Panhandling, Government Programs Both Ineffective Solutions for Alleviating Poverty
When a child takes a tumble, incurring broken bones and bruises, we all know better than simply to slap Band-Aids on some of the scrapes and be satisfied. We recognize the implicit silliness of Band-Aid solutions like this one, and understand how they could actually prove dangerous. Yet, what we recognize as irresponsible in our personal lives we sometimes permit as acceptable — even praiseworthy — when we make public decisions.
In a recent Post-Dispatch article, Adam Jadhav explores how this terrible irony rears its ugly head in the realm of charitable giving to panhandlers. The article discusses the growing prevalence of pandhandling in the city, and questions the personal and social benefit of giving to public beggars.
Jadhav argues, echoing the views of entrenched outreach organizations such as New Life Evangelistic Center and St. Patrick Center, that there are other avenues available to panhandlers beyond mere begging that are fundamentally better suited to addressing the issues of individual homelessness and poverty. Poverty outreach organizations have for years pleaded that the public divert the funds they ordinarily give to street beggars, and give it instead to organizations that can achieve economies of scale, maximize efficiency, and give the impoverished the targeted amount and type of aid they need to become self-reliant. To that end, government is not the solution either.
It is heartening that the Post-Dispatch article endorses private solutions to public problems like homelessness and poverty. In these situations, increasing government support for the impoverished amounts to yet another Band-Aid solution. Besides, government services cost money, and raising taxes reduces private-sector productivity and as a result leads to cuts in other more useful and more sustainable avenues of recourse for the poor.
The article presents several anecdotes from the trenches of homelessness. Here’s an interesting one:
For James Scott, a captain with the Salvation Army, begging did nothing but prolong his days on the street. He was homeless on and off while fighting a crack cocaine addiction in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
He spent days “working a trail” among charities for food and street corners for drug money. Only when he hit bottom and enrolled in a Salvation Army rehab program did he get clean.
He still gives a dollar from time to time, even knowing how little good it will probably do.
“We should never lose our compassion,” said Scott, 49. “But I can say from my experience, it was never a few dollars that got me clean. I needed real help.”
Band-Aid solutions are not only ineffective at helping Scott and his ilk, they are dangerous. Charity on the streets is a great way for citizens to spend away their individual and collective guilt; it forms a rationalization for closing one’s eyes to underlying problems like deep recessions, shocks to food prices, corruption, poor education, poor infrastructure, poor social integration, and poor mental health. Homelessness is a problem and poverty is a tragedy. By indulging panhandlers, we fail them and fail the cause.