Why Don’t I Give Money to Poor People?

“Hey, you want necklaces? I sell you necklaces!”

He’s dishevelled, but not more so than most people you see on the street here. He’s wearing a bright green soccer T-shirt, a team I’ve never heard of, and a goatee. He introduces himself as Paul.

This is Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. I am backpacked, sunglassed, earbudded, on my way to the waterfall. The only way I could be more obviously a tourist is if I had a fanny pack and an “I ♥ Zim” T-shirt on.

“Thanks, but I’m not interested,” I say. I may have actually physically waved him away.

He walks with me for a few minutes, pushing necklaces, wooden giraffes, 50 billion Zimbabwe dollar notes into my chest. I repeat the same thing: Sorry, not interested. Sorry, no.

Everywhere it’s different but the same. In San Francisco it’s the guy who could visit his sick sister in Portland if he could just get 10 bucks for the bus fare. In Paris it’s children with their arms out. In Istanbul it’s amputees on a sheet of cardboard, literally begging.

And my answer is always the same: “Sorry.” I don’t know when I started saying this, when I stopped bothering to lie about being out of spare change, when I stopped thinking before I said it.

Right after Paul peels off, I take what I think is the turnoff to the falls. The path peters out, I turn around and when I get back to the road, Paul is there.

“Where are you trying to go?” he says.

“Just to the park entrance,” I say.

“Oh there’s a shortcut just up there to the right,” he says. “It’ll only take you five minutes. Make sure you make it to the gorge before dark. Spectacular, man, spectacular!”

I thank him, and realize that as he was talking I was thinking oh, he’s a person.

You’re not supposed to give beggars money. That’s the conventional wisdom, right? You don’t know what they’ll spend it on, you might be encouraging them to stay on the street, you’re not addressing any of the structural issues that got them where they are. I used to live in Copenhagen, and whenever I got panhandled (yes they have panhandlers in Denmark), I wanted to roll my eyes, like, all this free money in your country and you want mine?

Needless to say, that attitude is a lot harder to maintain in Zimbabwe. It’s even harder to maintain for me, considering I am here working for a human rights organization. How do I justify spending two weeks in Harare attending conferences, meeting NGOs, working on statements and recommendations to make this country less poor and then, the minute I’m on vacation, neglect to do the one thing I’m actually equipped, actually qualified to do: Give it some fucking money.

The sun is setting when I come out of the park, and Paul is at the exit, soliciting another tourist. He sees me and breaks off.

“How was the park, my friend?” he says.

“Good,” I say. “How’s business?”

“Not so good today,” he says, the full bouquet of necklaces still dangling from his hand. “Look, can you help me out, just with a dollar? I’m hungry.”

I feel like Paul has taken his mask off, he’s talking to me outside of his role as a street vendor, like we’ve both stepped out of character for a second and it’s just us, man to man. I give him two bucks. He thanks me profusely, leaves without asking for anything else.

Two hours later I see him again. This time I’m on a trail behind Victoria Falls’ fanciest hotel. I’ve just eaten a French croissant pudding that cost 7 times what I gave to Paul.

“My friend!” he says.

“Hi Paul,” I say, weirdly happy to see him. I’m travelling alone, and he’s the only person I’ve spoken to all day.

“Hey, do you have some dollars for me?” he says.

“I just gave you two,” I say.

“But I ate with those, man,” he says. “Can you give me some more for dinner?”

As much as I hate to admit it, this irks me. I already gave you money, dude, coming back for more just makes me feel like a mark—like this is a business model. If you don’t get tourist money with merch, get it with sympathy.

“Sorry,” I say.

Later, I wonder what outcome I was actually trying to protect myself against. Giving money to someone who is demonstrably worse off than me? Maybe Paul used that money to buy himself lunch, maybe he didn’t. What am I, USAID? Who cares what he spent it on. If those two dollars (or 10, or 20) magically disappeared from my back pocket, I never would have noticed. Why am I Jay Gatsby when it goes to making me better off, but Ebeneezer Scrooge if it does that for someone else? All that shit about enabling, it’s just an excuse for me to keep what I feel is mine.

In development circles, everyone is all excited about this “just give money” thing. The idea is: Poor people know better what to do with their money than we do, so if you want to help, don’t tie a donation to some entrepreneurship scheme, behavior modification, Excel-sheeted output, just hand over some scrilla, no questions asked.

Apparently it worked in Uganda, another country I have visited to do development work in the daytime and say “sorry” on evenings and weekends. If this idea is real, maybe I should be refusing all the conferences and acquiescing to all the beggars.

I have no idea what I should do. When I travel to developing countries for work, should I set a daily amount that I can afford, say $20, and hand it out randomly? Should I start donating regularly to charities who do that? What is, as the MBAs say, “best practice”?

I am in Victoria Falls for two more days. I will probably run into Paul again. He will probably ask me for money, and I will probably give some to him. I might even give him enough to try that French croissant pudding.


Michael Hobbes lives in Berlin. He blogs at rottenindenmark.wordpress.com. Photo: bfishadow


33 Comments / Post A Comment

ellabella (#1,480)

Oh I have a question relevant to travelling in Zimbabwe: How safe is it for a young woman to be in Harare, if she’s travelling alone but has local connections? I find it’s very hard to differentiate between fearmongering (no young women should ever be alone ever!!!) and genuine bad idea travelling. Maybe as a traveller/NGO worker you have some insight?

itsk (#4,319)

I travelled to Bulawayo last year (single female) to visit some friends I definitely wouldn’t recommend going by yourself unless your friends will be showing you around. I didn’t feel physically threatened but the corruption and harassment is such that as an obvious foreigner with money (even if you don’t have money by western standards), you’ll be an obviousc target for bribes. We drove up to Hwenge and Vic Falls from Bulawayo and we stopped at about a half dozen police blockades and had to deal with all kinds of ridiculous demands in the name of collecting “fines”. Also, night time brings its own set of issues – no walking around by yourself, and driving a vehicle is basically taking a big risk since the driving is nuts and there are no lights (on the vehicles even sometimes). It’s a beautiful country and I loved my trip there but going by myself would have been awful

themmases (#1,959)

Is it the conventional wisdom that you shouldn’t just hand people money? I’m not always comfortable digging out my wallet on the street (although I have, especially for Streetwise), but if I have change I give it. My boyfriend does even more than me and has bought people lunch before.

I get not wanting to get entangled with people or asked for more– I’m not sure I’d really want a friend in the area like Paul, more for my privacy than because of the money. I have gotten hugs from people and definitely requests for more or other help, my phone number, etc. But I’ve really only ever met two people I know I don’t want to give money or talk to again. With most people, I ask myself exactly what the author does: what outcome am I really trying to avoid if I give nothing?

But, I really don’t care what people do with the money. Once I give it to them, it’s theirs and it’s really none of my business. Even if people use it to buy alcohol, if someone is a serious alcoholic I’d rather they not have to go through withdrawal on the street.

aetataureate (#1,310)

@themmases I agree with you about whether to give or not, but really just want to say I don’t believe “conventional wisdom” is to not give. Wikipedia would flag that as a weasel word (“Who says?”).

r&rkd (#1,657)

It’s not like I wasn’t going to spend the same money on booze anyway! Why should I be more entitled to booze?

themmases (#1,959)

@r&rkd Haha, exactly! I could use a glass of wine when Mondays happen to me. In their situation, I would probably need a drink sometimes too.

whizz_dumb (#151)

@themmases There were a few dudes in Chicago I’d give money to and say, “But you gotta promise to buy booze with this”.

chic noir (#713)

@themmases – Never dig out your wallet to give someone money in the streets!

I give change or dollar if I have it in my pocket or a change purse(not wallet).

When I was learning economic & financial analysis as part of my international development degree I would always compare the project impact to a baseline “helicopter money” scenario. It escape me why more funders don’t do this (most dev. professionals would be out of a job, I guess?)

hopelessshade (#580)

As far as people who wonder where this “conventional wisdom of not giving people money” is coming from, I grew up believing, and still reasonably believe, that this is true across the board. I live in Chicago now, and am always a little surprised when panhandlers on the CTA actually get cash out of people.

aeroaeroaero (#1,422)

The keeping what I feel is mine line really resonated with me. I sometimes give food or money to beggars, but not that often.

This is tangential, but the “mine!!” mentality really comes into play when people I do not know, who obviously have homes and/or a bank account, ask me for cigarettes. My answer is always, always NO.

EM (#1,012)

@aeroaeroaero I find that interesting because I miss being a smoker for this exact reason– I always felt less guilty about saying no to a request for change because I’d always say yes if that person than asked for a cigarette. Although I only had that cigarette-sharing impulse with panhandlers.

aeroaeroaero (#1,422)

@EM yes, if I wasn’t clear, I will most likely give cigarettes to panhandlers. I won’t give it to just some schmuck at a bar who just wants one out of the blue.

@aeroaeroaero Really? I always give cigarettes to anyone who asks (I have a daily limit of about 4 for times when it gets ridiculous) and feel no shame in asking for one when I’m out. Being a smoker is the closest thing to Actually Existing Communism I’ve ever experienced!

EM (#1,012)

@stuffisthings AGREED. Although I’ve noticed in cities with fewer smokers/more general anti-smoking attitudes, smokers are more generous with cigarettes, because they have to band together. When I’ve been in North American cities with lots of smokers, they are less likely to share. This is my theory. Hoping someone will give me a SSHRC to investigate the relationship between urban smoker density and willingness to share.

@EM Well, according to the radio thing I listened to recently about tipping (Planet Money? Freakonomics?) smokers are PROVEN to be better tippers. I guess because we don’t need to save as much for retirement?

EM (#1,012)

I feel horrible about this but I hate when people have a long elaborate lie about why they need money (I lost my wallet and I need a bus ticket to get home to my job and I also don’t have a cell phone because I left it at a friend’s place last night etc etc etc). Like, it makes me cranky to feel like I am being manipulated and treated like a sucker. It’s maybe irrational.

I do have a hard time not giving change to old ladies who look like my grandma, or anyone old really, or anyone with a dog or cat. It’s pretty selfishly motivated giving: it makes me feel better to feel like I am helping, because those people break my heart for whatever arbitrary reason, and I don’t really care if I am “helping” in a measurable sense.

TARDIStime (#1,633)

@EM I feel cranky when I’m lied to, as well. It’s how rationalise telling panhandlers that I haven’t any spare change – it’s not true, but they’re not telling me the truth either, so I don’t feel bad about it.

However, if they told me the truth, and the truth was that they were going to spend that money on something that I disapprove of, I still wound’t give them the money.
I’m a hard arse about it, but you have to be when you’re walking through the city and every second guy is asking you for money. I can’t save everyone, I don’t have enough. And if I have enough for one or two, who do I choose? How do I choose them?

Megano (#739)

My native city has a lot of panhandlers, and I never give anything. I’m ashamed of it, at times, but I’m so scared of people touching me, or following me that I don’t give to people who appear to legitimately need it. There are a lot of able-bodied young people who sit on the sidewalk with signs who panhandle for reasons that are completely unclear to me.

juksie (#2,048)

@Megano yes yes yes- Something about the vulnerability of people who are begging makes me feel incredibly vulnerable (on top of my normal height/strength related vulnerability). I wish, desperately, that it weren’t so, because I too am ashamed. I feel a lot of the things this author does- I wouldn’t notice the difference if 2 or 5 dollars is gone, so why shouldn’t I give it away? But doing so feels incredibly scary to me sometimes.

Laurabean (#3,040)

@Megano Sometimes they’re coming out of abusive homes or the foster care system.

ETA: As in have just aged out of the foster care system.

ragazza (#4,025)

I don’t feel comfortable pulling out my wallet in the street. But in my city there are more and more people begging at stoplights, and I still don’t do anything. If it’s a woman I’m more likely to give something.

itsk (#4,319)

If I’ve got spare change sometimes I’ll give it, but I don’t typically carry money outside my wallet, and I’ll never pull that out in public unless I’m at a shop or something.

I also wrestle with the idea of how to decide who should get that spare change. When I lived in a large South American city I would come across so many panhandlers in my day to day activities that I would get overwhelmed by the idea of having to make such a snap judgement on who gets that change. Giving to everyone who asked wasn’t a financially sound option. Sometimes I’d think about getting someone a sandwich or a coffee but I feel like maybe that’s presumptuous because what if they’re sorted for food and need the money for something else? At this point my brain short circuits and I say no and keep walking.

chic noir (#713)

I used to live in Copenhagen, and whenever I got panhandled (yes they have panhandlers in Denmark), I wanted to roll my eyes, like, all this free money in your country and you want mine?

OMG I kind of snorted at this.
Somewhere a Randriod read this and dropped dead.

Liz (#504)

I don’t give money to panhandlers or beggars, and I don’t feel particularly ashamed about it. I read people’s comments that they feel bad that they don’t particularly appreciate being approached for money in the street and I just feel boggled. Of course you don’t like being harassed in the street–that’s a 100% normal reaction. No one should feel bad about disliking the feeling that you’re being lied to and taken advantage of. You’re not an angel of mercy, you’re just someone trying to get to work on time.

I look at refusing to give money to panhandlers kinda like voting for a third-party candidate. You know that it’s not going to do much good, that it’s impossible for your candidate to win, that you may actually be making it more likely for a candidate you loathe to win, but you can’t in good faith vote for someone you disagree with. I don’t like panhandling. I hate how it makes me feel; I hate being approached by men begging for change when I’m waiting by myself at a bus station, or in the dark; I don’t like being sworn at or having obscene things yelled at me if I don’t give money; and quite frankly, I don’t like being approached in the street by anyone. (I don’t sign petitions when someone approaches me, either.) Yet I do realize that the sheer number of structural reasons for poverty and begging in the United States means that my decision to give money to charities instead of people on the street is just a drop in the bucket–that people will continue to beg no matter what I do. But I cannot in good faith support something that I find not only unpleasant, but morally repugnant.

e (#734)

@Liz I struggle with this a lot! I have also hit the stage where I’m in a “walk on by and say sorry” approach and I sometimes feel very bad about it and sometimes less so.

There’s also a thing about being a woman in this situation that makes it worse because of your need to be very cautious all the time. I spend a lot of my time walking around in the city with an automatic, “cant see or hear you” face going on, and being approached for money sometimes feels like just one more demand. I rarely walk a whole two blocks without someone saying something really gross or asking me for money, so I’m sort of cumulatively burned out on interaction. Where the author says, “I stop and see him as a person”- I feel like so much of my movement in the world is about me not being seen as a person, and needing to walk through the streets with a “fuck you, don’t you dare try and talk to or touch me” attitude, which I do not enjoy. Panhandlers are another group of people who make me feel really unsafe, in addition to just, most men I don’t know.

And, also. There’s a bit of the issue of the “worthy poor” involved isn’t there? If I had a hypothetical 40 bucks handed to me to hand out to whomever I chose, I would probably not pick the panhandler outside my subway who is there every single day with the same story about needed a train, and never seems to recognize me. I want these 40 bucks to go into the hands of a teen mom who is trying to get her associates degree or a woman in botswana trying to buy a goat. Not because I don’t think that life is great for that guy, or because I think he is at fault, but as a woman, I’d rather help a fellow woman since we hold something like only 1% of all the worlds wealth, and as a giver of money I’d rather give somewhere where I think that person is off to go cause cascading greater good.

And that does kind of suck. I guess I should volunteer more regularly.

juniper (#4,270)

I give money to great charities. I researched each of them and am personally passionate about their missions. I give to one global, one national, and one local charity. I trust them to do the highest amount of good with my donations as possible. They’re accountable, transparent, and they actively make this world a better place.

I don’t give to panhandlers, because I give as much as I’m able to these other organizations who do much better work than I can. I, too, work under the conventional wisdom that you mention above — you might do more harm than good by just handing out money, and you’re definitely participating in a market that is inefficient at best and that perpetuates the very problems you want to solve at worst. Not to mention that if I give, they learn that harassing young, alone women, in my case, pays off — living in New York, until I perfected my Resting Bitch Face, I felt like I had a target on my forehead. Support a charity that hands out money with few strings, if that’s what you’re into — microlending, if you’re into that (though do your research first, there’s a lot of sadness around that stuff).

That, and I try to avoid conversation with people who see me as a mark — again, as a young woman, I’m often on the defensive, and allowing a conversation to begin (instead of stonewalling or “sorry” or eye contact and a smile (while pretending I don’t speak English)) often leads to me being followed or called a bitch or otherwise harassed. Maybe that sounds cold or wimpy, but seriously, it happens too often, leaving me feeling physically in danger while walking to get lunch.

I also don’t give to people who ambush you with clipboards on the street. More of a, I don’t negotiate with terrorists perspective there. And I’d rather give my money to an organization that doesn’t waste it on these people, one that thinks this sort of recruiting is no good. Not to mention that I’m at least going to look up somebody on Charity Navigator before forking over, and people who actively try to clog up the street and guilt you into talking to them don’t exactly encourage that.

chic noir (#713)

Personally if you are unsure if a person will use the money on food, why not ask the person to tell you what they would like to eat so you can go purchase it for them.

You can also buy 25 or 50 bucks of food and take it to your local food bank.

Niko Bellic (#311)

If you live long enough in a big city, you’ll learn that the best way to deal with beggars is to just give them an honest look straight in the eye, say “sorry” and give them your best “sorry” shrug and expression (and this is honest, in fact, because it doesn’t necessarily mean “I don’t have any money”). They may keep talking, but you just keep walking, and in less than two seconds you will hear them move to another person (it’s a game of numbers for them). The best way to help them is, of course, by giving to established charities and/or by advocating, voting and lobbying for better social services.

oldflame (#1,553)

My walk to/from work is a really busy central shopping street, but the city is small enough that it’s not PACKED with people determined to get where they’re going. Lots of people standing around and tourists gawking is what I’m saying. And on every single street corner, in every king of weather, every single day, there is someone asking me for money. This is about 50% “Hello! Can I talk to you about X?” and 50% “Spare some change”. First I felt guilty, because my parents grew up poor and always give money/rides to people who ask, but I genuinely don’t carry a lot of cash and am on a tight budget. Then I got angry because both these groups of people are trying to use my white upper-class guilt against me. Then I got guilty again because it’s not like I have NO money and do donate to kickstarters/charities online once in a while. Why not help out these local people whom I see practically every day? And if I gave all of them a quarter every time I saw them I wouldn’t have any money, so who do I choose? How much should I give? Dealing with all this shit is too much work and I admit that’s a privilege I’ve got being in a financially okay situation but god I just want to get to work or get home from work.

facepalm (#4,409)

@oldflame I’m with you. I was taught to be generous – with my time(!) and sometimes resources… But I can’t give 10 bucks everyday when I’m already prioritizing and denying myself things I want so I can eventually never ask my parents for money again! Where is that delicate balance achieved?

chflx (#4,332)

“You’re not supposed to give beggars money. That’s the conventional wisdom, right?”

uh, no? If you personally believe that for some reason they’re not going to spend it well (perhaps they have poorly stashed needles all around them or something), then no, you don’t have to, but it’s not the ‘conventional wisdom.’ I almost always give some spare change to beggars when I have some. I agree it may not always help, but odds are they’ll get more out of it then I will

facepalm (#4,409)

This was such a great piece, and so timely for me. I live in a small city, but inequality runs rampant (as it does across the country.) I’m constantly getting either hit on (by disgusting old men) or panhandled. It gets to me! It’s to the point where I just don’t want to talk to anyone, and the same woman tried to use the same story (blatant lie) on me twice in the same month! Same corner, she just didn’t recognize me in broad daylight while I was in biz casual… On the other hand, I WANT to help people, but I work in nonprofit which means I’m all about systems change and more importantly NOT WEALTHY. I’m on a site like this so clearly I try to be smart with my limited cash, right!? Sigh…maybe I’ll start keeping five ones and some change in my outside purse pocket so I don’t have to get my wallet out on the street. I hate turning people away when I can clearly spare two bucks.

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