The Tragic Stigma of Help
How we perpetuate a myth that keeps so many of us poor, overwhelmed, depressed, and alone.
A few years ago, I was a member of a leadership development group in the not-so-prosperous post-industrial Midwestern town where I live. Every other Friday, the group — made up of mid-level management people at local firms — would get together at a different location to learn about the local economy. We learned about business development in the area, about leadership qualities, education, non-profits, and civic involvement.
On one occasion, we visited a food bank that serves about 15 counties in the area — meaning somewhere over 1 million people. The person representing the food bank revealed to us something that I found stunning and counter-intuitive. He said that where the food bank falls short is not where most people think it does.
The food bank — like most other food banks around the country — has plenty of food — plenty. In fact, each year, they throw away tons (literally, tons) of food that goes unclaimed. They also have plenty of volunteers to help process the food — during most times of the year. In short, supply — be it food or labor power — is not the most pressing issue. The most pressing issue is demand.
The real problem the food bank faces, he said, is that tens of thousands of people in poverty are not using the food bank. That’s right. The most salient problem for the food bank in this poor metropolitan area is that a good portion of the poor population is not taking the free food. For whatever reason, people are just not showing up to the pantries to get food. They don’t come out to get food from the food trucks that the pantries support regularly. They simply choose not to ask for help.
Why is that? Why would so many people who could obtain free food, and who would unquestionably benefit from doing so, just not do it — and either go hungry or pay for food instead?
Sure, some of it can be attributed to laziness. That explanation can be deployed to explain some portion of pretty much any problem. But using laziness to explain the root cause of a problem is itself lazy and also irresponsible. So what else is there that makes people who need food and have little or no money, choose not to take it?
We Suffer From an Affliction
I don’t blame most of those people for not reaching out for free food. I understand. Though I’ve never had to go hungry myself, I understand their affliction because I too suffer from it. Millions of people of all socioeconomic backgrounds suffer from the affliction. It’s an affliction that can ruin relationships, destroy careers, and cripple communities.
This affliction is the refusal to ask for help.
The affliction is a widespread cultural phenomenon that preys upon millions of people — both rich and poor, young and old, working and unemployed. It has deep roots, and it keeps people who could otherwise be successful from realizing their potential. But why does this affliction persist? Why is it so damned hard to ask for help — especially when help is available?
Part of the problem comes form our national discourse here in the U.S. No matter how liberal we become socially, there remains an undercurrent of rugged individualism. It began as the 20th century began — with the “rags to riches” stories of Horatio Alger. Even as the depression hit in the 1930s, people were urged to “pick themselves up by the bootstraps” and get out of abject poverty by their own willpower and gumption.
These days, the message we receive is the same, but the mode of delivery is different. We continue to be sold Algeresque stories, but instead of scrappy young boys from the slums, we get college dropouts who built computers and apps in their parents’ garages. We are presented with wondrous stories of entrepreneurs starting and selling companies within a year or two for billions of dollars. To compound that, we are also bombarded by articles that urge us to adopt certain habits, read certain books, or take certain courses — the implication being that we too can learn to rise like those revered few have risen— alone.
It’s all very beautiful and inspiring. But it’s a beautiful, inspiring lie.
I hope we’re not all too naive to realize that this is just ideology repeating itself. None of these new paragons of success did it on their own — nobody ever has. Not Jobs, not Bezos, not Zuckerberg, not Musk. They all had help — tons of it.
No one who has succeeded at anything ever did it without asking for and receiving, help. This is how it is, and how it always has been. But somehow we continue to pass through the centuries and conveniently forget it. That has to change. It only benefits the select few who already have success, fame, wealth, and influence. It buries the rest of us in self-sustained social obstacles and baseless self-doubt. The more the public at large upholds a stigma against those who ask for help, the more we’ll repeat the cycle of terribly large numbers living and dying in poverty, living without realizing their potential — wasting away.
How Do We Change This?
So I ask you, if you’re still reading: how can I help you? How can you help me? How can we help each other? How can we convince everyone that giving and receiving help is a good thing?
Charity is not a bad word, it is help for those who don’t have enough to repay. That’s it. Forget the Protestant Work Ethic. This is the 21st century, and we should be okay providing for those who are in trouble — whether we get anything back or not. And it’s not an issue of political ideology.
We have shown — whether we’re left or right-leaning, that we are mostly okay throwing billions of dollars at companies that never make any money, and fall away into obscurity. Why then should we act so stingy when it comes to providing housing, food, health care, and education to people. I doubt that the mythical “welfare queens” spent anywhere near as much money as the various startups that have failed spectacularly in the VC funding era.
We’re making progress on a range of issues relating to society and professional development. But I don’t see that same progress in making it okay to ask for and acknowledge help. The attitude of stingy judgmentalism remains as strong as ever — even as those who themselves judge receive help regularly. In turn, those who need help are shamed into not asking for it. We can’t be afraid to ask for help, but more importantly, we can’t continue to feed into the stigma associated with asking for it.
Here’s the kicker, though: simply helping others is not going to fix this. In fact, depending on the context, it may make things worse. What needs to happen is a combination of two things:
- people in influential positions, who are recognized as successful, need to emphasize the help they had to get there
- people who help others, need to drive home the point to those they’re helping that the transaction taking place does not indicate the receiver’s lack of strength or ability — it’s simply help, which we all have gotten from time to time
If you’re a manager, you can do these things today, with the people you manage. If you’re a community leader, you can do this today by publicly addressing the points above. If you’re a parent, you can talk to your children about all the help you needed and received, and ensure your kids know that it is part of your job to provide that to them.
If you think you didn’t really receive help, and you did it on your own — you’re part of the problem. What you can do is sit down, spend 10 minutes listing your accomplishments (the ones you think you did on your own), and ensure that there was no one who took a chance on you, listened to your pitch, gave you the benefit of the doubt, or cleared the way at all for you. Because if there was — guess what? You got help!
If we can prioritize those things, perhaps we can change our attitude about giving and receiving help. Perhaps the help we do give can become more effective. It’s a crazy idea, sure. But it might just be crazy enough to work.