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Needy, Greedy or "Just Working"?
Most of us respond with generosity to someone who is truly needy, but it's sometimes hard to decide who is truly in need. We offer some of our experiences and observations.
When we moved to Washington DC we noticed a segment of its population, as in many cities, shabby and shuffling, often with over-flowing shopping carts and holding a weather-beaten cardboard sign or shaking a paper cup, begging for money. We also noticed a segment of the DC website dealing with the homeless or the "street people." It suggested that we find out where the shelters and help centers are around the city so that, when approached by a begging street person, we could direct them to the nearest one. After all, these centers are staffed full time with people whose mandate it is to help those in need to become independent for the rest of their lives. The quarters or dollars we give to them on the street will only meet a short term need and encourage them to remain as they are, dependent on others. The website also suggested we donate to the shelter the money we would otherwise be handing out. Through economies of scale, such support would enable the shelters to help more people more than our piecemeal and ineffective street donations. They can provide the needy with the counseling that will help to break the chains of their various dependencies and assistance in working toward lasting independence and personal dignity. We believe this approach could be effective for those who will actually take advantage of the shelters.
Another type of begging is not based on need, but merely on the notion that things should be free. Over the internet we teach classes which might be called spiritual in nature. We make price concessions to students in those countries where the exchange rate is unfavorable, but insist there be some (be it only token) exchange. But some people still ask if they could just "take the class for free." We ask them pointedly, "Are you telling us you cannot afford this class?" We've never encountered anyone who said they couldn't. Instead they state that, because we're teaching about "spiritual stuff," we should be willing to give away the product of our time, talent and effort without regard for receiving. One of the things we teach is the law of cause-and-effect, so we know we didn't suggest to them that life is a one way street, but they keep looking for the place where they are only on the receiving end. They don't want to hear about the giving end. However they rationalize it, it's still greed.
Now, let's consider those who are "just working" the street. After withdrawing some money from an ATM one day, we were immediately confronted by a man who asked for "spare change." We had noticed this particular individual for the last few months "working" the same busy street corner. We said "no" and walked on, but paused nearby to observe him for a while. We did an informal survey and found that about 3 out of 10 people would give him something. Since he was quite persistent in approaching just about every person who walked by, we calculated that, based on just 25 cents from each "paying customer," he would generate nearly $20 an hour, tax free. Not bad. In fact, after only about 20 minutes he went across the street to a vendor and bought some jewelry; then went "back to work."
We have to admit that for years we had felt a twinge of guilt when we didn't make a donation every time someone asked, for we believe that we should always help someone in "need:. However, here was an example of someone who was not really "needy," he was just working. We believe that work is honorable, but feel that this approach is dishonest. It's just greed in the mask of need. He's selling himself as "needy." Yes, some would argue that this type of street people are providing a service for a fee. In exchange for the money you give them, you receive whatever satisfaction, comfort or relief from guilt that you associate with your "gift." But you're operating under their false pretences. We don't feel any guilt declining to buy his "services." No more than when we decline to buy what a tele-marketer is offering, or when we tell a waiter in a restaurant that we don't want to buy dessert. By giving to those who are just working the street, we're providing the incentive to encourage more of them. Would you turn down a job where you set your own hours, chose your own location, made a reasonable income and didn't pay taxes?
We've all experienced need in some degree of severity and most of us would not deny help to someone we recognized to be truly in need. Our society is well known for its charity and generosity. Many people are indeed helped, through government programs, charitable organizations, church groups, families and simple, one-on-one people helping people. However, it seems this generosity has attracted a swarm of nefarious profiteers and the truly needy are facing more competition from the simply greedy. If we say "no" to the dishonest "merchants of need," we won't see as many working the streets. If we dispel the notion that it's possible to receive without giving we will see fewer people demanding to get something for nothing. If we make the effort to discriminate between need, greed and "just working" we'll be better able to direct our generosity to those unfortunate few who really need our help.
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© Copyright Peter and Helen Evans, 2003. All rights reserved.