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My Discomfort with Poverty

This amazing film finally explained why donations and handouts often don't work.
This amazing film finally explained why donations and handouts often don’t work.

Recently I watched a documentary film called Poverty, Inc.

It had been in my Netflix queue for a rather long time before I finally watched it.

This, to be honest, is indicative of how I feel about the presence of poverty amongst us overall….like it really shouldn’t be there, and if I ignore it long enough, it might finally just resolve itself on its own.

It goes without saying this approach hasn’t been working too well for me or for all the people worldwide who are affected by poverty.

And when I say “poverty,” please understand I’m not necessarily talking about my own income level (although it has certainly had its moments).

I’m talking about the begging men – and occasionally women – who stand on so many street corners in nearly every neighborhood in my home city of 2.2 million people. Some of them have become quite aggressive lately, walking up to our cars and even tapping on the windows if we don’t look up.

This kind of behavior motivates me to lock my car doors, not open my wallet.

A census by the Coalition for the Homeless says we have an estimated 6,876 homeless people (1,525 of which are currently in jail) living amongst us here in Houston, TX. But it honestly seems like there are more than that, which could be true, since another census by the same organization showed that 22,728 individuals requested some type of homelessness service during that same calendar year.

I have blogged about this issue before – about how I just can’t seem to wrap my head around a way to get involved in helping poor people that doesn’t feel like it is simply perpetuating a lifestyle of begging for handouts, while inching me ever close to that same state myself.

I say this because I too have had moments in life when I too have had to ask for financial help.

Thankfully I have a family who has the means and heart to give when I’ve needed it (such as after my 2010 abdominal surgery, when I couldn’t return to my former profession waiting tables and had to find another job to do while I was still on the mend).

But not every person has a family or friends that have the means or willingness to help them if things get too tight.

I also remember how it wasn’t a good feeling to have to ask for handouts, and how eager I was to begin providing for myself once again.

I chose to finally watch the Poverty, Inc., documentary the other night after yet another encounter with a homeless begging man at an intersection near my little neighborhood. When I waved the man away, frustrated at being accosted for the umpteenth time that day, he got belligerent and started yelling at me. I found that scary, of course, and also frankly mind-scrambling.

If I go in someone’s shop and don’t buy anything, it is not typical for the shopkeeper to run after me as I leave, waving his arms and yelling about how I should have bought something. 

And yet that begging man clearly felt entitled to my time and dollars…very much so.

He didn’t know me – didn’t know anything about my own situation – except that it probably looked better than his. He didn’t know that I have spent the past 5 years paying off a big IRS tax oops plus $5,000 in out-of-pocket medical expenses from my surgery. He had no idea I was living paycheck to paycheck, just recently finally out of debt and determined to never ever go through that again.

Many men who were running micro or small businesses also pointed out that most micro-loans were geared towards helping women entrepreneurs and that loans for small to mid-sized businesses often simply were not available at all.

In other words, he didn’t know that the dollar (or $10) he wanted was dear to me. I had earned it and I needed it too.

The reason I had put off watching Poverty, Inc., because I assumed the film would make me feel even worse about not giving that dollar away when asked to do so.

But the documentary actually made me feel much better, in the sense that it confirmed handouts don’t work. The film looked at handouts from every angle – from big business freebies to small street-side donations – and in the end one thing remained crystal clear.

There is a fundamental lack of self-respect and lack of self-trust that begins brewing when a person accepts handouts for too long. This just gets worse when the handouts system is in place at a governmental level, meaning it is not optional to participate.

The truth is, most people want to be self-sufficient. More than that, people need to be self-sufficient. Most critically, people nearly always CAN be self-sufficient, save for the crippling aid empire that conspires to keep those free handouts flowing in.

To this point, the filmmakers interviewed many entrepreneurs and small business people in developing countries, and each one affirmed they had the ideas, the intelligence, the work ethic, the desire to make their own way in the world.

What they said they lacked was a) the ability to register their businesses (many countries place stringent restrictions on who can do this and who can’t), b) the connections to reach bigger markets, c) the cash flow to finance business expansion.

What a strange state to be in! To be ready, willing, able, even eager to provide for yourself and your family, only to discover there are long-standing institutional-level roadblocks that will take more than you and likely more than your entire community working together to displace.

Not to mention that big developed countries have their own very profitable financial stake in keeping your smaller and still-developing country dependent upon them for sustenance via free or subsidized low-cost handouts.

In the past I have given small donations to many of the international aid entities the film cited as being part of the problem instead of part of the solution. The filmmakers pointed out that the intentions of these aid organizations is good, but the trouble is that simply giving out free fish sends a very different message to recipients than taking the time to teach them how to catch their own fish.

Personally, if I was in need of assistance again in the future, I know I’d take learning to fish any day over simply receiving free fish.

But I also see why this cycle is so very difficult to break.

Reason being, it is so hard and so painful to see someone all grimy and bereft looking, standing on the street corner with everything they own balanced on their bicycle handlebars or bundled up in a rucksack at their feet.

It is even harder to end up bearing the brunt of their anger and fear when the desired handout is not forthcoming. It is easier to give – to give the dollar, even when you don’t want to and even when you know it doesn’t work.

It is easier in the short-term to give (as the documentary states, “it feels good to help”) but in the long-term, it may be doing more harm than good.

It is particularly hard to look myself in the eye as I sip the (totally optional, luxury purchase) grande Starbucks I just ordered and paid for with the dollars I could have given to the begging homeless person instead. That feels, frankly, terrible.

And even after watching Poverty, Inc., I still am not sure how to plug myself into the issue of poverty in a way that is part of the solution instead of part of the problem.

What I DO know is that poverty is clearly a powerful mentor in every language and every country around the world. But I am just not quite sure yet what it is trying to teach me.

Today’s Takeaway: Have you watched Poverty, Inc.? Are you currently involved with any type of aid endeavor to help people in poverty? What is your approach to beggars on street corners? Have you found anything – a way to be involved – that feels good and truly beneficial to you and to the recipients? I would be grateful for your ideas and insights!

My Discomfort with Poverty

Shannon Cutts

Freelance writer. Author. Cockatiel, redfoot tortoise & box turtle mama.

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APA Reference
Cutts, S. (2020). My Discomfort with Poverty. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 25, 2020, from


Last updated: 30 Mar 2020
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