Sunday, June 5, 2011

Are Beggars Choosers?

A friend of my wife had an interesting experience with a beggar the other day. While on the bus, she was approached by a beggar who asked for some help (specifically, money or food). This friend of my wife had some crackers in her purse that she felt that she could spare. Compelled by the desperate situation of this individual, she reached into her purse and gave him the crackers.

Did the beggar say thank you? Nope. He dumped the crackers on the floor of the bus and turned to the other patrons of the bus to see if they had anything better. Needless to say, my wife's friend was not happy with how her generosity was received.

This story reminded me of two loosely-related ideas on begging. The first is a link to a story about how panhandlers spend money from a while back (via Freakonomics).
Of the five cards, two were returned, one was stolen and used by the panhandler’s boyfriend, and three were never returned (one remained unused). Purchases included food (McDonald’s was a favorite), cigarettes, cell phone time and LCBO (Liquor Control Board of Ontario) purchases.
I suppose crackers are not on the list of things to buy. Maybe they're too salty without also having something to drink.

Now, let's move to my second strand of thinking on beggars. This idea struck me when I ordered my Subway sandwich "to go" the other day. I bought the daily special 6-inch sub for $2.69. As I was paying for it, I was impressed with how inexpensive the sandwich was. On the other hand, I was thinking ahead to my walk toward campus. I was almost certainly going to encounter a beggar on my stroll past the 57th street restaurants (that spot is usually -- 50% to 75% of the time -- occupied by at least one beggar).

Even before I paid and left the store, I felt guilty that I would be strolling past a hungry person with my lunch swinging in the breeze. Just then, my two thoughts became one idea. Why not order two daily special sub sandwiches? Then, when the beggar asks for help, I could give him a sandwich without forgoing my lunch. Even before I heard the cracker story, I thought that my beggar might turn up his nose at the sandwich. After all, money is converted easily into other consumable products (cigarettes, liquor, meatball sandwiches) whereas 6-inch subs are not.

I'll leave this post with a question. My hypothetical sandwich isn't exactly a bag of crackers, but would it have met the same fate? I suspect my sandwich would be received with gratitude because I was surprised by the cracker story, but you never know.

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