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Please Sir, Can you Spare a Dime?

I think we face a thousand ethical dilemmas on a daily basis. Living in a city provides the opportunity to confront one of those dilemmas head on: do you give money to the pan-handler on the street?

One one hand, people argue, they’re probably just going to spend it on drugs or booze. On the other, it feels cold and compassion less to place yourself in the role of judge, deciding that someone isn’t worthy of the help your extra dollar has to offer.

Before I start, I feel obligated to note that beggars represent a very small percentage of the homeless population, with most of the population relaying on other means. In fact, it seems that even within the population of pan-handlers, few people solely rely on begging as their source of income. Additionally, despite the occasional wild rumor of pan-handlers who aren’t actually homeless, or ones who make $300 a day, it generally appears that beggars are just scraping by.

Which fits with my experiences on the street. On my way to work each morning, I pass at least three pan-handlers asking for change. On the way home, you can sometimes triple that number. I don’t even carry that much change.

My general policy is not to ignore them. It seems easier. It is easier, I’m sure, and yet there’s something truly undignified about being ignored by another human being, and I’m not comfortable being the source of that.

But…do I give them money? My inclination is no. Over on the Freakonomics Blog, writer and professor Arthur Brooks argues that it’s a value question: do I value the panhandler having the right to do what he wants with the money? To this, I think I have a clear answer: I value his right to do what he wants with HIS money. But not mine. It’s my prerogative to give money or keep it, and once I give it away, I have no right to dictate how it is spent. So ideally, I should spend it in a place where I’m confident on how they’ll use the money.

Additionally, Tyler Cowen makes the rarely considered argument (well, rarely considered by me, at any rate, since I can’t imagine anyone wanting to be a beggar) that if we continue to support panhandlers by giving them money, we’re making it a more lucrative career, and therefore preventing some beggars from perusing other avenues. Although I think this is a reasonable argument to consider, I’m not sure how accurate it is. There seems to be a lot of free that providing people with support will encourage them to fall down, but I’m skeptical that this is actually the case.

At the end of the day, it seems the overwhelming consensus is to give the money to charity, but then comes the second dilemma: am I actually going to do that? I find that a lot of people pay lip service to this cause, but in reality, I certainly don’t keep track of the money I didn’t give to beggars and spend it at a local charity.

So, as a new goal, should I pick a monthly amount that I can afford to donate? That leads us to the next question – where to donate? But that’s a blog post for another day.


Straight Dope, “How much money do beggars make?”

The Observer, “Charity for homeless tells people not to give money to beggars at Christmas”

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