How Profitable is Panhandling?

How Profitable is Panhandling? August 17, 2013



Over the past few days there has been a panhandler on the corner where Highway 395 intersects with McDonald’s. As far as panhandlers goes, this guy is younger, and fitter than most. The cardboard sign that he holds up says he’s a war veteran. If my nephew, David  Spears, is any proof, that war status ought to earn the beggar on the corner a few extra bucks every day.

David, my brother’s boy, is an Iraq war veteran. And for a very brief time, David was also a panhandler. Well, truth be told, he was more of a poser than a panhandler. As David explains, his begging was all part of a social experiment.

I once spent a night in jail so I could write an oped on what it’s like to be on the other side of those bars. I never considered my stint in jail a social experiment. I never even really considered myself incarcerated, although the jail staff put me through the booking process and gave me an orange jumpsuit to wear, and did, indeed, lock me up for the night.

David, a George Fox University graduate, has compiled his social experiment into a self-published book,  Exit Ramp: A Short Case Study of the Profitability of Panhandling. I love my nephews, all of them, but when it comes to politically-charged matters, well, I think most of them have me on the praying-she-sees-the-light list. I am what my extended family considers a bleeding-heart liberal. Of course the real irony in that is that a true bleeding-heart liberal would consider me a right-wing Jesus freak.

Let’s suffice it to say that with the extended family, I don’t usually tread into deep waters. So while I knew David was working on this project, I never discussed it with him. I had, after all, written a book about the insidious ways the Prosperity Gospel contaminates Christianity. While Will Jesus Buy Me a Double-Wide? doesn’t strictly deal with the issue of poverty, it does advocate for action on behalf of the poor.

I just simply don’t believe that God cares one whit about prospering us in the American capitalistic sense of the word. However, I do think he cares a great deal about those of us who have sharing generously with those who have not.


I didn’t want to talk to David about his project because I feared he was going to tell people that they ought to stop handing over their monies to panhandlers. And I adhere to the approach recommended by Hugh Hollowell, the man behind the Love Wins ministry highlighted in Will Jesus Buy Me a Doublewide?

Hugh often gets asked by well-intentioned folks how they can help a panhandler without getting taken advantage of.  Hugh’s response is: Give it up.

Says Hugh: The number one question I get asked by well meaning Christian folks who want to “help the homeless” always centers around panhandlers and being “taken advantage of”. I will tell you how to avoid being taken advantage of by homeless and panhandlers. In fact, how to quit being taken advantage of by anyone.

You ready?

Give up ownership of what you are giving away.

If I give you a sweater for Christmas, and you take and swap it for a toaster, did you take advantage of me? No, because when I gave it to you, I gave up ownership of the sweater.

If I give you money for your birthday, and you buy video games with it, even though you need a new shirt, you did not take advantage of me, even if you did make poor choices.

Likewise, if you give a panhandler a $10 bill, and he buys a beer with it, he did not take advantage of you. He took the gift you gave him and exercised his free will to buy what he wanted to buy with your gift.

That was the same advice I was given years ago by an Oregon State professor whom I respect a great deal. He told me that he felt if the poor asked him for a hand-out his responsibility as a believer was to give it up. What that person did with that money from that point on was their responsibility.

The title of David’s study alone suggests a certain inherent bias: That panhandling is profitable. So it is perhaps not surprising that after twelve days of holding up his veteran status sign and asking for a help, David reported that on average a person could make more money panhandling than they could working a minimum wage job.

Or, at least, a panhandler with Iraq war veteran status could.


I won’t tell you how much more than minimum wage David earned panhandling. You’ll have to read his book to find that answer, but it was a notable difference.

Number-nerds will enjoy the data collection that David compiled. His book includes more than one spreadsheet. My favorite part, as you might surmise, was not the numbers but the people doing the actual giving. David breaks up the data-collecting nerdiness common to economists who aggregate books with engaging stories of some of the people who reached out to him with gracious offers of money, food, job referrals, and other helpful resources.

More than one offered to put him in touch with a veterans organization that could help him. I love that. Ever since I wrote After the Flag has been Folded, I have been embraced by what I call the Veteran Mafia. These are the men and women who have served, and their families, who seek to honor the fallen and their families. Never forget is their mantra, and they live it. I honestly think I could walk into any city in this nation and find a warm welcome awaiting me in the home of a veteran. I have veteran friends all over the country and they have given me shelter, fine meals and some of the best conversations and laughter of my adult life.

I was touched reading the many ways the general public reached out to my war veteran nephew, the only grandson who bears my father’s name. To his credit, David writes honestly about his own propensity to stereotype givers. And he often writes with the tongue-in-cheek humor that is our family trademark.

While he is long on data, David is short on analysis, providing only one scant chapter to summarize what his social experiment proved. I wanted more in the way of reflection.

“Poverty is a more complex problem than can be solved by giving a dollar to a beggar and driving way,” he says. Then, he states: “I am not a critic of monetary generosity – don’t misunderstand me. I am a critic of money only generosity. Taking sixty seconds out of our daily commute to give a dollar to a total stranger is nothing more than the economic equivalent of a drive-by-shooting — not exactly a strategy to win the “war on poverty.”

Ultimately, David finds himself in that same place where Hugh Hollowell did all those years ago when he up and moved to Raleigh, North Carolina and made it his mission not to minister to the poor, but to be a friend of the poor.

Charity that transforms requires us to give up more than just our money.

It requires us to give away ourselves in service and love for others.

Exit Ramp: A Short Case Study on the Profitability of Panhandling is available on Amazon.  The 102-page book makes for easy reading. The data can be easily skimmed over but don’t miss the vignettes of the givers. It will restore your faith in humanity, seeing the strides people take to help out an Iraq war veteran, who appears down on his luck. And you might relate to the vulnerability of David as he recounts the moral dilemmas his study created for him.  David doesn’t keep the money he made panhandling, but you’ll have to read the book to find out how he invests it.

What about you? What do you do when you encounter a panhandler?

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  • Dana

    What do I do when I encounter a panhandler? Whatever seems right at that moment. I gave up having any kind of a philosophy about it. Sometimes I hand over some money and sometimes I keep walking. Sometimes I run over and buy a cup of coffee from the place that doesn’t allow them in even if they have money to pay. I do whatever I feel like doing at that moment. As far as giving money, I figure that as long as it’s in my pocket, what I do with it is between me and God. Once it is in their pocket, whatever they do with it is between them and God.

    You wouldn’t believe how angry people get with me when the subject comes up. I don’t think I’ve ever handed over more than $5, and I don’t know why they think they need to instruct me what do to with my money. I never tell them I think their manicures, $400 purses, and vacations are a waste of money. Sheesh.

  • Scott Lipsey

    I recommend this book. Enlightening as well as a good read.

  • AFRoger

    I agree with Dana. I make the best decision at the moment.
    Ever since she spoke them to me last year, I also remember the timeless words of my Native American friend, Two Bears. She a recovered alcoholic who works tirelessly to free children from abusive homes and get them on another path. She said, one reason to give when asked is so that the receiver “can relate to hope.” The receiver may indeed never climb out of poverty and/or addictions. Or they may start the climb tomorrow. But without hope, there’s no reason to try. Years ago in a poem, I penned the line, “No death is so unholy, as that which is died by a dream.”
    When possible, I don’t give money from my car. I park it and get out so I can talk. I learned quite a lot from a woman panhandler in her mid 70’s. Didn’t fit any stereotype. And only nine years older than myself.
    Time to get to bed. Doing worship and cooking for 35 folks tomorrow before vacation.

  • Susan_G1

    I never pass a beggar without giving. No matter where I am, I give to all who are begging. It drives my husband crazy, but it’s my money, too. The only time I had to pick and choose was in Nairobi, where I could only give to the worst cases. As I walked away after giving to a man with no legs, my husband asked, “How do you know he wasn’t faking?” “Because he actually had no legs,” I smiled as I answered him.

    I would go one further than Hollowell and say, not, “Give up ownership of what you are giving away,” but, “Give up ownership of what you have.”

  • Susan_G1

    Read your link. here is a true story.

    When I was in college (small Jesuit college), a fellow student, big into pot (dealing, too), would drive down to NYC and panhandle on weekends. That’s how he made his car payments on a, you guessed it, mercedes. He wasn’t at all ashamed. He was a selfish, smug smartass who thought that if people were dumb enough to give to him, then that was their own shortcoming.

    He and I both went on to become doctors.

  • Sagrav

    I usually give money away to pan handlers. In fact, I try to keep some small bills in my wallet so that I have something to give in case I encounter one.

    As far as how I think about giving to pan handlers, a while ago I mulled it over and said, “Screw it! Once I give them my money, it’s not my money! Even if they waste that cash on stupid stuff, it doesn’t matter. I was probably going to buy something stupid with it anyway.”

  • Rainmaker

    I have never thought of it that way. Ones it is in his/her hands its not mine anymore. Always had the thought that it will goes to do something wrong.