Teach a man to fish…


A friend of mine had a great comment on the proverb “give a man a fish, feed him for a day; teach him how to fish, feed him for a lifetime.”  The man isn’t going to live long enough to become a fisherman, my friend pointed out, if he starves in the meantime.  I think the proverb is true, but it’s not talking about two mutually exclusive things.  Yes, we need to teach people to be self-sufficient; but that’s a long-term goal, and they still need to be fed in the short-term, today.  Why can’t we do both?

Yes, I understand that feeding people can discourage them from becoming self-sufficient, and teach them to rely on charity or government aid; but the answer can’t be to cut off aid.  Let’s come up with some solutions–things like job training for people on welfare, or a gradual decrease in benefits as people’s situations improve, rather than a sudden drop-off–but let’s make sure we take care of people in the short run, too.

I recently posted about the problem of supplying living wages to people who were, through one misfortune or another, struggling to feed a family but stuck in a low- or minimum-wage job.  Many people responded, rightly, that we need to address the root problems of poverty, like the breakdown of the family and of community solidarity, instead of just slapping on economic solutions like higher wages.  But here’s the deal: things like that take time.  We can’t leave people hungry while we begin a long-term plan of restoring the traditional family so that there won’t be so many struggling single mothers or so many people abandoned by their relatives.  We can’t neglect the long term culture war, of course; but why can’t we work on both problems at the same time?

I understand that some economists will say we’re not actually helping people by giving them short-term aid, since we’re setting them up for a life of dependence; our intentions are good, but our actions aren’t actually in the best interest of the poor.  But if you’re expecting someone to start building (or rebuilding) an independent life, he’s going to need help along the way.  No homeless man is going to get off the street if he doesn’t learn how to manage money, manage his health, and support himself; but while he’s learning to do that, he still needs a place to sleep and something to eat.  And if you’d like him to go find a job so he can take care of himself, he’s not going to get many interviews if you don’t start by giving him a “handout” of clean clothes, medicine, and healthy food; not to mention a shower and a shave!

By all means, let’s teach men how to fish; but while they’re still learning and they’re not catching much, let’s share some of our fish with them.


“Volunteers of America Soup Kitchen,” 1936


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