When Helping Hurts

Drive into any national park and you’ll see the signs – “Don’t feed the bears.” Scientists tell us that bears will quickly become dependent on human food, and while they are not particularly fond of humans they like the arrangement of free food.  And once dependent on that food they will attack the same providers if the supply disappears.

Congress is now considering extending unemployment benefits for the fifth time since this recession began.  In normal economic times workers could receive up to 26 weeks of benefits with the possibility of a 13-week extension.  With the added benefits added by President George W. Bush and now Barack Obama, jobless benefits can run as long as 99 weeks – nearly two years.

And here’s the challenging news – studies by University of Chicago economist Bruce Meyer and Harvard’s Lawrence Katz show that people are most likely to find a job just as their unemployment runs out – whether that’s 2 weeks, 26 weeks or 99 weeks.  The benefits – even if meager, appear to fuel the belief that this is a poor labor market, the economy is in the tank and no one is hiring.  And yet when the benefits are exhausted, a job magically appears.

Not having a job is not just a lack of money.  Not having a job very quickly becomes a psychological issue, unleashing humiliation, shame, vulnerability, hopelessness and entrapment.  Money that is not “earned” may exacerbate rather than alleviate these emotions.  The resulting low self-esteem cripples the boldness, confidence and enthusiasm required to come across as a desirable job candidate.

We’ve seen the crippling effects of welfare – becoming not a crisis relief but a way of life from one generation to the next.  We now have healthy, intelligent and capable young people who no longer anticipate hard work, struggle and the ultimate rewards of personal achievement but simply capitulate to the handouts of the government for housing and food.  And thus they drift into the ravages of perpetual low self-esteem, shame and the violence that accompany relationships unaccompanied by mutual respect.

Here’s another observation:  Yes, we are seeing people thrust into the ranks of the unemployed through no fault of their own.  People who are competent, reliable, faithful and talented are losing their jobs.  Yet for many of those, becoming “unemployed” simply served as a wake-up call for dormant dreams.  Check out 48Days.net and you’ll read the stories of hundreds of “accidental entrepreneurs.”  Others report they have found jobs that, for the first time, are allowing them to experience meaningful, purposeful and profitable work.

No parent, boss, pastor, missionary or politician wants to appear heartless.  But we must recognize that bears hunt effectively when they are not “given” food, teenagers get creative when the allowance stops, people move out of the destructive cycle of poverty when the handouts cease, and our best and most creative talents are often released under the gentle pressure of necessity.

”If you can find a path with no obstacles, it probably doesn’t lead anywhere.” ~Frank A. Clark

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23 Responses to “When Helping Hurts”

  1. Tom Hughes Says:


    I’ve felt this way for years. My father was an alcoholic who left when I was ten. My mother had to take care of four kids on her own with limited means, she was legally blind. We received welfare before they even had food stamps. I remember getting Army surplus food. We’d get things like; large silver cans of peanut butter and government cheese.

    As a child, I didn’t have much problem with that, I liked peanut butter and cheese. But then they started giving out food stamps. I remember when they started this up, I was already a teenager. I remember the stigma associated with presenting these at the store, I hated that we had to use them at all.

    I had three younger siblings who grew up without that stigma however. To them, this was just the way it was. My brother and his wife went out of their way to stay on food stamps, hiding income, taking jobs that didn’t pay enough.

    I remember making a statement to my mother that I would never be on food stamps, she was upset, of course she was old enough to remember that stigma as well, saying “food stamps fed you”. And although that is true, I wasn’t going to be a slave to them for the rest of my life.

    I remember getting out of the Army, I was told I was entitled to unemployment. I went down to the unemployment office and saw the line snaking around the outside, that was enough for me. I knew I didn’t deserve to be in that line, I could work doing anything, in fact I started a business.

    Today, they don’t even give them food stamps, they give them a card, no one knows who has them. It just seems like another way to keep people dependent to me.

  2. brutus Says:

    Dan, huge fan. Don’t take this personally but I have noticed something kind of disturbing. I hear a growing criticism of gov’t assistance given to those in need, especially when it comes to unemployment benefits. From talk radio to editorial pages of the papers I see a growing number of people who want those who are out of work to just figure it out on their own and do so without gov’t assistance. The fact of the matter is that you can quote statistics till you are blue in the face but having worked in the defense industry and protecting our nation I have seen HUGE numbers of my coworkers, and those in companies like the one I was just laid off from, get gov’t assistance AND IT HELPED THEM IN THEIR HOUR OF NEED TILL THEY FOUND A DECENT JOB. I know there are people who milk the system, but in the circles I run in there are men and women, hard working men and women, most with families that really don’t need people telling them they just need to be better hunters. I agree with you that losing a job is psychologically painful for most, for some it is very painful, but I think that words hurt people too and these days authors, radio DJs, talk show hosts, and many others in the public media just throw things out there without thinking about how their words may hurt. What draws me to your work, your books, and your newsletters is that you really focus on the positive. You have always built people up. But as I sit here this morning, trying very hard to find a job after being laid off (and also trying to start a little side business to bring in some additional income) I find it unnerving to be told that I might just need to get off the milk cow and be a better hunter. See, when I was laid off it was with a family. I know it sounds like I am really ripping your article, and maybe I am, but for those of us who are out of work… well, ’nuff said.

  3. Bill B Says:

    Dan, I agree with brutus post above. Just for the record I was and am again self employed and ineligable for unemployment. I have always been one who spoke like you do. Make a plan and do it.
    When we lost our home and all my savings were gone, and me responsible for 3 other lives I was scared s___less! I was paralized. It was something I had never experienced before. I am a type A personality and I was paralized!
    I had to turn to friends and family to get us through and we are just now barely standing on our own. Our family budget is a mere shadow of what it was and thats okay. Without their help I don’t know what would have happened. Would my children be forced to leave their school and go live with other family in other states? Do they even have the resources to help?

    I will be stronger and so will my family for our experience but unless YOU have been the one awake night after night after night worrying about your children, then its hard to understand what the good people who want to work are going through.

  4. Cathy E Says:

    I completely agree with the positions expressed in this article. Stop the handouts!! I do not mean to eliminate welfare or unemployment benefits; they are needed for crisis intervention. But as Dan stated, the current situation is that many folks now think that the world owes them a living – Not so! Remember – heaven helps those who help themselves!! I have been laid off three time during my 30 years in the workforce. The most recent time I was lucky to have 90 days severance pay and outsourcing services provided by the company I had been working for. After a two week grieving period, I got up and got dressed every day and worked on my job search just like a paying job. I spent a lot of time networking with other people, and that is how I learned about a suitable job opening and applied. My severance pay ended on a Friday, and the following Monday I started a new job with comparable salary and benefits. For those of you struggling through a job loss, reach out. The worst thing you can do is go into hibernation. Take a lesson from Winnie the Pooh, where Christopher Robin exhorts us to “Promise me you will always remember that you are braver than you believe, you are stronger than you seem, and you are smarter than you think.” (A.A. Milne).

  5. Katie Says:

    Do you know why people stay on unemployment for as long as possible? my experience with this issue might help clarify it for some people who do not understand. I was fired by unethical and dishonest people. I had never been reprimanded or written up or had any problems. I was injured on the job and let go. they appealed my benefits..and lost! I was on unemployment for four months. Although I had benefits lefts, I found a job that sounded great. Near my home, with benefits…and they had totally misrepresented the job. I was asked to do things that were dangerous. I will spare you the details. Again my unemployment was appealed by an unethical company. Even though they admitted in the hearing that I had been subjected to dangerous working conditions, this time …I lost. So here I sit, having busted my fanny trying to do the right thing only to get screwed over. I have applied for approximately 200 jobs. I have no faith in corporate America, who can and will stick you in the back. My experience is NOT uncommon. I should have stuck with the unemployment until it ran out. Dishonesty is rampant in America’s companies, who dont mind lying for a buck. I have zero income and live with relatives. I am depressed. Thanks for reading

  6. Theresa Wozniak Says:

    Amen. I just sent my congressman a message of similar note. The other issue that comes along with the government so willing to “help” the unemployed is that it is not the government, but businesses who pay for the unemployment benefits in this country. Therefore, the funds are drying up and the businesses are having to cough up more of their income to the states. In Indiana, the increase, for just one of the businesses that I do accounting for is going to be $25,000. Unfortunately, since they have no additional income, the end result will be that an employee who makes about $25,000 a year. is going to be laid off, so who did we just help?

  7. Sharon L. Says:

    Dan, I am still employed even after two layoffs at the company I work for, but my husband lost his job a year ago. He is a trained civil engineering technician, and they work in the construction industry where there are VERY few jobs at this time. The one employer, our state’s government, that could put people to work initiated a hiring freeze. He has 25 years of experience. Would he take a lower paying job just to be working? Maybe. But not if doing so meant that we would be reducing our ability to make the mortgage payment.

    You mentioned an economist’s report that said people are most likely to find a job when unemployment runs out. Well, last week I read another report that said there are 6.4 people applying for every job that is available. I joked with my husband and said, “Hey, you have a 1 in 6.4 chance of getting any job you apply for,” but that isn’t the truth. The odds are more like 1 in 600, or even less.

    I grew up in a rural area where many people depended on welfare checks and food stamps. I have seen firsthand the devastating affect on the lives of many American Indians due to entitlements that accompany life on reservations and elsewhere. And I’ve been through getting fired and starting a business because I swore that I’d never allow myself to be vulnerable to the whims of a crazy boss again. I stayed in business 15 years, and then I took a job with insurance and vacation pay. Now, I’m thinking about becoming self-employed again.

    I believe your post was well-intentioned. I agree with you that more than a few people will take advantage of handouts, and many people will become discouraged, which may make it more difficult for them to find jobs. But self-employment isn’t for everyone, and the economy is not growing fast enough to create enough jobs. Pulling the plug (unemployment) would result in many people going down the drain. Does this country need more homeless people? Will it cost us less to help people after they’ve lost what little they have left than it does to provide assistance until things improve? Somehow, I don’t think so.

    As for God helping them who help themselves–well, I think many people would like to believe that is true. But a lot of people help themselves and fail anyway.

  8. Rob Says:

    One of the commentary articles that discusses this study is here. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1953704,00.html

    It still doesn’t make sense.

    The reason people stay on unemployment is obvious – because it pays more than the job they can find now. Half of a $70k salary is still more than McDonald’s. To then assume that people would then prefer to be lazy rather than find another job is disingenuous.

    Some people will lose their houses immediately, or whenever savings (which nationwide was paltry to begin with) runs out. Some families will decide that they can live on one income after all and cut back, taking unemployment while they can (Many families will go through this process de facto, spending months meaning to find a job and transforming to stay-at-home parent when the job doesn’t surface).

    And then there are the families for whom there is real pain, but there actually aren’t any jobs out there. Some people will be unemployed but can’t be entrepreneurs because there is no health care coverage outside of group situations.

    The article makes several odd observations that don’t line up. It assumes that because the job-vacancy rate hasn’t changed, that individuals the labor force can (and should) magically transform from manufacturers to high-tech service workers. Ignoring the fact that selling a house in troubled areas is problematic right now, that doesn’t make any sense.

    The article cites that deferring looking for a job is easier because of the “generosity of benefits” when it just stated, and I stated above, that benefits are “hardly cushy” – half to less than half of the pre-existing salary. Given I’ve just hashed out the consequences of a significant cut in income, it doesn’t make sense to 1.) pick up a minimum-wage job anytime before unemployment runs out, or 2.) not look for a job in the intervening time — there’s a quality of life to be maintained.

    The time to prepare for this situation was two or three years ago. That time is now passed. If the argument is to cut unemployment benefits so as to cut off the unfortunate from further government assistance, fine (and we can expect a corresponding jump in welfare).

  9. Greydyn Lee Says:

    Years of dealing with a Sister that found a way to get her Daddy to come to her rescue– yet as her own Dad conceded, “I expected the most out of her”. Also, seeing how I act when paid for work not yet done and many of the contractors that I’ve prepaid w/o completion have drawn/drug out completions….. “like walking through cement before it cures.” There is a psychological issue that works within all humans to some degree–“if I’m paid I’m done”! My Sister is 65 years old and has found someone to manipulate and tolerate the intolerable…… while accomplishing her goals. Since our father has died recently, I’m using tough love on her and making her do her own thinking, shopping, driving arrangements and only if it is an emergency (to her all things are emergencies) I’ll take her to the hospital or pick her up.
    Dan, I love your 48day.com. You have inspired me and your writings and quotations are invaluable. I believe God is working in you and thus you are in sync with so many of us. Thank you for your fervor and passion!! —Greydyn —–Web site will be published in the near future—before Feb. 1st

  10. ArtieEvans.com Says:

    I had a friend that was on unemployment once. He admitted to me that because he had that weekly check for 26 weeks, he was in NO hurry to find work. He took the summer off. Getting free money makes you lazy, offers no incentive for finding work.

    Extending this is a bad idea. Why don’t we all quit work and just sit home and let uncle Sam send us a check every month?

    26 weeks is long enough. Our government was not designed to be in the welfare business. The church is suppose to do this job and stopped. they need to start again.

  11. Susan Says:

    I greatly appreciate your insight into things. We have read your books and while I am not in the workforce I have noticed a couple of things with my family. My husband was downsized from his working with a company for 25 years about five years ago. He had never been self-employed so when we started discussing it as a possibility it was difficult for him to grasp. He thought he would like to do start a business but when actually having to follow the steps I believe he was worried that it wouldn’t work. We went on food stamps for a while after his severance package money was used. Some of the decisions that were made then still affect what he has decided to work in. He still is an employee now working on shifts and still talking mostly about how he has no business ideas yet. He believes that he may still be able to do it though. What that shows me is that you have to be willing to change by taking steps in the direction that you are committed to. It has to be a desire or determination in you that you don’t want to keep being an employee and that you are willing to learn something new if necessary.

    My son, though, had a different attitude He recently graduated from college and even though several of his friends chose a military career from not being able to “find” a job waited on the right one. His choice of degree gives him the choice to work at home but he wanted to work with a firm to start. It took about five months to find his present position Also he had some specific things he wanted in a company. He now has been working with a company who had their best financial year in 2009! It has been remarkable to see the difference in my husband and my son’s attitude. Our son saw his dad’s experience and decided to make some changes. Tom Hughes statement to his mother of how he wasn’t going to be on food stamps was a true indicator of his determination to do something else. You truly don’t have to continue with the victim way of thinking.

  12. Lori Peardon Says:

    Thank you for having the boldness to confront this issue. I can only say, “Amen!”

  13. Terry Says:

    I’ve been unemployed over a year and a job did not magically land in my lap when my unemployment benefits ran out.

    Sure, there are lots of employers hiring – especially those with the dishwasher and janitor jobs for which I’ve been applying. But when 100 people apply for that job – which is happening in my area – and there isn’t much to distinguish me from the other 99 applicants except a college degree (NOT desirable in applicants for a dishwasher job) and 20 additional years of age, it can hardly be considered surprising that I have not been hired.

    Please don’t suggest I start a business, with no money and no marketable skills, how do I get started?

  14. Arthur Says:

    thought id chime in again here. Its a noble thing to want to help people in need out. I just don’t think the federal govt should be in the business of doing it. Having worked for govt for 21 years, I can honestly tell you that more often than not, when they get involved with something, they do more harm than good.

  15. Joanne Miller Says:

    I know that when Dan wrote this he expected a lot of feedback and some of it would definitely include, “You just don’t understand!” and maybe that is true. I know we don’t understand why some people are content with the status quo, whether it is living off the government or spending years in a job one hates. Let me make it perfectly clear that we do understand what it means to face the fear of losing your home, cars, confidence, etc. That has happened to us. And we spent a lot of years recovering. Personally, I have to give credit to a single mom who had three very young girls living in a tiny one- bedroom house trailer who one day said she was sick of being on welfare and she enrolled in Berea College in KY…………where there is no tuition. She had never graduated from high school yet she got into college and remained on the Dean’s List all the way through while raising three children on her own. That was my mother. She went on to get several degrees and was able to break out of the welfare cycle. People assume that Dan and I have no knowledge of what it is like to struggle and that is so far from the truth. I work hard mentoring ex-felons. I see firsthand how the victim mentality (and generations of welfare lifestyle) cripples and stifles the ability to get off the system. Of course, government assistance is a blessing to help in the short term but when it becomes a lifestyle that goes on for years and decades and generations………something is not only wrong with the system but also with those who continually abuse it.

  16. Rupzip Says:

    Tough post! There is a lot of frustration out there. I agree with what you wrote, but wonder if I would agree so much if I were unemployed.

    Red Letter Believers
    Salt and Light

  17. troydonald Says:

    I can agree when it came to me. I lost a job at the end of a school year back in 2004. I could have gotten unemployment starting in june. I didnt apply until the new school year started because i didnt want to admit that I was unemployed. I found a part time job at the end of June. I worked that part time job to this day. When I was laid off a full time I worked extra hours at the part time job. I started refereeing football suplement my income but more importantly to take up the times where depression would have set in. It does hurt a person’s mentality when they are unemployed. It can be depressing.

  18. Angi Says:

    Wow. Thank you, Dan, for wording it so well. I remember the Monday in June 1995 when I lost my first real job. I was humiliated, scared and depressed, but my strong desire to succeed in life got me out of bed early the next day and by noon I had delivered 20 resumes to the post office using nothing but a typewriter and Kinkos. It took me a week before I went to the unemployment office. I was met with the same frustration as Katie in fighting for the benefits. Six weeks later, I took up technical temp work and learned more in that year than I learned in five as a full-time employee. It forced me out of my comfort zone and created enough uncertainty to keep me from becoming so complacent. I also learned that I am a survivor, a fighter and capable.

  19. Ethereal Says:

    I think our culture is at a very precarious time. I think Godin makes the valid point that from an early age, Americans are trained to be dependent on someone else, our public school system starts the ball rolling. Then you get a diploma and you are dependent on someone else for a job. If you lose that job, you are dependent on benefits to get your through until a new job is found and let’s be honest, most companies drag their feet in hiring, state and govt. jobs take even longer to hire an individual.
    If a person becomes disabled, they get can apply for benefits for support. When people reach 65 or so, they are eligible for Social Security, not to mention pensions promised to them for years of work in the military or for some companies. There’s a whole culture of dependence here in the midst of a rude awakening. The govt. and companies don’t have endless cash, people are capable of so much more than they’re often given credit for, so why is our culture this way?

    I’ve been let go/laid off twice before in my 33 years, and it is crushing to an already fragile sense of self-esteem.

    I think our culture needs a revolution where we adopt the attitude that everyone can do something and whatever age that thing is realized, it needs to be nourished, not derided. Even the seemingly most disabled and disadvantaged persons have things to offer, more resilient spirited people have shown that.

  20. Carrie Says:

    Ethereal makes a very good point. I’ve noticed that many people who are getting back on their feet in this economy are doing so by becoming self-employed. Many times, the jobs simply aren’t out there, so they make it happen on their own.

    We are seeing huge companies go belly-up overnight (Bear Stearns), and even the government is on shaky ground financially. Everything that was one considered rock-solid…is being shaken up. Companies that were flying high a few years ago are going bankrupt. there are no guarantees that my employer or your employer will still be here next year.

  21. Bruce Says:


    Sorry but I have to disagree with you on this one.

    The last time I was on unemployment it only lasted 6 months. I took a j-o-b 1 month after it ran out because I had children to support and a mortgage to pay. Yes, I could have taken that job earlier but it paid less than unemployment and I was trying to find something less hazardous that at least paid a living wage.

    This job paid so poorly we still had to accept government assistance (food stamps & medical card) until I finally got a job 6 months later that paid enough to support my family without government assistance.

    Sure wish there had been unemployment extensions back then. I am still dealing with the deficit that resulted from 1 month with no income and 6 months of under-employment.

    Accepting the lower-paying job sure limited my efforts to find a decent job. Had I still been eligible for unemployment, I may have found the good job sooner since my search would have been full-time instead of part-time.

  22. Terry Says:

    The American economy is in a slow, protracted decline. Get used to it, and say goodbye to the American middle class.

  23. Why handouts aren’t good in the long run… - Friday's Financial News! - Love More. Live Better. A Southern Couple's Guide to Successful Living Says:

    […] Dan Miller, caught my eye, and I thought it would be worth sharing.  The post, titled, When Helping Hurts focuses on some recent developments regarding our national unemployment […]

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