This question was asked of me recently, and this is the answer I came up with, however I realize that it isn’t conclusive to every situation, or location, and it leaves out the gaping hole of giving to panhandlers who we aren’t familiar with. To answer all these questions requires books – which you can read. Haha, this is my go at one situation and one new perspective to think about.
Should “We” Give to Panhandlers?
Firstly, I think it’s important to realize that as much as people have no choice about whether or not they are panhandlers (a term I use lightly) by profession, due to circumstance, mental illness or the like, many people chose this because they prefer it that way. They do not like the institutionalized lifestyle that exists with every other person and prefer the life they lead to what they perceive (or know) everyone else pursues in ‘normal’ society. There is often a sense of authenticity within their networks that could not be found in the non-panhandler’s world.
This, I explain, for the purpose of perception for people who are not panhandlers – and sometimes do not see this lifestyle as one that could have possibly been chosen. (I myself have never been one, but I have been given this perspective by panhandlers from close to where I went to high school in my youth. One such man chose his lifestyle and faced consequences and benefits… again, by choice).
Regardless, however, of why someone is panhandling, (in many many cases it is because there is no other foreseeable option), the reality is that even if the person does not want to participate in a more institutionalized method of making money, they still have to earn money in some way – such is the state of the societal structure in which they live. They need the money not only for “something bad” (if at all) but also for the basic necessities of life – food, clothing, shelter, warmth. Somehow they need to make money – hence panhandling.
Here’s some truth – the more that people give to panhandlers, the more panhandlers arrive to the area rather than an increased quality of life or circumstance for the person. I would like to make the assumption without any sort of basis that most do not have a savings account, and many won’t have a lock box. When they have the money, they spend it immediately. Quality of life (financially anyway) happens when you spend your money in ways that will increase your own quality of life – saving it for rent, investing it in something to gain more for food, etc. That’s just not the case with panhandlers. It is a quick cash in, quick cash out situation.
Additionally, here’s a quote from an article I mostly like: “We choose to donate money based on the level of perceived need. Beggars know this, so there is an incentive on their part to exaggerate their need, by either lying about their circumstances or letting their appearance visibly deteriorate rather than seek help.”
I take some issue with this quote, however I’ll resist for now. The point is that the panhandler is not going to put the money away (please allow the generalization realizing there are outliers), but will always want more money to increase the quality of the immediate spending. They will allow their situation to get even worse (I’m talking about health or living situation mostly here) to earn more money.
So then more people give to more panhandlers because of this increased perception of a serious situation. And the cycle continues – more panhandlers arrive (and actually quality of life may even deteriorate!)
There are institutions in existence (I suppose I should say that lightly too as it might depend location by location), but in Canada at least – there are food vouchers available to panhandlers, there are structures in place for people to find shelter and warmth and clothes. So where does the immediate spending go if there is a surplus of needs met? Many people would argue it goes to “something bad”.
But in cases of choice – that means that people have to step into a system of institutions that they preferred not to enter ever, and would rather be able to support themselves separate from the institutions. This is not necessarily for “something bad”.
However, who are we to judge whether they spend it on ‘something bad’ anyway? Many people who earn money in a way that is normal, as in fitting the norms of the majority society spend their money on ‘something bad’ also. (How about not something bad per se, but the simple hidden problems of intense overconsumption?) But we don’t take issue in the base fact that they earn money to spend on these things (or the way they earn money to spend on these things either), just the fact that they are doing these things. So I’m not the largest fan of this assumption/answer to the question of “should we (the majority society) give?” If you, as a giver, take issue in that – then it’s up to you to seek out context, to learn who this person is by getting to know them, and deciding for yourself. Money is not the reason behind ‘bad things’. Money as need is a symptom, rather than cause, of these ‘bad things’.
Also, who are we (the majority society) to judge them for earning a living by benefitting from altruism? How many millions of people benefit from altruism in their institutionalized jobs? Think about the much loved concept of social entrepreneurship for a second – I will definitely, without a doubt, use this to my advantage in future jobs (and have already).
Thus, I don’t have a straight answer to should you or shouldn’t you give to panhandlers. I think something that would be cool is the situation where if you pass the same man/woman on the street panhandling daily, then get to know that person. They’re not anymore than human after all. It’s likely you won’t lose an arm or an eyeball talking to them, I promise. Then, realize that if they are there everyday, and pretty well sober, this is their regular day-job. (Even if they aren’t sober – how many of the majority society show up to work not sober hmm?) So talk to them. If you want to pay them for their day job (a choice up to you and how much you want to encourage their dependency on you) then pay them, but not obscenely large amounts unless they explicitly ask you to help them learn how to earn money and how to enter into institutionalized society (if so, add a councillor and broker to the situation). If they don’t want that, then give a little bit, or, even better, give time in talking to them, sit down and split your sandwich in half. Eat it WITH them in silence or not. Allow the dependency found in friendship.
So many panhandlers’ quality of life increases not due to economics, as I explained above, but from happiness – from connection. So give in that way more often than I guarantee most people are presently.
That’s my best answer to this question. 🙂