"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Why We Give To Beggars…Or Not

I lived in Bombay for a number of years in the late 60s.  There were beggars everywhere.  Not just panhandlers who sleep on grates near the White House, but beggars with no noses or legs; and who are more twisted and deformed than freaks in a 19th Century circus sideshow. There were creatures with only a torso who begged from a wheelbarrow pushed by a leper; and those with a torso and arms but nothing else who begged from a skateboard.  It wasn’t enough to be simply blind or poor in Bombay.  The competition was stiff, and the market for pitiful beggars a crowded one.

Beggars in Bombay were not sole proprietors, individual entrepreneurs who sussed out the competition, selected the most promising location, and developed their own shtick.  They were laborers in a business whose owners ran them like pimps.  Quotas were set, deployment was made according to savvy market assessment, and most of all beggars were selected according to supply and demand.  If there were too many shriveled hags with blind children at Kemp’s Corner, revenues would have to be shared among many, reducing profits for everyone.  If Connaught Place became a half-pipe for halved beggars on wheels, the inherent advantages of that particular deformation were outweighed by over supply.

Rohinton Mistry wrote an excellent book, A Fine Balance, about the street world of Bombay set in the period of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency.  One of the main characters is a beggar who rolls in and out of the life of two poor tailors who have come to the big city to make their way.  Mistry describes the beggar market in great detail, with affection and sympathy.  In his hands the beggars are no different than anyone else, cast by misfortune into the streets, but laboring away like ditch diggers, policemen, or thieves.

Most of us foreigners, however, never looked beyond leprous, fingerless hands or the emaciated baby thrust through the car window.  Walking was a gantlet.  Beggars converged in a swarm.  “Bukh lagta hai, Sahib”, they would whine and sing-song, contorting their faces into frowning misery, patting their stomachs. “Paisa dedo, Sahib”, they moaned, pointing to their suppurating sores or the distended bellies of their children.  It was never ending.  The beggars were everywhere.  I used to dread the few stoplights in the city, for I was trapped in a hot car trying to look forward or distracted as gnarled knuckles rapped on the windshield.

The issue for all of us feringhi or lal bandar as we were called (‘red monkey’ refers to the red ass of baboons, for apparently we did not appear white to Indians but pinkish red) was whether to give to any or all of the hundreds of beggars who accosted us every day.  Yes, they were part of an illegal and corrupt mafia-like organization and got little from their labors; but they were among the most wretched souls on earth.  Where was our Christian charity?


Some foreigners picked a particular misery and gave only to those beggars afflicted by it.  One friend had a blind uncle who had tapped his way around New York City long before the city put beepers on stoplights and braille on elevators.  He had always felt sorry for him and admired his pluck, so my friend gave only to blind beggars. Another friend who had been a high school athlete felt sorry for anyone who couldn’t walk, so he favored beggars without legs.  Another, a health worker, was enraged that the government had not eradicated leprosy, and she gave only to beggars whose noses had fallen off because of the disease.

I gave to no one, and my moral cover was that I worked for an NGO whose mission was to help the poor, disadvantaged, and unfortunate.  I gave enough, in other words, at the office.

I no longer work for a do-good organization, so do not need any legitimate cover for my indifference to panhandlers.  I am not a  Patrick Bateman (American Psycho) who chats up a homeless beggar wrapped against the cold, tells him to get a job, and then stabs him in disgust; but I am of the ‘Get a job’ school, and that conservatism makes it easy for me to pass up the tin cup.

On a more positive note, I apply that same philosophy to selected giving.  I always give to street buskers, especially musicians. I am actually paying for the performance, not giving charitably, and I give only to good musicians, not those who play for pity. So dropping a dollar into the jar does not resonate my moral fiber.  It is rewarding talent.

Matthew Hutson has written an article in the New York Times (8.17.13) entitled Good Deeds Gone Bad, a report on recent psycho-social research on the nature of giving. Apparently investigators have concluded that your giving history has a lot to do with the likelihood of future giving.  If you reflect on a charitable act in the distant past – that is, you are using abstract thinking – you are more likely to give than if you used concrete thinking and remembered only the last time you gave.  If you have a longer view of charity, then the impulse has become part of your moral fabric.  If you act only on the immediate and the practical, you are perfunctory and inconsistent.

While the argument is a bit wobbly, the central point about developing a consistent moral position concerning the less fortunate is reasonable if obvious.  Our moral reasoning is established early in life and is a result of teaching, example, and DNA.  Some of us are born cheap and indifferent and no soup ladling at Martha’s Table is going to turn us into caring givers.  Hutson then jumps into no-man’s land when he tries to make more out of the idea:

These studies point to the role of self-concept in directing our behavior, and researchers have suggested that a positive moral identity, besides making us feel good, may play a functional role. Some say the best way to convince others that we are trustworthy is to first convince ourselves; maintaining a healthy conscience might just be a ruse for manipulation. Others… argue that it makes resisting shortsighted temptations easier: when you think you’re good, the choice to be good becomes automatic.

That is, having a good moral posture is good for business.  If you give to charity, you are less likely to cheat a client.  Or, if you give to beggars regularly, then you might fool yourself into thinking you really are a good person and will then resist bad influences.

This sounds very much like idealistic gobbledygook, a ‘progressive’ dream of the attainability of an ideal, harmonious, charitable and Christian world.  I have no argument at all with moral fiber.  If few of us had any moral compass, we certainly would live in a dog-eat-dog world and end up in a post-Apocalyptic nightmare.

It is just that charity has very little to do with morality.  I respect people who do not cheat, lie, and deceive; and who are good to their parents more than those who drop a dollar in a beggar’s hat.  I respect those who give to particular causes, but that act is political more than charitable. People give to save the planet, to fight government abridgment of civil liberties, or to elect George W. Bush because of a desire to create a world more to their liking, not because it is the right thing to do.  People also give to offset high taxes.

If I had some spare change, I would give it to support the arts, especially young artists.  The world has enough lawyers, but far too few painters, sculptors, dancers, and poets.  Again, this is not charitable giving.  It is my contribution to a future that corresponds to my particular vision.

People give for all kinds of reasons, and most giving satisfies the giver as much if not more than the recipient.  If you feel good about a dime and a smile to the bum on K Street, you have made your day a little bit brighter.  His, however, will be as miserable as the one before.  Giving to the arts strokes my inner poet, but the money will more than likely go to produce some God-awful installation of hairy eyeballs and broomsticks.

I had a friend once who told me that she was against charitable giving whether to beggars or to local community organizations because it deflected attention away from the structural changes that were needed to improve the lot of all.  Charity simply keeps the patient alive. I couldn’t agree more.

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