Strong opinions, weakly held

Street Charity

Stephen Dubner asked a few luminaries to answer this question:

You are walking down the street in New York City with $10 of disposable income in your pocket. You come to a corner with a hot dog vendor on one side and a beggar on the other. The beggar looks like he’s been drinking; the hot dog vendor looks like an upstanding citizen. How, if at all, do you distribute the $10 in your pocket, and why?

Here are their answers. I’m not a luminary but I’ll exercise my right to answer.

The first question is whether I’m hungry. If I am, I probably buy myself a hot dog, and then reluctantly allow the beggar to relieve me of the remainder. If I’m not hungry, I probably wind up giving ten bucks to the beggar, on the grounds that he needs the money more than I do. Refusing to give money to a beggar when asked directly makes me feel guilty.

If my wife is with me, forking over the full $10 is guaranteed. If I feel like the beggar is trying to run a scam on me, he probably still gets the $10 (or the change from the hot dog) but I feel irritated about it afterward.


  1. Years ago in DC a guy came up to me on the street with an empty gas can and a sad story about running out of gas. I gave him $10 and wished him luck.

    The next week, while walking down a crowded sidewalk, the same guy came up to me with the same story and gas can. I said, “I gave you ten bucks for gas last week!”

    He said, “Thanks!”, and walked off among much laughter from the people around us.

  2. I couldn’t quite figure this out until I realized that you’re supposed to buy the guy on the street a hot dog and blah blah.

    I know from experience that nine times out of ten I’ll just walk past the guy on the street and mutter “sorry”. The other time I might give him the $10.

    In general I feel that begging carries such a stigma that most people willing to actually do it are genuinely desperate, even if their need is for more booze to obliterate the misery of their situation. (Of course, there are exceptions.)

    Direct personal handouts are bad policy for society – a real social safety net would be better – but as an individual you’re under different constraints. Giving the guy $10 may let him booze it up for an afternoon and forget for a while; or booze it up and walk in front of a bus; or buy himself something to eat or put it to some other “productive” use. Not giving him $10 may give him a moment of sobriety in which he figures out how to get help; or he may spend a day painfully hungry; or he may freeze to death for want of a blanket. You can’t predict the effects easily.

    A “better” use of the money is a donation to an effective charitable organization. But part of the reason I randomly but infrequently give someone money on the street is because I know I won’t directly substitute a donation. And even if I did, that guy on the sidewalk needs help right now. If everyone who passed him and could afford it gave him $10 maybe he’d make a decent Bay Area salary; if 1/20 or 1/50 do, well maybe he can eat today. So I dole out at random in the hope that the times that I don’t, someone else will.

    Of course, that’s a rationalization too. And I don’t donate as much to charity as I feel would be minimally fair given that I make a good salary.

    But essentially the problem is not one you can fix there on the street. You can’t even reliably predict the outcome of what you do. Life sucks!

  3. Street scams are a whole other thing. I’ve gotten suckered by the fake parking lot attendant (at a lot where you’re supposed to put money in a box), but I never go for an elaborate sob story, although sometimes they hook me for a moment.

    Mind you, I was once stuck in an actual situation where I needed money from strangers to get home (when I was much younger and broker, in England), and someone helped me out. Of course the process would have been easier if it weren’t for all the con artists who had gone before me.

    I’m kind of obsessed with scams. The guy who says “Thanks!” after you tell him you know you’ve been scammed reminds me of a bit from Hustle, a British TV show. A naif is asking a con man to teach him some scams.

    Con man: “Okay, give me a 20 pound note.”

    Naif: “Here you go.”

    Con man: “Thanks. And tomorrow, the second lesson.”

    The next day:

    Naif: “Oh, you won’t get me with the same scam again. Now teach me something new.”

    Con man: “You’re right, and I feel bad about yesterday. In fact, here’s your 20 pound note back.”

    Naif: “Thanks. Now show me something.”

    Con man: “Okay, this is called the two-note trick. Give me two 20 pound notes.”

    Naif: “Here you go.”

    Con man: “Thank you. And tomorrow I’ll teach you something else.”

  4. I have never given any money to street beggars. I am probably too cynical and basically assume they are all cons, no matter how pathetic.

    I did get scammed once driving to the grocery store one extremely cold night, very late. I was driving down a 4-lane street and this lady came running out into the road at my truck, so I stopped, assuming there was some emergency (and trying to avoid hitting her). Unfortunately my passenger door was unlocked and she jumped right in, begging for a ride to her friend’s place.

    It was out of the way but I relented, since it was incredibly cold and since I hadn’t yet figured out she was really a con. The drive was about 10 minutes, and she managed to tell me about three different, conflicting sob stories on the way, all kind of aiming at her need for cash. When we got to the place she requested to go to, she kept talking and not getting out. I ended up giving her the cash I had on me (eight bucks) just to get her to get out.

    But as soon as I gave her the money she asked me to take her to the Waffle House. So I did. She finally got out and walked past the entrance to meet up with someone and share a smoke out in the zero-degree weather. Never quite figured that last part out. Maybe the eight bucks was enough to score, I wouldn’t know.

    I make sure my doors are always locked these days.

  5. If I’m hungry, I would buy a hot dog or two but regret it two hours later. If I’m not, walk past the beggar. Being the capitalist I am, I tend not to reward what I consider poor behavior. However, if they were a street performer singing a song I like or juggling, the $10 would have a very good chance of ending up in their pocket. Then again, street performer and beggar are two very different professions.

  6. I never give money to panhandlers in NYC or any large American city. The one exception was when I was in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia – the heart of Russia – in the dead of winter. I was sitting on a bench waiting for my guide and translator (dressed like a Russian so as to not attract attention) and I spent 30 minutes watching an old woman babushka dressed in 15 layers of rags or so begging for change. As I observed her I noticed that none of the passing Russians were giving her ANY money, not even the smallest amounts of change. After a while I felt so bad for her and saw how pitiful her life must be that I walked over to her and gave her all of my change and a few of the bills I had in my pocket – probably less than US$5. The look on her face was one of amazement, as if no one had ever given her this much money before. At that moment I realized my $5 was going to feed her for the next few weeks and that she was truly one of the unlucky ones, forced into poverty and homelessness and hunger – likely through no actions of her own.

    This is an important point since I feel that most panhandlers in NYC and other large Western-civilized cities are parasites living off the backs of those who work hard for a living. Most I feel are fully capable of getting jobs and working for a living but are simply too lazy to try and instead spend the minimum amount of time it takes to beg for money.

    If I had $10 of disposable income I would likely leave it as a tip for a struggling waitress or the young paperboy delivering papers in the rain on his bike. Those people need the extra money just as much as a panhandler but are much more willing to work for it.

  7. your willingness to give $10 every time says to me that you don’t encounter many beggars. I pass them nearly every day, and am aware (1) that it’s often the same person, with the same approach/story, (2) that there are shelters willing to feed these people and hook them up with other resources, if they don’t get enabled on the street, and (3) that often an offer of food (rather than $) sorts out the needy from the scammers or drug-users (the former thank you, the latter curse you). buy the beggar a hot-dog in the given scenario, or even two. I sometimes carry granola bars in winter for a similar reason…

  8. Go Mark Cuban! Of the luminaries asked he’s clearly the one who’s thought through the issues and implications of giving anything to street beggars.

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