Should I give to beggars while traveling?

We in the United States — especially those of us who live in cities — are to some extent comfortable with the existence of homelessness and beggars. We see them every day, and we either do our best to consciously ignore them, or we give them a token dollar or two. We may feel sad when we see them, we may feel impotent, we may think of them as drug addicts or as mentally ill, and we may shake a psychic fist at “the system” that allows them to slip through the cracks, but we don’t usually lose much sleep over their existence.

That gets a lot harder when you go abroad. For one thing, while there are certainly plenty of mentally ill and drug-addled beggars in the rest of the world, they find themselves among more people who are transparently not mentally ill or drug-addled. Mothers with children. Young kids. People who are just openly hungry.

I remember the first time I came into contact with this type of poverty. It wiped me out. It was jarring, and it was deeply upsetting. On one occasion, a tiny girl in Chennai came up to me was hugging my leg, begging me for something in a language I couldn’t understand. I assumed she wanted money, so I ignored her. What she wanted, it turned out, was the bottle of clean water in my hand. As we drove away, I saw kids drinking water out of what appeared to be a raw sewage pit. You have trouble thinking of yourself as a good person after an experience like that.

But begging is tricky. So let’s break down the conventional wisdom and look at whether or not you should give to beggars.

Whom are you helping?

It’s worth noting a few things about giving. First, the person that you’re helping most may be you yourself. studies by the National Institute of Health have shown that we experience more pleasure when we give our money away than we do by spending it on ourselves. There’s nothing wrong with this, but it’s worth noting that there may be a selfish motive to altruism. The results of giving money directly away are less unequivocally good for the beggar you are giving money to.

An article in the Atlantic put it this way:

“The homeless often need something more than money. They need money and direction. For most homeless people, direction means a job and a roof. A 1999 study from HUD polled homeless people about what they needed most: 42% said help finding a job; 38% said finding housing; 30% said paying rent or utilities; 13% said training or medical care.” [their emphasis]

The same article notes that, because beggars make very little money begging (so-called “career panhandlers” can make between $600 and $1500 a month, but it’s worth noting this is still not much money), they are often pressed to spend the money they earn immediately, which means they might not be spending it particularly well. So what will they spend it on? Food, probably. But here’s what you’re most worried about:

Is your money being spent on alcohol or drugs?

It could be. You should be aware that, whenever you give cash to someone in the street, you’re doing it unconditionally. You could be giving a drug addict the money they need to buy the hit that kills them. Or you could be giving them money to spend on booze instead of on their kids.

But this risk is usually overstated. One survey found that 94% of panhandlers use money to buy food, while only 44% of them use the money to buy drugs. HUD (the Department of Housing and Urban Development) has found that six out of ten homeless people admit to problems with alcohol or drugs. That number might sound high — and there’s a possibility for respondents to lie on that survey — but it does leave plenty of room for homeless people who don’t have drug or alcohol problems, who may have found themselves in a bad situation through no fault of their own, and whom you may be mentally painting as a drug addict regardless.

It’s safe to say, then, that you don’t know the whole backstory of the beggar you’re talking to. You don’t know what their life is like, or what they’ve gone through. But it’s also safe to say that your money may not go very far, and that it may do more harm than good.

But what about while I’m abroad?

It’s worth mentioning that all of the stats I’ve given so far have only been for the United States. It might be tempting to think of our homeless as people who aren’t deserving — this is the land of opportunity, after all — and that the poor abroad maybe have done less to deserve their poverty.

No one deserves poverty, but let’s look a little deeper into that impulse: should you give to, say, kids or mothers who are begging in poorer countries?

Unfortunately, no.

The reason is “organized begging,” which is particularly bad in India, but can be found virtually everywhere, including in Europe. Organized begging is an endeavor usually run by criminal syndicates or local mafias that frequently dips its toes into human trafficking. Thugs kidnap or forcibly recruit kids, send them to touristy or rich places to beg, and then take all of their money. Deformed kids make more money, so the thugs will often physically harm, scar, or even amputate the limbs of the children to elicit more sympathy from the givers. The thugs will also get kids addicted to drugs to keep them from running away, or will starve them to make them more gaunt.

This is what you risk supporting if you give money to child beggars abroad, especially in extremely poor countries. A possible way to circumvent this problem may seem to be to give children food, water, or other physical objects besides money. Food and water may be a little more justifiable, but the Consortium of Street Children found that children who were given milk powder while begging in Brazil then traded that powder for crack. This is an extreme example, of course, but keep in mind when you’re giving that most poor countries have a much stronger barter economy than the west, and that whatever you give can be traded.

It’s worth noting that not every beggar will be part of a criminal organization, but you do run the risk of contributing to that criminal organization when you give to beggars. There are definitely better ways of helping.

Should you give money at all?

Giving money to panhandlers, beggars, or the homeless is never a clearcut thing, but your impulse to give is still a good one. Here are some alternatives.

I personally subscribe to a theory of philanthropy called “effective altruism.” It’s a movement led by people like utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer who argue that, if we believe all lives are of equal value, then when we make decisions about giving, the decisions should be geared towards helping as many people as we possibly can. This means that, instead of giving money to say, for example, the Harvard Endowment (which is incredibly rich already and truly doesn’t need your money), you should give money to the most needy, and to the people who you can help most cheaply. 

This means, for example, that if you can easily help 10 people in Kenya, or help one person who lives down the street, you should choose the 10 people in Kenya, because you’re making the same difference with an equal amount of money. It’s like a terrible, real-life trolley problem. Effective altruism is most effective when it’s targeting the extreme poor.

(I should mention that there’s one really solid argument against effective altruism: that it doesn’t change the structures of injustice, but merely addresses the symptoms. That’s an argument against the entirety of philanthropy, though, and I personally adopt a strategy of donating equally to political and philanthropic causes. Yes, we may be able to end injustice in the future through political change, but that shouldn’t prevent us from making the world just a slightly nicer place today.

I wrote yesterday (at the Matador Network) about an excellent effective charity fighting extreme poverty called GiveDirectly. What they’ve found is that one of the best ways of getting people out of poverty is to just give them money directly and unconditionally. People generally have a better idea of how to spend their money than aid organizations that have no insight into their lives. And GiveDirectly is pretty efficient in terms of getting the money you donate to the extreme poor: 85%-91% of your money ends in the hands of donors.

That money that doesn’t end in their hands goes towards the selection process, which confirms that the recipients are indeed needy, that they aren’t scamming the system, and also towards studies examining the after-effects of these direct cash transfers. Begging is a self-selecting game: people who choose to beg will do so for different reasons, and may not actually be the neediest people of all. This more evidence-based approach means you’re more likely to get your giving into the right hands.

So my advice is this:

Don’t give money to beggars.

Instead:

Give it to a charity that helps the extreme poor.

If GiveDirectly is not your thing, there are plenty of other organizations you can give to, including charities that will actually work to serve the homeless and the extreme poor. To help the poor abroad, check out these organizations:

To fight homelessness and poverty in the US, try some of these organizations:

A final note

As I always need to add at the end of these articles, the most effective solution is a permanent, systemic one. Many Americans are fed up with politics, but the fact remains that the most sustainable solutions are usually political ones. If we have systems in place that don’t perpetuate homelessness and extreme poverty, then we’re going to have a lot less of it. Giving to charities is worthwhile, because it does help people in need. But we should also take the long view and work to end the systems that allow homelessness and extreme poverty to exist. Get involved in the fight against poverty, the fight against economic injustice, the fight against the drug war, and the fight against the gutting of public health institutions, and we may see and end to this in our lifetimes or the in the lives of our children.

Featured Photo: John Christian Fjellestad