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Give Someone a Fish? Part One

Most people are familiar with the adage: Give someone a fish, and they will eat for a day; teach someone to fish, give them a fishing pole, and they will eat for a lifetime. People who throw out this quote often mean well because they think teaching a person to fish creates less dependency than giving a person a fish. On the surface, they are correct; people often feel more powerful and independent when they can provide for themselves, and contrary to popular opinion, most people prefer agency to dependence. The truth, however, in our country's current (and historical) state of affairs is that neither fishing nor teaching to fish is usually enough.

What we don't discuss when we summarily toss out this common quote are the assumptions behind it. This quote assumes that the bodies of water at which people find themselves are all clean, accessible, and stocked abundantly with healthy fish. If this is true, then the people within the immediate vicinity, armed with their own fishing poles and a secure knowledge of fishing techniques, may eat to their hearts' content.

But what if the people own fishing poles, know how to fish, but find that all the bodies of water around them are stagnant, stinking, filled with trash and dead fish? Would we expect that casually-tossed-around quote to still ring true? If the people living by the stagnant water begin to die of hunger, are we satisfied that it is because they are lazy?

The problem with this quote is that most people (deliberately or not) use it out of context. Addressing poverty is not the same as fishing, and it never has been. Comparing poverty to fishing is like wondering why someone has not performed heart surgery with the first aid kit they were given.

Comparing poverty to fishing is often used to justify the American national values of individualism and personal responsibility.

Individualism is the notion that individuals may act according to their own needs, without reliance on (or worry for) others. It prioritizes the concerns of the individual over those of the collective. Individualism is a moral, political, and personal philosophy that promotes independence, individual freedom, and personal responsibility. Individualism says Black people should "pull themselves up by their bootstraps" regardless of the community they live in or the social policies that create inequity in their lives.

Personal responsibility is the belief that each person has the ability and opportunity to make their life what they want it to be, that each person creates their own destiny, and that life circumstances are simply issues we all must navigate. The concept of personal responsibility suggests that, for example, Black people in this country have been free for so long and now have the same opportunities as people of other races. It assumes that there is no longer any external reason for Black people to achieve less than whites. If we fail, it is because of our own actions and inactions.

Individualism and personal responsibility are acceptable national values for a country that provides all of its residents the opportunities to reach their full potential. Individualism and personal responsibility work fine when every person has access to high-quality healthcare, housing, education, childcare, transportation, jobs, and everything else necessary to provide safety and wellbeing. The United States is not that country.

Individualism and personal responsibility are unacceptable values for a country where residents of many communities begin their lives in inadequate or even dangerous housing, where lead poisoning and other environmental hazards are the burdens of the poor.

These values are offensive in a country where children can go to school every day and graduate unable to compete in today's global environment because the quality of the education in their community was so low.

These values are irresponsible in a country where good, healthy food is inaccessible to the poor and adequate healthcare is a privilege reserved for the wealthy.

These values are abusive when residents' zip codes and skin color determine whether law enforcement may beat, kill, or imprison them with impunity.

As a nation, we have not yet earned the right to cite individualism and personal responsibility as core values. Those values belong to countries that have done the work to ensure every resident has what they need to be safe and well, not just the wealthy or the white.

We will never turn dirty water into clean water by standing on the shore and proclaiming the dirty water clean, as we often do with communities upon which our society has imposed poverty. Just speaking the words doesn't make them true. These values are un-American. Or maybe, by their very hypocrisy, they are wholly American.

Read Part Two of the blog here. Please share your comments below!



Sheila Mulcahy
Sheila Mulcahy
Mar 07, 2021

I think this is right on target. Society, as it stands, is evolving but painfully slow. When common adages are used indiscriminately only to find out how they discriminate is a platform for the privileged to take note.


Tyler Shaia
Tyler Shaia
Mar 07, 2021

I love this Conversation! It is easy to follow but very informative. I found myself attentive and interested in the entire thing!

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