All of us have seen, particularly in cities, individuals on city streets who approach passerby and ask for money. Oftentimes, they have a story, the truth of which is an issue I will discuss later. The story involves some reason for their lack of money and why they need you to support them. Stories vary from being stranded in the area without money for a train ticket, perhaps including a dying loved one who they need to visit but cannot because of lack of funds. I call these people ‘aggressive’ in the title because they use psychological tactics to get you to hand over money, and, if and when you do hand over money, to get you to hand over more of it. Some panhandlers will not approach you, but instead sit on the sidewalk with a sign with a message on it pleading for compassion. Some will sometimes establish a rapport with you by making some small talk before asking for money. If you say you will give them, say, ten dollars, but decide later to only give five, they will call you out for not keeping your word. Sometimes, they will use the tactics of verbal abuse or even the threat of violence to get their way. Let’s say a woman is alone with a panhandler late at night and has already agreed to give a certain amount of money. She cannot change her mind, for fear that, if she does, the panhandler will become aggressive. These situations are also risky because, when you pull out your wallet to get the cash, it becomes easy for the panhandler to snatch away your wallet. But, in this essay, I am not going to talk about robbers. That is a different topic, although the theory that panhandlers are one step away, in the process of radicalization, from being criminals seems credible. Being a criminal, after all, is the ultimate expression of taking something you did not earn.
There are some parts of the city of Philadelphia, where I have lived for two and a half years, where you can expect to be approached by a panhandler almost every time you leave your home. Today, for instance, there was a man waiting outside the entrance to the neighborhood grocery store, asking for a subway token or a dollar. This request is part of a common strategy—i.e. to deliberately make a simple request. The panhandler knows that if he/she asks for a lot of money, they will be perceived as greedy and entitled, so they ask for a small amount. One panhandler I encountered on the subway was walking up and down the aisle between the seats asking for pennies, nickels, or dimes.
In any case, what I am driving at it is that the presence of panhandlers creates a moral dilemma for the sensitive, serious person. Of course, if you are a callous, indifferent person, then you can do whatever you want—give nothing or something. But, for the serious person, there is conflict. On the one hand, the Judeo-Christian tradition commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves. In the twenty fifth chapter of the book of Matthew, we read, “ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers,[a] you did it to me.’” In this passage, we see Christ identifying himself with people in need. So, part of the conflict is that, by withholding money from panhandlers, you are disobeying Christ and even insulting Christ himself, since he identifies with these people.
There is another aspect to the dilemma, though. It is legitimate to raise the question of whether it is beneficial to give money to panhandlers. Being charitable is good, but how are we to express charity? Can giving money ever be uncharitable? I think it can. For example, let’s say someone is pretending to be short a train ticket, but really wants money so he can buy an expensive recreational drug. This individual uses this drug after collecting money from well-meaning passerby and ends up dying of an overdose. What if the stories that these panhandlers are telling are not true, and they are using their money to feed a vice? After all, I have ridden the train once without having any money. I forgot to bring some cash once, and what ended up happening was that the conductor ended up giving me a bill for the price of the ticket, which I paid later. So, there’s no reason to go around panhandling if for some reason you can’t get a train ticket. Another point is that a panhandler can make money by doing nothing. In society, most people have to earn their money. And this is good, since we need productive people in order to make society function. By withholding a financial reward until someone produces something of value for other people, we make sure that individuals are productive. But panhandlers are violating the principle that you must earn what money you have. St. Paul wrote in one of his letters “that if a man will not work, he shall not eat.” But, if you are a panhandler, you can eat without working. Imagine how much money you could make panhandling. I think it is feasible to make eighty dollars a day panhandling. I’m not saying this is a lot of money, but it is comparable to a graduate student stipend! I once heard some people talking about a young woman panhandling on a subway. They said that she was making two hundred dollars a day. This is more money than some people with a full-time job make, assuming this young woman panhandles a few days a week. My question is, are you helping a person by allowing them to make money without working? Doesn’t this ruin their character, making them passive and weak instead of determined and independent?
I have gotten some pushback when I raise these questions. Some people say that what people do with the money you give them is their responsibility, not yours. So, if they go out and buy drugs, it’s not your fault, but theirs. It’s only your job to help people in need. I find this objection misguided, however. I think when you give money to people that you do incur responsibility to think about what the person might do with the money. Take, for example, someone who is in a state of rage and is asking for money so that they can buy a gun. Are you totally guiltless if you give them the money they are asking for?
Another form of pushback is the comment that the only way these people make money is through panhandling. There is a word circulating throughout academia and liberal circles, “kyriarchy.” The kyriarchy is an interconnected set of oppressive forces including patriarchy, capitalism, ableism, racism, etc. People under the heel of the kyriarchy cannot advance in the way they would like. There are systemic pressures that prevent panhandlers from getting a job, pressures based on race or on discrimination based on past imprisonment or disability.
To an extent, I think these pressures are real. But, I don’t buy the idea that, in the 21st century, it is impossible to advance, and that the only option is panhandling. There is a way to make a decent living through your own efforts even if you are a minority, and even a way to get rich. Wasn’t President Obama supposed to represent tremendous progress with respect to the ability of minorities to succeed?
So, my ultimate position is that one should never give money to panhandlers. Instead, I support funding for important infrastructure like homeless shelters, community health center, etc, where people in need can get help. These places do exist, and I think panhandlers do not want to go there because they know they will not get what they want through these services. The services will provide for their basic needs while assessing the individual’s readiness for a job. I think what the panhandlers want, though, is extra money to fund their vices, whether it is a drug or an alcohol addiction. Accosting passerby is the best way to do that, since you don’t form ongoing relationships with the strangers passing by. That way, no one is monitoring how much money you are making. True Christian charity, then, consists in not giving money to panhandlers. It is actually counterproductive.