Povertocracy: How Helpers Sustain the Poverty Industry

This is a guest post by L. P., whose psychological insights are a welcome addition to this blog.

As this is my first post, I’ll preface this discussion by describing how I came to recognize the dark side of helping behavior. Being the bookish person that I am, I didn’t think to look up and take notice of the ideological difference between me and the majority of my peers during the course of study. Upon graduating with an advanced degree it was, at that point, too late for me to go back and choose another field in which I would not be a “black sheep.”

Looking back, I realize that the ideological difference, and the different societal roles that we envisioned for ourselves, arose from our different motives for choosing to study psychology, and from our temperaments as they relate to motives. The left-leaning psychologists I’ve come to know chose psychology because they wanted to help individuals or improve humanity as a whole. I chose psychology because I only wanted to understand people but didn’t have the foggiest idea what I wanted to ultimately do this knowledge, if anything at all.

Temperament was likely at the root of why my peers regard helping behavior with starry-eyed Pollyanna simplicity as well. In contrast, I’d envision how good can come out of doing nothing and how negative consequences result from intervention, thus justifying my unwillingness to get off my duff to lend a hand. Who would’ve thought that laziness can open up your mind in ways do-goodery does not?

I can’t quantify the negative impact that institutionalized assistance has had on people it purports to help. But the prevailing focus on the positive effects of do-goodery ensures that its negative effects are overlooked.

Before addressing the psychological process through which inappropriate help disempowers people, let’s consider what Graham Hancock says about the negative impact of government-sponsored interna­tional development aid as well as the immunity from criticism that helping behavior enjoys:

It would seem, then, that official development assistance is neither necessa­ry nor suffi­cient for ‘development’: the poor thrive without it in some coun­tries; in others, where it is plentifully available, they suffer the most abject mise­ries. Such suffering, furthermore, as I have argued throughout this book, often occurs not in spite of aid but because of it. To continue with the charade seems to me to be absurd. Garnered and justi­fied in the name of the destitute and the vulnerable, aid’s main function in the past half century has been to create and then entrench a powerful new class of rich and privileged people. In that notorious club of parasites and hangers-on made up of the United Nations, the World Bank and the bilateral agencies, it is aid – and nothing else – that has provided hundreds of thou­sands of ‘jobs for the boys’ and that has permitted record-breaking standards to be set in self-serving behaviour, arrogance, paternalism, moral cowardice and mendacity. [Lords of Poverty: The Freewheeling Lifestyles, Power, Pres­ti­ge and Corruption of the Multibillion Dollar Aid Business (Lon­don: Mandarin, 1991), pp. 192-193]

The “official aid industry” is realized outside the control of the taxpayer. External control, but internal control as well, is virtually non-existent, according to Hancock, because it is concerned with disaster relief, food relief, medical help, in short: with helping. It is not appropriate in the presence of all that misery to question or criticize the helpers who, in professional and paid positions, go to foreign countries in order to assuage the needs of others. The chari­table impulse at the root of much aid-giving is at its most potent during disasters and emergencies. It is, however, a dou­ble-edged sword. On the one hand it raises lots of money. On the other it stifles questi­ons about the uses to which this mo­ney is put – and makes those who ask such questions look rather chur­lish. Critici­zing humanita­rianism and generosity is like criticizing the institution of mother­hood; it is just not ‘the done thing.’” [Ibid., p. 5]

Further, Godfried Engbersen observes that

poverty generates work, not only for researchers, but also for the professionals participating in those poverty-programs. In the Netherlands, we see a significant growth in the number of employment and education projects, but the effects of this new poverty industry in improving the lot of welfare recipients and long-term unemployed are this far very limited. [“Moderne armoede: feit en fictie,” So­ci­ologi­sche Gids 38:1 (1991), pp. 7-23]

To understand how help can perpetuate conditions it purports to alleviate, the question, “Why do individuals, groups or organizations apply themselves to helping other people, groups or countries?” must be considered in greater depth. Theo N.M. Schuyt mentions a few darker motives: helpers’ own fear and helplessness (e.g, fear of those they are helping), self-interest, and the need for social control. Schuyt discusses these motives at length in “The Magnetism of Power in Helping Relationships. Professional Attitude and Asymmetry,” Social Work and Society International Online Journal Vol. 2, No. 1 (2004).

To fully appreciate how help can hinder people, we must examine the subtle but influential negative assumptions that underlie the act of helping others and the messages received by those who are helped. Research articles by Francesca D’Errico, Giovanna Leone, and Isabella Poggi about teachers who overhelp their students  are informative in this regard. Although they must be purchased to view in their entirety, the previews support my view as to how helping reinforces negative self-evaluations of those in need; go here and  here (click “Look Inside”).

Whether one is giving or receiving help, a judgment about what one party has and the other lacks (e.g., resources, ability, etc.) precedes the interaction. Once this judgment is accepted, both parties’ understanding of the power asymmetry in the helping relationship is established:

We do not only evaluate others, but also ourselves, thus making up our self-image, a set of evaluative (and non-evaluative) beliefs about ourselves… But from self image the degree of autonomy of a person depends: if one has a positive evaluation of his own capacities and efficacy, he will pursue his goals in an autonomous and self-confident way. At school, for example, negative evaluations may have a serious impact on a pupil’s self-image, sense of efficacy, and learning: they tend to dis-able him, to make him less active, and possibly induce him to refrain from action. [Isabella Poggi and Francesca D’Errico, “Social Signals and the action – cognition loop. The case of over-help and evaluation,” Proceedings of IEEE International Conference on Affective Computing and Intelligent Interaction (New York: IEEE, 2009)]

One must wonder how dysfunctional motives, such as the ones listed above, warp helpers’ perception of themselves and the intended recipients of their help. Within the microcosm of the classroom, it is clear that negative self-evaluations on the part of students result when the teacher overhelps. According to Poggi and D’Errico,

Overhelping teachers induce more negative evaluations, more often concerning general capacities, and frequently expressed indirectly. This seems to show that the overhelp offered blocks a child’s striving for autonomy since it generates a negative evaluation, in particular the belief of an inability of the receiver. [Ibid.]

In conclusion, the manner in which overhelp negatively impacts social relationships and cognition has long been regarded as the reason why the poor stay poor. (See Schuyt, op. cit.)  In the effort to convince everyday do-gooders who support this type of aid because of their own dysfunctional emotional states, however, it will be necessary to frame the information in a more palatable way. In this regard, D’Errico et al. offer a few key questions and guidelines for distinguishing between help that promotes empowerment and autonomy from help that encourages dependency.

1. Is the problem to be solved possible manageable by the helped one?
2. May a humiliating intention (vs. a caring one) be inferred from the helping behavior?
3. Do the consequences of the helping behavior increase (vs. decrease) the power asymmetry needed for the help to occur?

Over-help occurs when the answer to at least one of these questions is positive. If answer to n.2 is negative, then over-help is in good face[sic], and we may speak of benevolent over-help; if positive, we may label it as malevolent over-help. [Francesca D’Errico, Giovanna Leone, and Isabella Poggi, “Types of Help in the Teacher’s Multimodal Behavior,” Human Behavior Understanding, Lecture Notes in Computer Science, Volume 6219 (2010), pp 125-139]

I see this as a starting point. What else can we do to dismantle the status of altruism and helping behavior as sacred cows? How else can we reframe the discussion in such a way that would encourage others to regard these issues with more objectivity? Any thoughts?

Related reading: Leone, G.. eds. (2009) Le ambivalenze dell’aiuto. Teorie e pratiche del dare e del ricevere. Unicopli, Milano


  1. The left’s articulated justification for its program boils down to “helping” others — especially those groups that can be portrayed as victims. The left and its media allies are experts at portraying their proteges as undeserving victims of something or someone — bad luck, greedy bankers, racists, sexists, homophobes, Islamophobes, etc, — without examining the root causes of “victimhood.” The next step is to apply the label of greedy, racist, etc., to anyone who opposes “help,” even on the reasonable grounds that (a) it may well be counterproductive and (b) it imposes economic and social costs on others. It is largely for this reason that the Republican Party has been ineffective in its opposition to leftist initiatives, and why — in the end — many Republican politicians simply go along with those initiatives. (The recent defection of 10 GOP senators in the confirmation of Loretta Lynch as attorney general is a case in point. The defectors, I believe, were afraid of being called racists.)

    It’s hard for a “helpful” person to see that (a) his help may be counterproductive and (b) based on a need to control rather than a genuine desire to help. The same is true even of persons who aren’t leftists, as I realize when I look back on my management style from a distance of almost two decades.

    Given the difficulty of real-time self-criticism and reflection, perhaps the best way to undermine the left’s “helpful” agenda is to discourage it. One way of doing that is to publicize vigorously the negative consequences of that agenda. through blog posts like this one and articles and books in the vein of Please Stop Helping Us and Shame (both reviewed almost evenhandedly in the NYT: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/08/books/review/please-stop-helping-us-and-shame.html).

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  2. Yes, after a response I received about my post, I quickly realized how viewing “helping” in an objectified manner of an outsider studying human phenomena just isn’t within everyone’s capabilities (anymore than autistic people can employ perspective-taking as well as those with high cognitive empathy). They just believe that even if a leftist institution’s assistance failed, that it was because of x, y, or z and think that they, as individuals, can muster up a renewed effort to help which makes *this* help different (and more effectual) than *that* help.

    The example of “forward panic” in the Schuyt article was instructive too. We can no more convince these soldiers not to recklessly charge into the battlefield to get rid of their fear:

    “Wartime conditions produce a phenomenon that Collins describes as “forward panic”. People recklessly attack the enemy in order to conquer the fear in themselves (Collins 1990). “This is similar to the panic retreat, which is the mark (and principal mechanism). of defeat, except that in this case the panic mood impels soldiers forward, into a frenzy of killing” (Collins 1990, 73). The fear of the poor on the part of the bourgeoisie can exert a strong power of attraction towards those poor. The helicopter pilot blindly attacks his enemy, “Yet, he is also attracted by the danger, for he knows he can overcome his fear only by facing it. This blind rage then begins to focus on the men who are the source of the dan­ger – and of his fear…. But this resolve, which is som­etimes called cou­rage, cannot be separated from the fear that has aroused it” (Collins 1990,74).”

    While exploring the different empathy pathways (cognitive vs. affective), I chanced upon the matter of there being a regulating mechanism that enables people to identify whether an emotion is coming from themselves or from someone else. It was quite the “Eureka!” moment for me because, until then, I wasn’t able to pinpoint why people project feelings onto others or why they accept others emotional states as their own. This regulating mechanism isn’t functioning in those people, and I think this plays a part in certain helpers’ perception of situations and dysfunctional helping. Upon finding some written work about the possibility and desirability of making “less compassionate” people more compassionate with medication – so that they’ll be more supportive of wealth redistribution, I think it’s only fair to point out the egregious matter of this faulty regulating mechanism. This will be the subject of my next post.


  3. Thank you for your post. I have a long been interested in the intersection of politics and psychology. Too often people counter one political agenda with another. That seems to me to be a mistake. Many political choices are pre-ideological. We cannot refute error unless we understand its source. I look forward to reading more!

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  4. Thanks for your feedback Matt! Indeed, learning that, in many cases, fear precedes liberals’ empathetic response to help only recently helped me fully understand instances of hypocrisy.

    Having lived in some of the most liberal locations in California and spent time with liberals, I’d notice phenomena like… here they are watching Rachel Maddow, Keith Olbermann, etc. while chatting about needing to help the poor for hours instead of working at a soup kitchen.

    Or another time, I had a socialist couple living next door who were dogmatic their support for social equality and very vocal about being against racism. Well, one day, when my sister invited a black, male graduate student to our home for dinner, the husband approached this black graduate student in our driveway and asked, in a manner one would use when aggressively interrogating someone, “What are you doing here?”

    Fear being at the root of phenomena like these explains so much.


  5. Thanks for providing these links (to the previous article above as well)! Yes, I agree that we need more compelling articles like these.

    I’d also been thinking along the lines of needing more “laboratory” type studies to isolate the psychological impact of overhelp. This would help make it clear that the negative consequences are due to the help and not some other factor in our environment (for example, structural factors in the country being helped as one respondent claimed).


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