Sunday, October 01, 2006


When I visited my father in Minneapolis recently, he reminisced about being a teenager living in New York. On one occasion he was approached by a man in Times Square asking for money to help make bus fare. My father gave him some change.

After he did, the man paused a moment and then said, "Listen, I'm not going to lie to you. I'm going to use the money to buy wine."

My father laughs now at the unexpected honesty he encountered.It may be rare to encounter so honest a confession, but many people are troubled by doubt as to how a stranger asking for money will really use the funds.

As soon as T.G., a reader from Laguna Niguel, Calif., hears somebody on the street say "Excuse me?" she instinctively thinks to herself, "Am I going to dig into my wallet this time or not?"

"But whichever I decide," she writes, "I never feel that I've made the right decision."

While she resents the request for cash, T.G. also feels sorry for the supplicant.

"It's humiliating to have to beg," she writes, "unless, of course, it's easier than digging ditches, picking strawberries, washing pots and pans, or serving burgers and fries."

T.G. lives on modest means herself, and she wonders if, when asked for bus fare or gas money to visit a mother, the right thing to do might be to ask for some verifiable scrap of information, such as the mom's telephone number. Then she wonders why, if things are that tough, the mother hasn't sent gas money already.

"Would that remind them that it's really not fair to ask strangers for money?" she muses.

Or, she asks, would the right thing be to turn them down, "realizing that millions of people generally make their own luck and that, if it weren't for us easy touches out there, the alternative might be to actually find some sort of paying job."

Finally she wonders if the right thing would be to simply be grateful that all they want is cash, and therefore to hand it over and walk away, "knowing that I will never see them again and will have assuaged my conscience without having inconvenienced myself in a way that might actually help solve the problem?"

From a practical point of view, it's impossible for her to tell if a given beggar will use her money to buy dinner or to buy drugs. She can't follow the beggar around for the rest of the day to track how her money is used, and wouldn't want to if she could. There is, of course, an ethical obligation on the beggar's part not to obtain money under false pretenses, but it's not feasible for her to determine her charitable giving based on whether or not the beggar meets that obligation.

Instead, regardless of how exactly a beggar asks for money, she should assume that it will go toward his or her general expenses, whatever they may be. Think of it as analogous to giving to a college's general fund, instead of to a specific fund-raising drive for a particular building or program. In such a case you'd give or not give based on your impression of the college itself, and that's the right approach to take here.

Because there is no obligation for her to give to the beggar, there's no reason for T.G. to feel guilty for refusing to give -- that's a perfectly reasonable response. And if she neither believes nor disbelieves anything she's told in a solicitation, she doesn't have to feel that she's been duped if the money winds up going for something other than the beggar said it would.

For my part, when someone asks me for money for coffee or for something to eat, I usually offer to buy it for them if I happen to be close to a coffee shop. But if I'm not near one, or if the request isn't that specific, sometimes I simply hand over cash and sometimes I don't. On the occasions when I do, regardless of what the beggar may have said, I make no assumptions about how the money will be spent -- it's a donation to the beggar's general fund.

The right thing for T.G. to do when asked for money, as it is for anybody else, is to decide whether or not she wants to give. If she does, fine. If she doesn't, also fine. But her decision should not be based on any expectation of how the money will be spent.


Anonymous said...

Read your column every Sunday in the Columbus Dispatch. Today, "beggar seeks cash," i recall an incident that happened almost 30 years ago. It was the time when we were stopped a lot for asking for change. This particul time, a man dressed clean and nice asked me if I had any change. I gave him a small handful. After a moment or two, he came back. I had a catholic medal mixed up with the change and he wanted to return it. I told him to keep it. I often think of that man and feel sure that everything must have turned out well for him.
Virginia M. Preston
5077 Kingshill Dr.
Columbus OH 43229
(614) 846-0715

Anonymous said...

Exceptional few adults find themselves without cash when needed urgently. It has become much easier these days with the many cash machines throughout North America and Western Europe to obtain money,hence that situation of honestly running out of cash is extremely rare.

My personal experience have been of those who approached me and other members of my family(parent,brother) were manipulators. It appeared that the beggars for cash made it a challenge and thrived on their successes to manipulate sincere and helpful people out of their cash,usually small amounts.

I remember a man coming to my office,nearly 6 years ago,asking for cash for a meal and that man had such an offence body odor,which I feel he no desire to correct and which would add him for the people to give him some cash and send him on his way. I did give that man a few dollars ($2.00)for the bus and go to the soup kitchen in our City.

While in Southern California in January,1992,I stayed for one week in the "Double Tree Inn",a four star hotel. In the parking lot around that hotel was a man,wearing a blue coverall,plastered with grease,asking people for $24.00 which he desperately needed for a car part,because he was stranded,due to mechanical failure That man was successful in fooling too many generous people out of their $24.00 until the Police were alerted and he was arrested for fraud.

When a the cash request comes from a person(s) not known to me and I'm in doubt,my answer has been and will remain "NO".

Bert Hoogendam,

Anonymous said...

At the risk of generalizing about an entire city, New York City, I have to say I have
never seen anyone in New York hesitate when approached for spare change or a
cigarette. In fact, quite the opposite often occurs. I've seen a request for a cigarette
followed up by 'Do you need a light?' I've seen a request for change responded to with
'do you want a cigarette too?'

The point being that people who ask others for spare change or cigarettes are doing
what it is they do. They are doing their job. Whether they use it for alcohol, drugs or their
favorite children's home is their business. However if someone feels inclined to ask the beggar
I'm sure they have an answer that has worked before ('So I get the money, now?') I cannot
think of another job that causes us to ask what the person doing the job will do with the money.

Back to New York City. For people in New York solicitations for money are part of the landscape.
For them it is merely a question of 'do I give them money or not' ('Do I want a hot dog or not?, 'Do
I walk or take a taxi?) There isn't any philosophical or moral analysis, it's just yes or no. Next!

Anonymous said...

Your column on giving money to beggars rang my chime, because it deals with the idea of “money for.” There is no such thing as “money for” and anyone asking for “money for” it is probably not being honest with you. Unless, he has 16 bank accounts or pants with 16 pockets, each for a different use. Money is fungible – that is, it loses its identity when mixed with any other money. You would have to know what he spent every penny on for the last twenty years to really justify his need for “money for”.

I help care for a paraplegic young man on public welfare. I know he uses drugs. He calls me at the end of the month desperate for money “for medicine.” I give it to him or pick up the medicine and he thanks me for keeping him healthy. But the “money for” the medicine was previously spent for drugs. What control do I have over this? None, but I’m pretty soft with him, an extended family member.

A friend told me his brother asked him for money to help send Emily to college. But my friend knows that all the years he drove his Toyota Corona, his brother drove a huge and expensive van with a TV in the back for Emily to watch. Plus the trips to Las Vegas, etc. So what can he make of “money for”? Confront his brother with the facts? Point out the disparities in their lifestyles?

Requests for “money for” are usually bogus. A true request might be that the asker wants money to support his total lifestyle. And the giver should be convinced of the need in this context before giving.

John Dickinson
Worthington, Ohio

Anonymous said...

uummm hello? do you no when i will die?