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Mauricio Lim Miller Headshot

When Helping Doesn't Help

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If you log on to most any social services website you'll see testimonials of people who overcame huge odds to improve their lives. The stories have a similar cadence of intervention: "My mother was poor/a drug addict/beat me, but this teacher/social worker/community organizer took me under her wing and gave me a chance -- now I'm off-the-streets/have a job/in college." These testimonials pull on our heartstrings and can inspire us to help too. I find it difficult, but necessary, to tell such well-intentioned people that their assistance can do harm.

I get the jitters asserting that helping can be harmful -- it sounds so right-wing, especially amidst the heated rhetoric when even a presidential candidate asserts that poor people have no work ethic.

When the name callers of the world attack low-income families, those on the other side of the political spectrum counter by asking for compassion. They argue that poor people are needy victims who can overcome their disadvantages with the help of professionally led programs. This perspective is damaging in a different way. As John McKnight, a professor at Northwestern University, points out, helpers can do more harm than good because those being helped are automatically defined as "needy." Everyone has challenges, but in order for professional helpers to justify their work, recipients are defined solely by their deficits.

Charity or Pride

My mother taught me that do-gooders can do as much harm as name callers to the pride and sense of self-efficacy of low-income people and that pride and self-determination are absolute requirements for people to move their lives forward. My mother was a fierce Mexicana with smarts, talent, and initiative. She was very poor and had only a third grade education, but she was a talented seamstress. She resented that in order to access resources through social services she had to demean herself and accept handholding and directives.

One time, in between jobs, my mother went to the welfare office.

"I can't do it," she said to me when she returned. "The woman was nice, was trying to be so nice that it made me uncomfortable. She only wanted to hear that I can't feed you or can't find a job. And that I wasn't educated and I am Mexican."

I argued with my mother to give in a little but she became indignant with me.

"They want to take my pride away!" she belted out and left me at the table. Ultimately it was her pride and determination that got me into U.C. Berkeley, and pushed me through to become an engineer.

But before the boot-strappers take heart, let me tell you that my mother would have welcomed an investment in her skills and the generous benefits that middle and upper income people are able to access for asset building. Had there been a way for my mother to maintain her pride and access resources to help herself and her children, she would not have died when I was in my mid-twenties.

The question really isn't whether to help the poor or not, it is how can we help the poor in the same way that we help the middle and upper class -- without requiring that they relinquish self-determination, give up control, or define themselves by their deficits. The middle and upper income people don't have to portray themselves as needy victims to get help.

Two Systems of Benefits

Many middle and upper class people believe that what sets them apart from low-income people, and justifies differential treatment, is that they have earned respect by earning their wealth on their own. They would be surprised to learn that a considerable portion of federal funds goes to programs that promote economic mobility for upper earners. No one does it alone.

From tax subsidies for home ownership, retirement, and education savings to employer-based matched-savings benefits, The Center for Enterprise Development and Annie E. Casey Foundation detail the federally funded array of financial benefits designed to promote mobility. Their report, Upside Down, evidences that:

"More than half of the $400 billion in (mobility promotion) benefits go to the top 5 percent of tax-payers, those earning more than $167,000. Meanwhile, low-income families get next to nothing."

Moreover, when I, a middle class person, seek help from a service, a counselor, or an advisor, I'm treated with respect. I have an array of choices afforded by my purchasing power and the ability to select which services make most sense for me. I derive a sense of power from exercising the control and choices that I have as middle-income consumer. And this affirms my self-efficacy, self-confidence, and re-enforces my knowledge that I'm in the driver's seat of my life. For low-income people who seek help, it is a whole different story.

You Can't Move Ahead Without Self-Determination

In the 1980s and '90s I ran a large social service agency and one day I accompanied a social worker on staff on a home visit. We visited a refugee family that had escaped genocide, jungles, and pirates to then try to rebuild their lives in a foreign country. My twenty-something-year old social worker was talking with the mother, in her 40s, who listened quietly. I watched as she gave the mom advice and directions. I also noticed that the woman's teenage son was watching. The son peered at the social worker and his mother with disdain and as we walked out the door he muttered, "You guys don't know shit." You could almost read his mind: This woman has no clue about what we know and how we have managed so far. Who is she to tell us what we should do with our lives? And why is my mother listening to her?

In addition to personal interactions, program and eligibility requirements also send demeaning messages. For instance, requiring families to take financial training to be eligible for services conveys the message that people who are low-income do not know how to manage money. This is not required of middle or upper income families even to purchase a house. I purchased my first house without a clue about what an asset really was.

The ability to make choices, determine our plan of action, and be in control are essential to achieving mobility and stability in our society. While everyone faces problems and needs help at some point, the programs and services for low-income people treat them as unable to make their own choices -- as charity cases. A charity case isn't simply someone who needs resources, the term carries pathos. "Charity case" does not breed confidence, self-respect, or affirm any sense of self-determination. If we really want people who are low-income to have the opportunity to get ahead, we need a new model.

Moving Ahead -- Changing the Messages

There is another approach and that is to recognize how resourceful and resilient low-income people are, to recognize their strengths, and trust them to lead their own change. That's what my project, the Family Independence Initiative, has done over the last decade. When we respect families to lead their own change and give them access to resources the way middle and upper class people access them, they begin to transform their lives.

Doing this effectively means curbing the "helping" impulse and changing interventionist practices. It means giving people the time to make mistakes and figure out their own lives. FII staff are trained to stand back and let families lead. To allow people to develop their ideas and to look for answers in their own communities. This approach shifts power, putting the control in the hands of the families. It also communicates trust and respect. We tell families "You know your family and your skills better than we can ever know them. We know you can figure it out and then we will be able to learn from you."

The staff is forbidden to counsel, direct, or lead. If they do, they are fired, which has happened a few times when someone could not help but be "helpful." Instead, we train our staff to ask questions: "What do you think should be done?" and "Do you know of anyone that successfully did what you want to do? Can you ask them for help?" The best and most culturally relevant solutions are imbedded in community and people build and strengthen their social networks when they look to friends and neighbors who have successfully faced similar challenges.

Moving the Money

Getting funding to keep staff from "helping" is hard to come by. Funders most often see low-income families as stereotypically helpless and they are structured to fund siloed social service models that compartmentalize funding and delimit how it is spent -- thereby preempting choice. There is meaningful work to be done to open up philanthropy to fund this new approach that puts much more trust in the capacity of low-income people.

If we are ever to respect families that through sheer resourcefulness and determination survive under the most horrific conditions, we need to work with funders to change the charity system. If funders require the programs they fund to value the strengths, ideas, and initiative of these families, rather than just the needs, service providers will follow.

Every person and every family has its strengths and weaknesses. A large majority of people who are low-income are amazingly resourceful people who work hard, contribute to this country and deserve respect, not denigration. Everyone needs someone to believe in them. By changing how we "help" we will send a strong affirmative message of trust and respect.