by Brian T. Lynch, MSW
“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”
There is some wisdom in this old English proverb. It seems obvious that our survival instinct compels us to use our skills to meet our basic needs. The point being made by this proverb is that It’s more worthwhile to teach someone to do something for themselves than to do it for them.
As a nugget of wisdom, however, the expression is also insufficient. It assumes that resource and circumstances are otherwise favorable for the fisherman. The proverb shouldn’t be taken too literally or applied too broadly, but it often is. This is especially the case when it is applied to social welfare.
Specifically, it becomes a problem when policy makers believe that all you have to do is give someone the skills they need they can do the rest on their own. It’s the notion that skills plus self-determination are sufficient for success. This reductive thinking forms the rationale behind the conservative politics of poverty. It’s destructive corollary is a belief that when skills have been properly transferred, yet success remains elusive, the fault lies within the character of the person. It is a belief that fails to consider scarce resources or other barriers beyond a person’s control.
To make this point, take the proverbial fisherman as an example and ask yourself the following question: What else, other than skills, might be required for the fisherman to catch his daily meal?
You won’t get very far down your list before you see the point here. The fisherman’s success still requires the right conditions, many of which are beyond his personal control. And some of the conditions are dependent on social factors, or environmental factors over which we have societal influence. Examples of these include having clean water, allowing public access, or requiring a fishing license.
The devil is always in the details. There are no simple formulaic ways to think about poverty. There is only the need to critically evaluate the impact of policies that influence everyone’s well being, and to seek out, and overcome the barriers people face every day to putting food on their table. Do that and every able bodied person will act with self-determination.