Learning To Fish | The Myth About Welfare Dependency

“Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, feed him for life.”Lao Tzu

This was the response that one commentator left on Facebook, under a politically charged photo of “Conservative Jesus”, who in the world of Internet humor, represents the hypocrisy of conservative ideals and actions. The original poster’s message was simple:

If conservatives observe and laud the indiscriminate giving of Jesus, why are they so quick to obstruct welfare that seeks to help others?

It all comes down to that favorite Christian jingle:

WWJD — What Would Jesus Do?

On the humor side of it, one might extract a barrel or two of laughs from the sobering irony of a Conservative Jesus who, in the presence of thousands who were starving, decided that mitigating the risk of welfare dependency was a far more noble cause than feeding the hungry. And so, though Jesus wanted badly to feed those in need, and despite his power to do so, his anxiety about a future population that might expect food every time they starved was too great.

Jesus had to do the responsible thing here folks: he had to make sure that the people’s suffering meant something, and that those who would follow in his footsteps would come to know the irrefutable logic of letting people starve for fear that they may someday ask for food again.

So, getting back to the introductory quote:

Is teaching a man to fish better than giving him a fish?

Well, actually the answer is that both are probably good ideas—because a man dead from starvation can’t learn to fish very well. It just doesn’t work that way.

The important thing I’d like you to notice is the lack of context provided by such a quote. It’s a nice attempt to justify the whole “giving is bad” viewpoint, but it quickly losses traction when examined properly. Having a grain of truth doesn’t mean you’ve got the whole beach, and so, I thoughtfully responded to this person’s logic with a more updated line of truth which more accurately reflects the context of modern political/economic atmospheres:

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, encouraging him to believe in himself, to believe that he is not worthless, that he is worth caring for and that the world is a place worth living in. 

Teach a man to fish so that you may take endlessly from his bounty, behind his back and throughout his entire lifetime, and you teach him that his efforts are meaningless, that he is worthless, and that the world is a unjust and evil place from which there is no escape except into helplessness.” 


The myth concerning a population’s dependency on welfare is based on two assumptions. 

The first assumption is that: 

the giving itself creates dependancy. 

This is what conservatives WANT you to believe, that if we just stopped the “handouts”, people would learn to fend for themselves. The reality is much graver, as it turns out, human beings aren’t very motivated by desperate circumstances and the hopeless promise of nothing. You can’t push people near death, give them nothing to hope for, and then expect them to pull themselves up from the depths.

In psychology, learned helplessness is the really learned hopelessness. When a dog receives an electric shock as punishment for any action he takes, good or bad, he learns to lay down and just give up. People need to be continually supported by a system that ALLOWS them a reasonable chance to advance, and that advancement should be clear and reinforced.

The other assumption that goes along with the generated fear of a “welfare dependency” state is:

The idea that having to give means that others can’t help themselves, or that they will never help themselves. 

I work with people on or below the poverty line every day of my life. I’m talking about people on welfare, food stamps, and many other government assistance programs.

Let me tell you something dead serious. 

I’ve sat down with these people, and in the many years I’ve been a social worker I can tell you that not one of those people have ever expressed feelings of content for collecting government benefits. They find it degrading, embarrassing, and many fantasize about not only work, but being a “whole person”, a “productive citizen in society”. Most of them cite (quite accurately) the cut in social program funding that used to make their lives easier; they cite rising food costs, education costs, medical costs, and pay cuts.

Look, I’m all for teaching people how to do for themselves—that’s a given. But if we’re going to live by a philosophy that encourages people to be able to fish for themselves, society also has to be willing to provide supportive services in conjunction with welfare monies; society has to ensure that its lessons of fishing don’t end up worthless in a town without fishing rods or bountiful rivers. A man who knows how to fish will certainly starve if the rod he needs costs more than he could ever afford.

This is the crucial detail overlooked by those who would cut welfare and social program spending because they believe welfare doesn’t work. It’s a self perpetuating cycle of destroying those who are less fortunate:

Give welfare monies but cut spending on complimentary supportive programs that make welfare gains effective———————————————>

—————————>Poverty and Unemployment grow due to lack of supportive programs——————————>

—————————>Conclude that welfare doesn’t work—————————————>

—————————>Cut Welfare monies and make further cuts to complimentary supportive programs——————————————>

—————————>Poverty and Unemployment grow due to cuts—————————>

—————————>Conclude that welfare doesn’t work—————————————>

and so on….

And so we see that such philosophies that mean to discredit welfare, while containing a grain of insight, were also produced in a time where the fish, the river, the rod, and the knowledge weren’t owned by anyone.

The problem concerning the connection between welfare and dependency has nothing to do with welfare in general. Welfare is good. Welfare helps those who can’t help themselves. The dependency on welfare we see today is not a product of “too much entitlement”, but rather, it’s indicative of the lack of support needed to make welfare effective in the first place.

The economic and political systems that surround welfare do not allow for welfare to be reasonably effective. What has emerged, essentially, is a “no-win” battle for those at the bottom. How can we expect those requiring government assistance to reach for higher education when the average middle class family can barely afford it? What results can we expect from urging families to keep kids in school when public schools no longer have the resources to educate those children properly? There is no solution to such equations but the very dependency that conservatives fear.

When you give people enough to eat, but no other resources to better themselves, THAT creates dependency. 

When people feel that poverty is their only choice, that no other REASONABLE alternative exists, THAT creates dependancy. 

And so, we can see that welfare doesn’t function very well when it’s not supported with other services and options that allow people to maximize the advantages of government support.

The privatization of many social and civil services in tandem with welfare handouts is a conflict of interest. So when people talk about the lack of results of welfare, they need to ask more questions about the environment in which that welfare exists.

If the private services and opportunities surrounding those who require welfare are not available to them, how can we expect anything more of them? 

How can we expect that $300 a month plus food stamps are going to be enough to help encourage someone to get a higher education, when the average tuition costs $15,000 a semester? 

The Bottom Line

The true efficacy of welfare is not the exclusive product of welfare services themselves, but rather the quality of the nurturing environment in which it exists. You can’t give people money for food and housing—and then defund their educational opportunities, decrease their job opportunities, decrease their wages, and health benefits—and expect them to get somewhere. Welfare services and programs must exist in conjunction with other favorable political/economic conditions that encourage the maximum efficacy of such monetary assistance.

Matthew Rosario

American / Writer / Musician