“HEY MAN,” THE GUY SAID, “I just got out of jail and I need bus fare to get to a job that social services set me up with. Any chance you guys could help?”
My friend reached into his pocket and handed the guy a couple of singles. The guy said, “Thanks,” and then glanced over at me.
“Sorry man. No cash.”
As we were walking away I debated telling my friend. I don’t want to contribute to a stereotype — I know that everyone who begs isn’t necessarily strung out on drugs, that some of them are legitimately down on their luck — but I decided it was better to tell.
“I’ve seen that guy like, 5 times over the past two years,” I said. “He used to hang outside the bars and give that same spiel.”
My friend shrugged. “Maybe he’s using it for food.”
“Yeah,” I said, “Maybe.”
Beggars at home.
One survey found that the “they’ll only spend it on drugs,” line of thinking is somewhat justified and somewhat overblown. Around 44% of panhandlers admit to spending the money they earn on drugs, while 94% use the money for food. There’s obviously room for lying within a survey, so the actual number might be higher. But not all beggars are spending the money on drugs.
And begging is not a particularly lucrative business: a “career” beggar can make between $600 and $1500 a month. Even on the high end, that money goes quickly: remember, they have no way of saving that money, so the incentive is to spend it quickly.
The thing is, there are some pretty effective ways of helping the homeless, but giving them money directly is not one of them. The problem has to be attacked on a societal level, not on an individual level: Utah famously reduced homelessness by 91%. How? By giving the homeless homes. At the end of the day, it turned out that the cost of giving someone a home was cheaper than footing their hospital bills and legal fees. And, state governments aside, there are really effective charities that fight homelessness that could absolutely use your money (I’ve included a list of them at the bottom of the article).
There’s a psychological element to wanting to give money directly to the beggars: first, it feels good. The National Institute of Health has found that we experience more pleasure in the brain when we give our money away than we do when we spend out money on ourselves. And it’s upsetting to see someone in such dire straits — the look of disappointment, frustration, or even humiliation on their faces when you say “no” is enough to make any decent person die inside, just a little.
But there’s a greater morality than what just makes you feel bad: instead of providing the beggars with short-term (possibly drug-induced) relief, you can help them in the long term, by setting aside the money you would’ve given them for long-term, institutionally-backed relief.
The “they’ll only spend it on drugs” rationale crumbles when you’re abroad. If you go to Southeast Asia, for example, you’ll notice immediately that many of the beggars are amputees. The high amputee rate in countries like Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia is largely because of the millions of unexploded ordinances that the US dropped during the Vietnam War.
If you go to a place like India, you’ll notice that most of the beggars are kids — but maybe there’s a mother here and there who is carrying an infant with severe elephantiasis.
In corners of the world that have had much more difficult recent histories than we have had (and whose difficult histories we may have played an unfortunate hand in), begging is less a symptom of drug dependency than it is of extreme misfortune, extreme poverty and extreme wealth disparity.
So we should give money to these beggars, if not the ones in the developed world right?
Gangs, violence, and Effective altruism
There’s a scene in Slumdog Millionaire where one of the children, Salim, wanders into a thug’s home. The two main characters have been begging for the thug, and he’s been giving them a cut of their earnings. Sometimes the kids wear eyepatches while they beg, knowing that disabled or deformed kids are more likely to make money. But the thug knows what’s more convincing than an eyepatch: an actual deformity.
So when Salim walks into the thug’s home, he sees the logical extension of this mindset: the thug is intentionally blinding children.
This, unfortunately, is not a total fiction. There are organized crime syndicates that use “organized begging” as one of their ways of making money, and they have been known to intentionally deform children to increase their begging revenue. They also have been known to forcibly get the kids addicted to drugs, so the kids become dependent on the fix and can’t run away.
And this isn’t an enterprise that’s confined to India: organized begging exists on most continents, including Europe. This isn’t to say the money you’re giving to beggars abroad is guaranteed to go directly towards organized crime… but it’s also not guaranteed to not be going towards organized crime.
In effect, it’s the same abroad as it is in the United States: giving to beggars will feel good no matter what, but it’s a roll of the dice whether it will do any actual good whatsoever — and it might do harm.
So what should you do instead?
If you don’t want to do harm, but still want to help, there are ways for you do effectively do that. Some people suggest giving out packets of food and/or water, but this can also be tricky — there are no shortage of beggars that would accept food and eat it, for sure, but in an impoverished economy, anything can be resold. So you might just be adding another step to the same eventual end.
Instead, maybe try this: keep track mentally of how many beggars approach you on your trip. Have a designated amount of money set aside for each beggar. Then, at the end of the trip, give that money to a charity that works to help people in desperate need. Here are some charities you can give to internationally:
- Free the Slaves
- Innovations for Poverty Action
- Population Services International
- Project Healthy Children
- Save the Children
Here are a few options focused on the US:
- The Bowery Residents Committee
- The Center for Community Change
- The Coalition for the Homeless
- Feeding America
- The National Alliance to End Homelessness
- The Partnership for the Homeless