Recently, I decided to try out a Greek food truck for lunch that’s down the street from the office. The line was long, but I didn’t mind. It was nice outside so I was happy just to wait patiently and surf with my phone in the meantime.
While waiting, a lady approached those of us who were in line and asked for money for something to eat. Her speech was irregular and she smelled of booze. The other people in line ignored her. As I’ve tried to do in the past in similar situations I decided to at least acknowledge her; that’s the minimum degree of respect you can show a person asking for money out on the street, I’ve always figured. She asked if I would buy her some food, and I said yes. I had a ten-dollar bill in my pocket (as usual I’d left my wallet at my desk at work), so I had enough for two sandwiches. Plus, I’ve always tended to feel more comfortable giving food, rather than money, to those asking for help.
After that point it was chaos. I asked her what she wanted to eat, and she told me she wanted a chicken platter, which was $7. I told her I didn’t have enough money for that plus my own lunch, but I could buy her a sandwich instead. She agreed, but only after some awkward back and forth that drew curious glances from the other customers (it wasn’t that she was stubborn, but rather that she didn’t seem in the right frame of mind to understand the logic).
When I got the counter, I ordered one sausage sandwich for myself and one chicken sandwich for my friend. While the staff were putting these together (assuming they were both for me, I guess), they saw the lady, who it seemed was familiar to them. “What can I get you, honey?”, one of the cooks called to her, as she was standing off to the side. I opened my mouth to speak, about to explain the situation to him, when I heard her exclaim over my shoulder, “A cheeseburger!” I shut up. I paid for both sandwiches, gave one to the lady (who thanked me), and I was on my way.
It’s experiences like this one that complicate matters for me — and, I assume, many of those reading this — when it comes to giving money, food, or whatever to the poor, and especially to beggars. There is no way to write about these things risking sounding arrogant, paternalistic, or just plain dumb. But not discussing them is a worse alternative. This blog entry is more meditation than manifesto; I have no definitive answers, only personal experiences and scattered thoughts.
To be clear, I’ve had this conflicted collection of feelings on the topic for a long time now, dating back to way before the Greek sandwich lady. When I lived in India several years ago, the subject was especially inescapable. Upon arriving there, I at least knew the basics, that begging and alms were like an industry, with a clear dark side. I’d heard horror stories, most strikingly of purposeful mutilations of children so as to maximize the sympathy factor and improve collections. Nonetheless, it became clear very quickly that my longstanding policy of acknowledging beggars with a “No, sorry” when asked for money would not fly. Simply acknowledging the question would only draw more attention, more beggars and more fervent pestering. On one memorable walk to get lunch alongside a blonde German coworker (cha-ching), two little kids aged no more than six followed us for about five full minutes, during which they angrily shouted and pounded away ceaselessly at our legs with flimsy tin collection trays. I eventually learned to pretend not to hear and see beggars, just like most of my Indian friends and colleagues advised. The new strategy worked, for the most part, even as I felt it removed a layer of humanity from all those involved, including myself.
Both my heart and my brain continue to be conflicted on how to interact with poor people asking for money in public. Regular readers already know my take on poverty, and especially how it connects to my faith. The Baha’i Writings are unequivocal on the dignity, respect, and care with which we must approach the poor. Two if Baha’u’llah’s most beautiful and striking passages , which I’ve shared many times before, are below, describing the immense spiritual meaning involved with caring for the less fortunate.
O YE RICH ONES ON EARTH!
The poor in your midst are My trust; guard ye My trust, and be not intent only on your own ease.
O CHILDREN OF DUST!
Tell the rich of the midnight sighing of the poor, lest heedlessness lead them into the path of destruction, and deprive them of the Tree of Wealth.
Baha’u’llah Himself, after all, was in many ways the ultimate philanthropist; born into comfort and nobility, He chose to spend his youth not with royalty but with the destitute, and came to be know as “Father of the Poor”. The beauty of Bahaullah’s approach towards poverty shines especially brightly in the words and deeds of Abdul-Baha, His son and the figure whom Baha’is regard as a perfect example of divine living. As one story of Abdul-Baha recounts:
One day ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was going from Akka to Haifa and asked for a seat in the stage coach. The driver, surprised, said ‘Your Excellency surely wishes a private carriage.’ ‘No.’ replied the Master. While He was still in the coach in Haifa, a distressed fisherwoman came to Him; all day she had caught nothing and now must return to her hungry family. The Master gave her five francs, then turned to the driver and said: ‘You now see the reason why I would not take a private carriage. Why should I ride in luxury when so many are starving?’
Another story paints a similar picture:
‘Abdu’l-Bahá was out with His secretary. A poor, old man passed the inn and the Master asked the secretary to call him back. The man was not only ragged but filthy, but the Master took his hand and smiled at him. They talked together a moment, the Master taking in the whole figure—the man’s trousers hardly served their purpose. The Master laughed gently and stepped into a shadow. The street was quite deserted. He fumbled with the clothes at His waist. When He stopped, His trousers slid down, but He drew His robe around His body and handed His trousers to the poor man with a ‘May God go with you.’
That Baha’is are taught to show deference and care for the poor is clear. Yet, things get more complicated when the specific subject of begging is introduced. Not only did Baha’u’llah assert that “it is incumbent on every one to engage in crafts and professions, for therein lies the secret of wealth”, but in startlingly strong language he discouraged begging, writing that “The most despised of men in the sight of God are those who sit idly and beg.” Abdul-Baha affirmed this view, stating that for Baha’is, “mendicancy is forbidden and that giving charity to people who take up begging as their profession is also prohibited.”
How do we reconcile this apparent contradiction? On the one hand, the lives of Baha’u’llah and Abdul-Baha were spent giving solace to the poor, and Their words encourage us to give generously and lovingly to support those in need. On the other hand, They very clearly forbade Baha’is from giving money to beggars, for most of us the most direct and personal way we know of to help the poor.
The answer to this is in the words of Abdul-Baha himself. In one of the same passages quoted above, he goes on to explain: “The object is to uproot mendicancy altogether. However, if a person is incapable of earning a living, is stricken by dire poverty or becometh helpless, then it is incumbent on the wealthy or the Deputies to provide him with a monthly allowance for his subsistence.” This seems fairly clear to me. We should give generously to charity, but we should do so with an eye towards solving the larger economic issue of poverty, and should be careful not to perpetuate the cycle of dependency.
We all understand that there are some individuals who seek no productive activity in life, and are content only to receive their sustenance from others. When my wife worked in Downtown Boston years ago, a man in his 40s would camp out every day, without fail, outside the front door to her office building. He seated himself on the sidewalk, head bowed, accompanied only by a ragged unzipped backpack into which passersby dropped their loose change. My wife would buy two bagels with cream cheese every morning, one for herself and one for the man. Then one day her boss matter-of-factly told her that the man had been employing the same routine for years, and that he in fact lived quite comfortably, in a one-bedroom apartment in one of the more expensive parts of the city.
While many of us have stories like this, one thing we should guard against — and I’m talking not just about Baha’is but of our larger society — is allowing those who beg and mooch as a career to color our broader perceptions of the poor. In America at least, I feel the perception of the poor lazily living off the generosity of others has dramatically outstretched reality. This is very much by political design. In the 70s, American voters were introduced to Linda Taylor and other “welfare queens”, criminals who gamed and defrauded the system towards receiving undeserved public benefits. In a more recent incarnation, we’ve met Jason Greenslate, an unemployed, surfing, guitar-playing beach bum content to live off his monthly allotment of food stamps. These cherry-picked examples, while based in reality, are purposeful caricatures of the poor, brought to the spotlight in order to propagate a fantasy of widespread government fraud, and to build sympathy for rolling back the social safety net.
A sadly underappreciated truth is that fraud among the poor when it comes to government assistance is very sparse; a recent study found the rate of trafficking in food stamps (SNAP) to be 1.3%, totaling $858 million per year, from 2009 through 2011. That’s a large amount of money, but it seems somewhat less large when placed in the context of the $3.45 trillion spent by the Federal Government last year (of which food stamp fraud would account for 0.02%). Seen through another lens, this amount is about one-seventh the size of the estimated $6 billion recently stolen from US state and local government through some banks’ manipulation of Libor and other key interest rates.
While we tend to exaggerate the extent of fraud in public aid to the poor, we also tend to diminish just how effective giving money to the poor really is. Many of us, including myself, are too suspicious of how the poor spend their money to believe giving them more of it would actually make a difference. It’s easy to come to this conclusion; just walk by your local convenience store or gas station where reams of lottery tickets are being doled our Keno being played, and you’ll often see desperate, mostly poor people throwing their money away (ironically, to the state) in a bid for a quick win.
You can see evidence of our collective suspicion of the poor in how we give to charity. As mentioned above, I myself have always felt more comfortable giving food to people on the street than money. Around this time of year especially, charitable organizations are busy collecting canned goods, toys, and gently worn coats — anything but money, really — to pass on to those in need. The very idea of food stamps itself is based on the unspoken assumption that giving food rather than money will prevent the poor from blowing that cash on selfish or addiction-driven spending decisions.
Recent research, however, is helping to tear down many of our prejudices about how effectively the poor spend their money. Several years ago, economists and development workers started experimenting with “cash transfers”, that is, giving people in developing countries money rather than in-kind aid. The results have been extremely positive, according to a number of studies: Not only do indicators of development and poverty improve, but the amount of extra money that individuals spend on alcohol, tobacco, and other “temptation goods” turns out to be essentially zero. So far, efforts to reproduce the success of cash transfers here in the US have seen some early success.
The fact that cash transfers work, and in fact work very well compared to many other efforts to help the poor, is good news. But I find it complicates matters even more for me personally as I think about how to interact with poor people. I’d say my mission as a Baha’i is to give generously, while trying to avoid rewarding unnecessary mooching. The easiest way to do this, I suppose, would be simply not to give money to people individually, but rather to rely on credible, effective charitable organizations.
That’s not a bad equilibrium, but once again, I’m back to square one, which is the awkwardness of repeatedly replying “No thanks” when approached on the street, and the lack of a personal, human touch in terms of how I actually interact with poor people. That’s fine if it means a more efficient use of resources, but I feel naggingly reminded of the fact that that this is by no means the Baha’i vision of how the world should work. Interactions between human beings, whoever they are, shouldn’t be limited by suspicion and subtle judgment.
The spiritual solution to the broad issue of poverty isn’t just about allocating more public and philanthropic money towards the issue, or even about eradicating some of the underlying social poisons that worsen the problem, however important those things might be. It’s also about getting to a world where people are overwhelmingly honest and hard-working, and about knowing that the person who approaches us in the bus station really isn’t pulling a scam, and truly is in need of ticket home. It’s about living in a world where, rather than living comfortably in our sequestered little communities, we actually know our neighbors, rich and poor, and understand when they are in trouble before they come asking for help. That’s a truly beautiful vision worth working towards, and one in which efficiency and humanity can coexist quite nicely.