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University of California Press
The Self-Help Myth: How Philanthropy Fails to Alleviate Poverty / Edition 1

The Self-Help Myth: How Philanthropy Fails to Alleviate Poverty / Edition 1

by Erica Kohl-Arenas
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Can philanthropy alleviate inequality? Do antipoverty programs work on the ground? In this eye-opening analysis, Erica Kohl-Arenas bores deeply into how these issues play out in California’s Central Valley, which is one of the wealthiest agricultural production regions in the world and also home to the poorest people in the United States.

Through the lens of a provocative set of case studies, The Self-Help Myth reveals how philanthropy maintains systems of inequality by attracting attention to the behavior of poor people while shifting the focus away from structural inequities and relationships of power that produce poverty. In Fresno County, for example, which has a $5.6 billion-plus agricultural industry, migrant farm workers depend heavily on food banks, religious organizations, and family networks to feed and clothe their families. Foundation professionals espouse well-intentioned, hopeful strategies to improve the lives of the poor. These strategies contain specific ideas—in philanthropy terminology, “theories of change”— that rely on traditional American ideals of individualism and hard work, such as self-help, civic participation, and mutual prosperity. But when used in partnership with well-defined limits around what foundations will and will not fund, these ideals become fuzzy concepts promoting professional and institutional behaviors that leave relationships of poverty and inequality untouched.


Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520283442
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 12/01/2015
Series: Poverty, Interrupted , #1
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 260
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Erica Kohl-Arenas is Assistant Professor at the Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy at The New School in New York.

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The Self-Help Myth

How Philanthropy Fails to Alleviate Poverty

By Erica Kohl-Arenas


Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95929-3


Private Philanthropy and the Self-Help Myth

Foundations are bizarre beasts. They are created to solve societal problems by using inordinate amounts of wealth — wealth that is inherently contradictory because it was gleaned out of the inequalities that it proposes to address.

Author interview with a foundation program officer, San Francisco, California, 2009

At a Hilton Hotel in Chicago, Illinois, dessert and coffee were served as the opening luncheon plenary of the 2013 annual conference of the Council on Foundations commenced. On a raised stage in front of a packed room of philanthropy professionals, Ellen Alberding, president of the Joyce Foundation, introduced the panel, "A National Dialogue on Healthy and Safe Communities." The lunching crowd chatted over her welcome. Only as youthful James Anderson, raised in a poor Chicago neighborhood, stood up to speak was full attention drawn to the stage. Anderson captivated the room with his story of a triumphant journey out of poverty, abandonment, and abuse at the hands of his father. "No one cared about me," he told us. After years of isolation and loneliness he joined a gang and got hooked on meth. Eventually he found himself in prison. Then, one day, someone from the Wellness Foundation approached him. Being invited to participate in the Anti-Recidivism Coalition was all Anderson needed. He finally found the will to pull it together because someone gave him reason to believe in himself. To rousing applause, and tears in the eyes of the women seated at my table (including me), Anderson concluded: "One person can change a life."

I attended the Council on Foundations conference as an ethnographic researcher interested in the response of private foundations to deepening poverty and inequality in the United States. As I listened to James Anderson's rousing speech, a woman maybe forty-five or fifty years old, with the name Paulina embroidered on her server uniform, carried a large tray to our table. Visibly straining, sweat on her brow, Paulina lowered fifteen plates of grilled chicken, potatoes, and broccoli rabe to her serving stool. I was struck with the contradiction of the buoyant professionals gathered to celebrate their work to alleviate poverty, while being served by some of the poorest people in the United States: food-industry workers. I was also struck by how throughout the course of the three-day conference most panels included a real-life tragedy-turned-victory story of individuals like Anderson who had pulled themselves out of poverty.

These moments provide a window into the philanthropic trend of asking the poor to help themselves, while avoiding the structural causes of poverty and inequality. At the heart of the self-help approach is the enduring belief that entrenched poverty is the result of social and economic isolation that has trapped poor people within a culture of poverty marked by hopelessness and self-harming behaviors. This belief corresponds with the argument that poverty can only be interrupted when individual poor people take responsibility for changing the way they act. Questions of unequal opportunities, histories of exclusion, profiling along the lines of race, gender, class, and legal status, and capitalist economies that produce wealth for a few and poverty for many are most commonly avoided. The mainstream self-help narrative also fails to recognize that success stories are often made possible by an ongoing social infrastructure of aid, including public assistance programs and institutions, family networks, and private charity. James Anderson, for example, did not help himself alone. He was provided with a support system and resources as a youth coordinator with the Wellness Foundation's Anti-Recidivism Coalition.

Over the past thirty years, the self-help approach to poverty alleviation has gained new ground in economically struggling urban centers and rural regions in the United States and the global South. In the United States, the "trickle-down economics" and anti-state policies initiated by Ronald Reagan's administration (1981–1989) included significant cuts to the upper tax brackets and a three-decade trend of trade liberalization, a shrinking public sector, wage stagnation, increase in part-time and low-wage jobs, and expanding inequality. With the conservative attack on the Great Society programs of the War on Poverty, the idea that the individual poor person, not the state, is responsible for helping themselves out of poverty became increasingly popular ideology. During this time the unions, public institutions and programs, and grass-roots groups that organize and advocate for poor people have suffered declining resources and legitimacy. In some cases they have bureaucratized and professionalized in ways that fail to serve the needs of the new working poor. In the same thirty years, these trends allowed private wealth for the top 1 percent of the population and in the philanthropic sector to rapidly expand. In many regions public programs were replaced by privately funded nonprofit organizations that serve poor and marginalized communities.

Yet, have these private investments changed the conditions of poverty or helped the people they claim to serve? This book shows how private foundations maintain systems of inequality by funding individualistic programs that appear to address poverty but that in practice often avoid the root causes of the problems foundations propose to solve. For the people in this book — social movement leaders and nonprofit organizational staff concerned with farmworker and immigrant poverty — the dominant self-help formula ultimately acceptable to foundations is particularly problematic. The poverty in California's Central Valley is not the result of the culture or behaviors of poor people. Instead, just as in resource-rich regions in the global South, poverty is produced through relationships of capital production, often hidden from sight, amidst great wealth. Beyond the main highways and thoroughfares that run up and down the Central Valley of California, many families struggle with food insecurity and poor health, and live in substandard homes, often with no heat or clean running water. This enduring poverty is produced and maintained through large-scale farming that relies on low-wage, labor-intensive seasonal fieldwork, high pesticide use, an entrenched labor contractor system, and unmonitored working conditions for the increasingly undocumented immigrants who produce profit for major agricultural and food retail conglomerates.

Today, poverty rates in the Central Valley are higher than those in postindustrial Appalachia and Detroit. According to the 2012 US Census, three of the region's main metropolitan areas, Fresno, Bakersfield, and Modesto, rank among the poorest in the state and the nation. Fresno County, which produces more than $6 billion per year in agricultural products, ranks as the second-most impoverished area in the nation. Recent journalistic reporting and ethnographic research confirm this seemingly permanent condition, documenting high unemployment, meager wages, widespread food insecurity, health disparities owing to heavy pesticide use and labor-intensive work, substandard housing conditions, and rampant discrimination against immigrants. Indigenous Oaxacan migrants to the valley are the latest to suffer from persistent poverty produced through industrial agriculture.

The case studies featured in this book capture critical historical moments when private foundations attempted to address migrant poverty in the Central Valley region. In each instance philanthropic investments obscured the real stakes involved by asking farmworkers to "help themselves" while silencing stories of the enduring abuses of industrial agriculture. The archival and ethnographic case studies featured in this book, from philanthropic investments in farmworker leadership development leading up to the historic farmworker movement, to the large-scale, foundation-driven initiatives of the 1990s and 2000s, show how foundations fail to address poverty and inequality by setting firm boundaries around definitions of self-help. Limits are most often set on labor organizing, strikes, boycotts, immigrant rights, and advocacy approaches that hold industry accountable for the enduring abuses of farmworkers and immigrants.

However, unlike much of the critical philanthropy literature, which focuses on the successful implementation of straightforward capitalist agendas among major private foundations, the following cases show how foundation investments are actively contested and negotiated. The stories told by social movement leaders, nonprofit organizational professionals, and even foundation staff reveal that the self-help framework dominant in philanthropic circles is not always clear or fully accepted but is rather diversely interpreted and actively negotiated. Sometimes funding frameworks come directly from poor people's movements and are purposefully adopted, changed, and co-opted by foundations. Occasionally, grass-roots groups attempt to co-opt ideas that come from the philanthropic sector. On rare occasions, the interests of funders and social movements align. Self-help can mean consciousness-raising, self-determination, and organizing against dominant power structures, as demonstrated in the people's education, food justice, and community service programs of the historic Black Power movement and the early years of the farmworker movement. The long history of African American self-help in particular, from the industrial education of Booker T. Washington to the more radical politics of the Black Panthers, underscores a more transformative potential. Like the Panthers, Cesar Chavez of the California farmworker movement initially activated the self-help model to build dignity, pride, and ownership in self-directed organizations to replace and challenge mainstream institutions not designed to serve farmworkers and disenfranchised immigrants in rural California.

Most critical scholarship on philanthropy does not show how foundation and nonprofit organizational staff struggle with these alternate understandings and contradictions. Instead of viewing foundations as closed systems adept at implementing clear-cut capitalist agendas, this book focuses on how power is maintained by sometimes well-intended foundation and nonprofit staff who negotiate, translate, and ultimately water down organizing agendas into benign self-help programs acceptable to foundation leadership and networks. When funding grass-roots poor people's movements, philanthropic power runs through the very process of forging agreements between greatly unequal partners such as wealthy funders and social movement leaders. Most frequently, acceptable translations of self-help fall into the spaces between bootstrap capitalism and radical self-determination. From the settlement house movement of the Progressive Era, to the War on Poverty in the United States during the 1960s, to current capitalist approaches to integrate the "bottom billion" into the global marketplace, to recent efforts to train girls to become economic agents in fighting global poverty, local leaders, activists, entrepreneurs, nonprofit professionals, and funders have attempted to reframe self-help agendas. Social movement leaders and community organizers who negotiate philanthropy have achieved important victories. More often, foundations set the terms of debate, attracting attention to the weaknesses, behaviors, and responsibilities of the poor and shifting the focus away from the social, political, and economic relationships of power that produce and maintain poverty.

In the cases featured in this book, foundation and organizational staff struggle to address migrant poverty in California's Central Valley, which is simultaneously one of the wealthiest agricultural production regions in the world and home to the poorest Californians. Compromises between foundation staff and social movement leaders, such as Cesar Chavez of the farmworker movement, and modern-day farmworker and immigrant organizers, in the end produce frameworks of poverty alleviation that exclude questions regarding the structural inequality produced through industrial agriculture. By translating an initially radical stance of "mutual aid" or self-determination elaborated by community organizers into nonthreatening self-help programs, foundations ensure that critique or confrontation of industry is avoided.

Within these funding agreements and institutional arrangements a key contradiction of self-help philanthropy is revealed. Private foundation investments in self-help sometimes activate and even politicize the people engaged. Yet that politicization eventually upsets funders who find this politics threatening. When fearful of collective action or uprising, foundations reign in financial commitments and re-inscribe limits around what kind of self-help is acceptable. Eventually, the aspirations of grass-roots organizations are derailed by grant agreements that prescribe firm limits and make demands on the time, energy, and ideology of newly professionalized staff. The historical and ethnographic studies featured in the following pages reveal the contradictory impasses produced through foundation-funded self-help and participatory approaches to reducing poverty. Never completely foreclosed, privately funded movements are, as Piven and Cloward propose in their classic book Poor People's Movements, both constituted by and in resistance against bureaucratic institutional structures.

Beyond limiting confrontation of an industry that produces geographic patterns of poverty, the philanthropic approach documented in this book alters the very nature of social change. Distracted and bogged down by professional management and partnership requirements, short-term foundation-funded programs replace the day-to-day engagement required to organize people in movement building. In social movements that aim to create long-haul systemic change, community-based leaders, popular educators, and organizers build spaces where people's lived experiences are shared, analyzed, and crafted in concrete strategies to galvanize alliances against the dominant system and toward creating alternative futures. This process of strategically articulating the concerns and creative visions of those the current system does not serve holds the seeds of fundamental change. Like the dominant self-help approach, it activates people beyond hopelessness, yet replaces competitive and individual mobility approaches with collective dignity, self-determination, and new cooperative ways of working and living. When foundation funding is introduced, resources are shifted away from the daily work of movement building and toward short-term grant deadlines and funding requirements. Inundated with program management, paperwork, and meetings to maintain philanthropic relationships, leaders and organizers become institutional professionals accountable to foundations and not to the people they claim to represent or serve.

The remainder of this chapter provides a framework for understanding the power of philanthropy; the history of American philanthropists' self-help approach in the twentieth century; and the geographical and political context for the archival and ethnographic case studies of philanthropic initiatives to address migrant poverty in California's Central Valley.


The key role of private philanthropy in alleviating poverty has long been celebrated in the United States and is gaining popularity around the globe. From Andrew Carnegie's Gospel of Wealth (1889) to Bishop and Green's Philanthrocapitalism: How the Rich Can Save the World (2008), to the treatises of public figures such as Bill Clinton and Bill Gates, donors maintain that investing private wealth in research, programs, and (more recently) venture capital financing in impoverished regions is the best method for addressing the "poverty problem." But the proponents of philanthropy or "creative capitalism" as the solution to global poverty have a growing collection of critics. In 2007, an organization called INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence published The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex. In this book, scholars and activists document how an advanced "non-profit industrial complex" — representing a set of entrenched symbiotic relationships between the state and private funders — maintains relationships of power and fails to address issues of structural inequality. The studies featured in INCITE!'s publication show how the nonprofit industrial complex monitors and controls social justice organizations, redirects activist energies into professionalized behaviors, and encourages social movements to model rather than challenge business and corporate practices. At the broad scale, these studies show how private foundations use public money and tax breaks to engage in ameliorative activities that mask exploitative capitalist work that creates poverty and inequality.


Excerpted from The Self-Help Myth by Erica Kohl-Arenas. Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

1. Private Philanthropy and the Self-Help Myth
2. The Hustling Arm of the Union: Nonprofit Institutionalization and the Compromises of Cesar Chavez
3. Foundation-Driven Collaborative Initiatives: Civic Participation for What?
4. Selling Mutual Prosperity: Worker–Grower Partnerships and the “Win-Win” Paradigm
5. Conclusion


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