Cover Image

Larger ImageView Larger


The Self-Help Myth

How Philanthropy Fails to Alleviate Poverty

Erica Kohl-Arenas (Author)


Other Formats Available:
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.

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

Erica Kohl-Arenas is Assistant Professor at the Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy at The New School in New York.
"Too often, philanthropic and non-profit work is taken for granted as being inherently benevolent. Kohl-Arenas complicates these assumptions while also honoring the critiques presented by the Central Valley’s nonprofit leaders and workers, who frequently hail from the communities they serve."—Anthropology of Work Review
"In a field dominated by shallow analysis and self-promotion, The Self Help Myth stands out as a model of engaged and critical scholarship. Beautifully written and carefully researched, this book is a must-read for anyone concerned with transforming philanthropy into a genuine force for social change."—Michael Edwards, Distinguished Senior Fellow, Demos

"The Self-Help Myth offers a stunning example of the failure of philanthrocapitalism and NGO humanitarianism to solve long-standing problems of poverty in America among migrant farmworkers. Using history and ethnography, Kohl-Arenas shows in gripping detail how oppositional tactics become entangled in day-to-day policy-making practices, reducing real labor crises to rhetorical problems of innovation, self-help and cooperation—the ultimate co-optation of political resistance. This book provides a critical missing link in the literature that critically scrutinizes neoliberal tactics for provisioning the safety net in America."—Vincanne Adams, Professor of Medical Anthropology, University of California, San Francisco, and author of Markets of Sorrow, Labors of Faith

"The Self-Help Myth goes beyond simplistic dichotomies of philanthropic empowerment and cooptation to vividly convey the complex realities and on-the-ground power dynamics behind the funder’s rhetoric. Kohl-Arenas combines nuanced ethnography and compelling historical analysis to show how the structural interests of philanthropic foundations remain at odds with their stated goals to reduce poverty and inequality."—Alyosha Goldstein, Associate Professor of American Studies, University of New Mexico, and author of Poverty in Common: The Politics of Community Action during the American Century

Join UC Press

Members receive 20-40% discounts on book purchases. Find out more