Don’t Give Money to Beggars
I have sometimes given money to beggars. On cold autumn days, when a homeless man has seemed to be in need of some money to buy food or a cup of coffee, I have occasionally dropped him a few coins. Those coins, I have thought, mean much more to him than they do to me, and giving is a nice thing to do. Upon reflection, however, I have come to change my mind, and now I don’t give money to beggars. Let me explain why.
On the one hand, there are the traditional, somewhat cynical, arguments that—in spite of their cynicism—carry some weight.
First, for every dollar that we give to a beggar, the more lucrative we make begging and, comparatively, the less lucrative we make working. This is bad, for we want people to work, not beg. Working is productive; begging is at best neutral and often a burden and a nuisance. Second, there is no guarantee that the beggar who receives the money will spend it in ways that increase the quality of his life. He might well spend the money on alcohol or drugs, and end up financing organized crime.
These objections carry some weight, but they are not decisive. What is decisive is the fact that if you give money to beggars, you almost certainly spend your welfare budget helping the wrong people.
First of all, you are likely to give your money to the beggars who already get the most from other givers. Depending on their location, their looks, and what they say, different beggars have different degrees of success in how much money they attract. Like everyone else, you are statistically likely to give the most money to the ones with the locations, looks, and tricks that prompt people to give.
A few weeks ago, I stopped and observed a beggar who looked quite a bit like Mother Theresa. She had a small picture of Jesus in front of her. When people walked past, she bowed her head, folded her hands, prayed, and made sure to mention “Jesus Christ” in her prayer. About one in six gave her money. If the average giver gave her 50 cents, and 10-15 people passed her every minute, she got 50 to 70 dollars per hour. If you give money to beggars on impulse, chances are that you end up giving to the Mother Theresa look-alikes (and their equivalents), not to the poor men and women whose appearances have less power to elicit sympathy and guilt in passers by and who occupy less favorable spots in the city.
Even if you follow a well thought out strategy to eliminate this problem, however, you are still almost certainly giving your money to the wrong people. The reason why is that, presumably, you live in the developed world—and so do the beggars that you walk past on the street. The vast majority of beggars living in the developed world, moreover, have a quality of life that millions in the developing world can only dream of.
When I went to elementary school, I remember that I was very moved by Ralph McTell’s song “Streets of London”. The song tells a sad story about some of London’s poorest, and follows one old man in particular. The story is heartbreaking. Not long ago, however, when I heard the song on the radio, it struck me that the man in McTell’s song does not live that horrible a life after all. Judging from the lyrics, the man has shoes, he has access to a newspaper (albeit yesterday’s), he sits in a café, and he orders tea. In a world where thousands die of malnutrition every day, that’s a pretty comfortable life.
The thousands who die of malnutrition are important to keep in mind, for every single dollar that we spend on helping others can only be spent once. A dollar given to a beggar is a dollar not given to a starving child in Sub-Saharan Africa. So why should you prioritize the beggar in the Western world over the starving child in Africa?
It might be harsh to claim that it is immoral to give the money to Western beggars. After all, it seems reasonable that you can spend the money on yourself, and as such, it seems that it is your privilege to spend the money as you like. True as that might be, it is also true that you waste your money if you give it to a beggar. Even if we bracket the question of what portion of our money we should spend on ourselves and what portion of our money we should spend helping others, we should spend our money wisely. If our aim is to benefit ourselves, then giving money to beggars is suboptimal. If our aim is to benefit others, then giving money to beggars is also suboptimal. Either way, giving money to beggars is wasteful.
In seeking to help others, we should not merely give to those who are geographically close to us and whose appearance elicits our sympathy. Rather, we should give to those who are the worst off, who can be helped the most with each dollar that we give, and who are the least responsible for the situation that they’re in. To achieve this, we should (i) consciously decide how much of our money we are willing to spend on helping others, (ii) find the most efficient charity, (iii) donate money to that charity, and (iv) say no the next time a beggar asks if we can spare a dime.
Illustration from Wikimedia Commons.