her for a day. You teach her to fish and you give her an occupation that will feed her for a lifetime.” It’s a great concept, one that is popular with those who are more free market-oriented–they like the notion of hand-me-ups instead of hand-outs–as well as with those who tend toward socialism, as they like the idea of empowering the poor. There is perhaps no greater adherent to, and believer in, this philosophy than Dr. Muhammad Yunus, the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize winner and so-called father of microfinance. His visionary idea, that by giving poor women in Bangladesh small loans to start or expand microbusinesses they can regain dignity and move out of poverty, spawned an entire microfinance movement and industry; it also inspired me to start Capital Good Fund.
The concept is just so damn compelling. It assumes that, given the chance, people have the capacity to better their own lives, and it comforts us with the notion that the only barrier to a more just society is a small opportunity–a $200 loan, a job interview, a crisp suit, a tax cut. And of course it is a notion I have bought into, and in many ways agree with: one of the cruelest aspects of poverty is the way in which it robs the poor of their dignity, and I strongly believe that Capital Good Fund’s personal loans make a meaningful difference in the lives of our clients. But the proverb has a severe and dangerous shortcoming: it is only applicable if the pond in which the poor fish has enough fish to feed them. Similarly, what good is a financial coaching program (like Capital Good Fund’s) that helps people to build a budget if the basic problem is a lack of affordable housing and stable employment?
The philosophy undergirding both our coaching and lending programs is that the poor are not poor because they don’t know how to manage their money, but rather because they don’t have enough money to manage. Remarkably, this is the opposite of how most social service agencies think about poverty. Far too many funders, nonprofit leaders and employees, and members of the general public want to believe that poverty is a question of irresponsibility and laziness. Consider that a sizable percentage of Republicans want to drug test recipients of food stamps and even Democrats, most notably under Bill Clinton, have attached work requirements to the receipt of public benefits (Clinton also effectively ended welfare as we know it). This ignores several realities: that food stamp recipients have similar rates of drug use as the general public; that middle-class and wealthy families receive all manner of public benefits–mortgage interest deductions, tax cuts, among others–without facing stigma; and that attaching work requirements to public benefits doesn’t work when there are no jobs, or when the only jobs available don’t pay a living wage.
Simply put, poor people are no more inclined to laziness or bad decision making or anything else than the non-poor; the only difference is that if you have resources, you can “afford” to make a mistake. Fall into a depression and lose your job? If you have money, not only does this not result in eviction and bankruptcy, but you likely are able to seek mental health treatment, get better, and get back into the workforce. Get sick when you are poor and have no health insurance? Now you are at risk of losing everything. Same goes for getting into a car accident or arrested for possession of marijuana: the ramifications of the same mistake are wildly different based on income, race and gender.
So why do we put so much stock in programs that teach people a skill that they can barely put to use? The obvious answer is that these programs absolve us of the responsibility to rethink the structure of our society. This reminds me of one of my favorite Marlin Luther King quotes: “Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.” And then there are the words of Jesus: “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?” (James 2:15-16)
When we claim to be teaching a man to fish, we are ignoring the reason why they need to be taught to fish in the first place; we are doing nothing about the underlying issue–an unequal distribution, not only of fish, but also of access to fishing equipment, ponds, bait, education, and places to cook whatever is caught. In America, the poor are more likely to live in neighborhoods with high rates of crime, worse schools, and poor air quality. More likely to live in dilapidated, unsafe, and unhealthy apartments that are also unaffordable. More likely to be incarcerated for small crimes for which the non-poor (and white) are often let off with a warning. And more likely to lack easy access to affordable banking services, quality health care, and fresh food.
None of this is to say that we shouldn’t expect people to take responsibility for their lives, nor that education isn’t essential–it undoubtedly is. But just like with philanthropy, we mustn’t stop there. The levels of poverty, inequality, and injustice–mass incarceration, mortality rates, high school dropout rates, police brutality–in this country are stunning and not getting much better. Business as usual is not going to make the radical changes required if we are to build a truly just and verdant society. Moreover, there is ample evidence that the most cost-effective means of empowering people is to just give them the resources they need. One program in Kenya, GiveDirectly, provides unconditional cash transfers to extremely poor families; a randomized control trial showed that the program has a statistically significant impact on a variety of health and economic metric. In Latin America, conditional cash transfer programs (where the receipt of cash benefits is conditioned on things like a child regularly attending school) have also demonstrated positive impacts on the poor. One report by the United Nations concluded that countries with these programs “have lower poverty rates than what would have occurred in the absence of these programs” and they “have similarly succeeded, however modestly, in bringing more children to school and keeping them in school longer.” Finally, in the United States, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps) is one of the most effective anti-poverty programs in the country. According to City Lab, “SNAP benefits helped 8.4 million people leave poverty behind in 2015,” at a cost of just (roughly) $7,500 per family. 8.4 million people.
What these data points show is that no matter how much you teach a person to do something, their ability to do it is more than just a question of knowledge. Our clients don’t take out payday loans at 278% because they don’t understand that the interest rate is high; they do it because they don’t have the ability to take out affordable $300 loans, nor do they earn enough to generate $300 in savings. And if you go to a school with no textbooks or a leaking roof; if you don’t earn a living wage; if there is a lack of safe, affordable housing; if the public transportation system in your city is inadequate, money spent on education will be of limited benefit. And because the government, with is $15 trillion budget, will always have far greater resources than the nonprofit sector, we are delusional to think that we can solve major societal problems using nongovernmental, free-market principles, and that’s before we wrestle with the question or whether or not it is the government’s job to ensure equal opportunity and equal resources to pursue that opportunity (spoiler alert: I believe it does).
So yes, let’s not stop teaching people to fish, but let’s remain awake to the complexity of poverty. Perhaps, in fact, we should amend the proverb to read, “Give a woman a fish, and she’ll have the energy to take care of her children, do well at work, and pursue her goals. Teach her to fish and give her access to a pond full of fish, and she’ll be able to feed herself and her family for life.”