“Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.” This proverb falls easily from the lips of politicians, pundits, and policy makers, but it is much more difficult to practice than to quote. Yet, its ageless wisdom is more needed today than ever.
Some people need a “fish.” They need help with their daily bread, a little hand-up to get back on their feet. The sudden death of a family’s provider, an economic loss, or a major hospitalization can knock the hardiest life off track. In such episodes, a small act of generosity can right the ship. And there are those who need to “learn to fish.” They need a whole new set of life skills; a whole new way of living, or they will be trapped their entire lives – and possibly, ensnare their children and grandchildren too.
Ruby Payne, who wrote the stellar book, “A Framework for Understanding Poverty,” calls this latter challenge “generational poverty.” Per Dr. Payne, generational poverty is at least three generations deep, and no living family member “possesses or can transmit the intellectual, social, and cultural skills that are necessary to change their condition.”
It’s more than money or economics. If no one in a family knows how to be anything but poor, then the deck is stacked. Here in the U.S. there are thousands, millions of people, trapped where they are. They don’t possess the tools that could change their lives, thus their desperation and sense of helplessness is passed generation to generation in a vicious, escalating circle.
This is not, as some like to think, an individual problem; nor is it a challenge restricted to “troubled” areas of major cities. This is our entire society’s problem. No culture, irregardless of how long it has lasted or how strong it appears, will survive without addressing systematic, generational poverty and the social injustices and root causes that perpetuate it.
I suppose it is easier to crusade against terrorism abroad than to battle the poverty that is undoing generations of our children at home. It is less painful to be angry over who receives a marriage license than to do something about the divide between the haves and the have-nots that is quickly becoming untenable. I guess is it more convenient to bluster about borders and ignore the ticking time bombs of injustice just outside our gated communities.
More than 2,000 times in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures the issues of poverty and injustice are called to the attention of the people of faith. So when we are looking for “somebody to do something about it,” we must look to ourselves, for our task is to “bring Good News to the poor. To proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, and that the oppressed will be set free.” We might have to learn a few new fishing skills ourselves, to get this job done.