Should You Give to Beggars?

The most recent run-in I’ve had with someone begging was last week when I gave a man a dollar outside CVS in my current hometown of Chico, CA.  He turned around and said, “to be honest, if I scrape together enough tonight, I’ll go get myself a beer.”  I regretted my donation.

Beer and Begging

I first started seeing signs about beer and begging in downtown LA several years ago.  “Broke and Need Beer”, or something to that effect is what one guy’s sign said at his regular station just off Wilshire Boulevard.  I remember thinking it clever and worthy of some spare change but then as I started to see the line used in other parts of California and I got over my amusement and grew indifferent to the signs.  Was my indifference wrong?  A lack of compassion?

Agonizing Stories

Begging takes on different forms in different parts of the world of course.  I remember being horrified as a disabled man begged on the streets of Bangkok and was forced to pull himself along on his chest, using his hands to move forward.  I’ve seen similar situations in other parts of Asia where you cannot help but pity those that beg because they are blind, mute or suffering from some other very obvious physical calamity.  What is the compassionate thing to do?

Children

It gets even worse when children are involved.   From asylum seekers in the UK, carrying babies and begging in London’s Leicester Square to the children that would crowd around me even in richer areas of the Peruvian capital Lima, children are often used with great success to prey on the good intentions of the passerby.  I remember a friend of mine who felt like he needed to give and took a whole flock of kids out to eat in Buenos Aires.  I felt bad for him first.  I had grown used to almost ignoring requests for money.  But then I second guessed myself.  Was my cynicism wrong?  What if they didn’t have shady overseers that they had to hand all of the money to at the end of the day?  What if their stories were true?   I brushed my questions off as guilt-induced naïveté.

No Answers?

I don’t feel like I have ever gotten a satisfactory answer to the question of whether or not to give to beggars or the homeless.  I have heard a lot of the quick commonsense reactions – “give to specific charities instead”, “buy them food”, “tell them to get a job”, “show them how to get to a shelter”.  Depending on the situation, each of these common reactions are helpful to an extent.  But none of them make me feel much better.  They may lift the guilt I feel about walking by but they don’t fundamentally help.

A Little Help from Government?

Is the answer legislation?  Some of the left-leaning friends I used to hang out with in college were sure this was the answer.  A bunch of us worked in a very economically depressed town in southwest Michigan called Benton Harbor.  A lot of us felt that, as nice as it was that we were out there tutoring, mentoring and delivering food, nothing would change until there was systemic change in the form of government programs and better educational opportunities.  On some level I still think this is true but the abuse of public welfare that was also evident as we worked with family members that refused to even look for work made me cautious of looking too confidently to government spending for answers.

What do you think?

As much as I write CultureMutt to advance what I call “savvy, global do-gooding”, I don’t like pat answers to complex problems so I am simply going to admit my deep confusion at how to best help when I encounter homelessness and begging.  I have given at times and I have not given far more often.  I have helped out a half-way home.  I have talked to homeless people on the street and at shelters to try to understand their stories.  I’ve tried to read up on what to do.  I’ve talked to those “in the know”.

I don’t know that I am any closer to solutions.  What are your thoughts?  What do you do when you are approached for money?  Please leave your ideas in the comment section

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Bjorn Karlman

16 thoughts on “Should You Give to Beggars?”

  1. Interesting and tough question for sure, Bjorn. I struggled with this both in Asia and here in Canada! Who doesn’t?!

    I guess the answer is sometimes, but for me usually No.

    In North America I need to see effort for difference (not, “need $$ for weed” signs). And if I’m having a good day I’ll throw some Karma around. That’s it really.

    In the developing world, very rarely also.

    I’d rather give to someone who’s providing a service perhaps. Or, if I’m fairly convinced that his/her money pimp isn’t waiting around the corner I will give something away.

    I’m not sure what the answer is (bottom-up, systemic change probably), but it’s not providing free money when the real answer probably isn’t about money.

    -Torbjorn (fellow culture mutt)

    1. Torbjorn! Thanks for the input. Good to have someone as well-traveled as you weighing in on this one.

      Question: do you know of any signs in the developing world that the “pimp” is waiting around the corner?

  2. Well I guess I have two opinions. One is James 1:27 that says the point of Christianity is to take care of the the poor (my own paraphrase). And you have groups like the Franciscans that will give to anyone who asks without regard to merit. If you are the wealthiest guy in the city and you ask for a sandwich they will give you one. From a religious perspective the act of giving has it’s own merit and is an end unto itself. The second is Malthus who suggested by giving food to the poor you artificially decrease the supply which leads to inflation and overrides the natural checks on the growth of poverty leading to a crises in the long term. So there’s that. Since I’m a borderline nihilst I think that it doesn’t matter what you do it’s all ultimately meaningless. The only way I know to tangibly affect the lives of the desperately poor is to donate to very carefully chosen charities. Something on the order of digging a well in a village to provide clean drinking water, or micro-loans or something. Something more than “here’s a starving kid in Africa give money to save his life”

  3. Generally, I would say you should not. I think if one really wanted to be compassionate, they should get to know the person so that they can at least get a feel for the person’s actual needs. Begging isn’t always bad. I think there are some people in short-term situations where money could actually solve their problems. For the chronic beggar, money does nothing to address their real issues – it is simply throwing money at the problem. So generally, I would consider giving money to a beggar fake and/or lazy compassion. By the way, my comments are meant for beggars in the U.S., and not the third world. The best way to help the third world is to spread capitalism.

    1. David,

      “The best way to help the third world is to spread capitalism.”?

      Capitalism means that a few people pad their wallets at the cost of the depravity of the vast majority of others. I would challenge you to think about why capitalism has proved to be such a success for the western countries up until now… isn’t it largely because we have plundered and pillaged the rest of the world’s ‘third world countries’?

      Just a thought.

    2. Good point. I absolutely agree that throwing money at someone without getting to know their underlying needs isn’t helpful.

      1. I’m jumping into this conversation… I am somewhere between David’s unwavering belief in capitalism and Karin’s skepticism. Is there perhaps a more compassionate and responsible form of capitalism that is emerging as a result of worldwide economic troubles? The current form of capitalism, fused with local corruption really does seem to threaten progress in developing countries…

        1. Responsible capitalism… Hmmmm… that’s an interesting thought. As long as people are greedy or worried that they will not get their share, I don’t see how responsible capitalism could be encouraged. Micro-enterprises seem to work well. I guess that’s one way that third world people have been benefited. But was that because of capitalism or because of one man’s idea?

          1. Well, yeah, the reason capitalism works at all is that greed is highly reliable… and the scandal has certainly not left the microlending industry untouched….
            http://blogs.wsj.com/indiarealtime/2010/11/10/microlending-backlash-spreads-to-bangladesh/

            Flawed as it is though, capitalism works on some very basic level and I am wondering if the form of capitalism that survives the next decade will look more compassionate and responsible since we have a more thrifty population now as a result of the economic downturn. Much as the Great Depression produced a highly economically careful generation, perhaps the recessions greatest mark will be a more careful new wave to replace the boomers.

  4. By the way, I appreciate your acknowledgement that welfare is abused – and often enough to where one should think twice before implementing those types of policies. The one thing I don’t mind local governments help fund is K-12 education. I disagree with about every other normal government intervention. The main systematic change I would look for is a school voucher system so that people don’t have to rely on luck or savvy address manipulation to get into a good school.

    1. Do you also disagree with your government’s interventions to try to spread capitalism and democracy abroad?

  5. David,

    “The best way to help the third world is to spread capitalism.”?

    Capitalism means that a few people pad their wallets at the cost of the depravity of the vast majority of others. I would challenge you to think about why capitalism has proved to be such a success for the western countries up until now… isn’t it largely because we have plundered and pillaged the rest of the world’s ‘third world countries’?

    Just a thought.

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