How We Feel about the Poor

“Excuse me, could you spare me a dollar?” It was a man who said this, a tired-looking man standing by the sidewalk.

“I’m sorry, I don’t have any cash on me.” I was on a walk, the kids in the stroller, and I knew there wasn’t any cash in my wallet.

“Then could you buy me something to eat?” The man gestured toward a fast food store across the street. “I’m really hungry.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, shaking my head.

All sorts of things swirled in my head as I resumed my walk. Why would he ask for fast food? Groceries are cheaper. My mom would have said “he can always go to the Salvation Army downtown.” She would have said that the reason he was out here begging is that he wanted to avoid the requirements somewhere like the Salvation Army would put on him. That he could make more money standing by the street with a sign than he could if he got a job flipping burgers, and that he was probably using the money on drugs anyway. But these feelings competed with others as well. The man looked gaunt and moved and talked slowly like he was used to hunger. He also had a sleeping bag hanging from his backpack, meaning that he was homeless. Why would someone choose that? Would someone really sleep in the park and beg passers by for food if getting a job, even a low-paying job, was an option? How would a homeless man even go about applying for a job anyway, without an address or phone number? I also knew what I’d heard from the minister of the local UU church the previous Sunday: my town has no year-round homeless shelter, only one set up temporarily and staffed by churches during the worst of the winter months. All these thoughts went though my head in the matter of only seconds, and I stopped and turned back to the man.

“We’re only a few blocks from the health food store, which is where I’m going,” I said. “I’ll buy you something there.” I waited for the man to catch up and we walked the last blocks in silence. I wasn’t sure what to say, and he likely wasn’t either. As we entered the store, his eyes lit up.

“I’ve never been in here,” he said. “This store is amazing.”

Together we picked out a bag of granola and walked back to the register. Sally began pulling organic chocolate bars off the shelves and Bobby kicked his feet in the stroller while I paid for the granola. The man took the granola and thanked me, shaking my hand warmly and with gratitude before heading out into the falling dusk.

I tell this story only because that evening gave me some things to ponder. As I finished shopping I felt guilty. Guilty that I have so much while tens of thousands of people across the country sleep on the streets. Also grateful. Grateful that I have so much when others have nothing. Somehow, gratitude and guilt became all mixed up for me. And as I thought about this, I stumbled upon two thoughts.

First, I don’t buy into some sort of grand capitalist conspiracy, but it seems to me that just like the existence of rape is convenient for complementarians and patriarchalists, even so the existence of homeless people is convenient for corporate America. What I mean is that encountering a homeless person can make someone like me, a grad student raising two children, feel wealthy beyond measure. (Remember that gratitude bit?) And as long as I feel wealthy because it could be worse – I could be living on the streets, or bankrupted by medical bills, or reduced to begging for food – I am more likely to accept the fact that the average CEO earns 300 times as much as I do. The existence of homeless people, then, may help keep the working poor from challenging the system.

Second, I began to wonder if people like Mitt Romney in some sense have to assume that the extremely poor are where they are because of their own laziness and bad choices. Why? Because otherwise the guilt at being so rich while others have absolutely nothing would surely be completely overwhelming. If I, a graduate student raising two children, feel guilty at how much I have when I encounter a homeless person, how much more guilty must a person with a private jet or an elevator for his cars feel? Believing that poor people are poor because they’re lazy and make bad choices might be the only way to stay sane and be able to actually enjoy the absolute opulence of that kind of wealth.

Third and finally, as I tried to resolve all of this in my head I realized that I really do believe that every person has the right to food, shelter, and healthcare. I grew up being taught that the only rights people have are those involving freedom from interference – the right to own guns, the right to worship freely, etc. I was taught that giving people the right to healthcare would mean forcing doctors to give treatment. In other words, you could only give someone the right to food, shelter, or healthcare by taking away someone else’s rights. But I think this phrases it incorrectly. I don’t see the onus of providing everyone with food, shelter, and healthcare as something that falls on individuals. Instead, I see it as part of a societal contract. We as a society should take care of our own. We as a society should make sure that everyone’s most basic needs are met. That homeless man I met so briefly represents our failure as a society.

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Saraquill

    For me, I learned to overlook these people or find flaws in the signs they carry, because it hurts to see so many needy and I’m not in a position to help. I’d feel so much better if I could drum up a long term solution so these people could find shelter, full stomachs and employment.

    A few times I redirected these people to a nearby church or synagogue since I feel that those places would be better equipped to handle more of their needs. Then there are the beggars who sit directly on the church steps of a rather prominent church in my city, and I don’t understand why they don’t go inside and ask.

    • http://politicsproseotherthings.blogspot.com/ Nathaniel

      Perhaps they already have, and found the church wanting.

    • http://equalsuf.wordpress.com Jayn

      This is a bit OT, but there was a post on Sociological images a year or two ago about the different themes you’ll see in the signs beggars use depending on where you are. Here in the US, some variant of ‘God Bless’ is pretty common, while when I was living in Halifax most of the ones I saw said something like ‘traveling west to visit sick family’. The latter especially I think made me jaded, because after seeing so many similar signs you stop believing them–how many sick people are there in Ontario and how come none of their relatives can afford a plane ticket? (Honestly the more I think about that one the less sense it makes). And sometimes they just seem too damn organised. One store ALWAYS had someone standing directly outside the doors and I don’t think ever saw the same person twice.

      I have nothing against helping the needy, but it’s gotten hard for me to trust that the people I see on the street are really down on their luck as opposed to not really trying.

      • Makoto

        I would rather help a ton of people who don’t really need it rather than ignore the ones who are in need. I help run meals at a local park, and we don’t ask anyone if they actually need the meal. We offer the food, and even take-home boxes if they ask, because we know there are those who need it.

        I have no idea how many are homeless or jobless or millionares, but I am happy I can help with that.

      • Aurora

        The Sociological Images post sounds interesting. I don’t remember seeing it (and it’s neat to see someone mention the blog elsewhere, I haven’t seen that since whatever site led me to it in the first place a few years ago). I admittedly haven’t seen terribly many homeless people (I grew up in an area where there really weren’t any, and only recently moved to a larger area), but all the signs I’ve seen said something along the lines of “Out of work, need food” or even “Will work for food,” both in PA and in Florida.

        I wonder how many people try to use whatever they feel will work best on the signs, whether it’s true or not (like you said, there can’t be THAT many people with sick family), but really do need the help regardless. It reminds me of being taught that you should yell “fire” instead of “rape” or “help,” because people are more likely to respond to it.

  • http://mattiechatham.wordpress.com/ Mattie Chatham

    This is so hard….I get really frustrated with myself for not knowing how to respond to them. Most homelessness is caused by mental illness, which is difficult and heartbreaking. Glad you took him to the store with you. My self-consciousness didn’t give me the same poise and decisiveness as you had, when I was in a similar situation last week, and I regret that a lot.

    • Aurora

      A large number of homeless youth were kicked out because they told their parents they were gay or pregnant. I have two thoughts on this:

      1. Any parent who would throw their kid out on the street does not deserve to be a parent and has a severe lack of understanding of “unconditional love.”
      2. Abortion is wrong, but throwing your daughter out on the street where she’ll endure hunger, sickness, discomfort, harsh weather conditions, and lack of sanitation–while pregnant–is totally okay? Because I’m sure that’ll result in the birth of a healthy baby, right? Despicable.

  • Skjaere

    There is a huge problem with entitlement in our culture, but it’s an entitlement of the rich, not the poor. Too many rich people think they are well-off because they and their parents made good choices. They are where they deserve to be, and so is everyone else. If people fail, it’s because they didn’t try hard enough, or they made bad choices. But so many poor and homeless are there because the system is against them. Lots of homeless people are veterans, many have mental and other health problems.

    I work night shift at a hotel desk in a small city. At this time of year, as the weather starts to turn, I often find homeless people sleeping in the hotel stairwells. When I mentioned this to my mother, her first question was about my safety. I’m not afraid of these people. I feel bad for them. Their lives are filled with unimaginable hardship, and all they wanted was a warm place to catch a couple hours of sleep. I wish there was something I could do for them, but apart from maybe smuggling them a little food from the hotel kitchen before I ask them to move along, I feel pretty powerless. I don’t have so much money myself that I can afford to give much of it away on a regular basis.

    • smrnda

      Thanks for this. I actually grew up quite privileged and have remained comfortable ever since, and I can plainly see that it has almost nothing to do with the choices that I have made (since I had way better choices available to me on day one) and more to do with circumstances.

      I think that all the ranting by the wealthy about how they earned everything – if they really believed it, they wouldn’t need to repeat it so much. Plus, even for only a moderately affluent person like myself, I am benefiting from a system that is totally screwing over lots of people. I feel guilty every time I go to a grocery store late at night and I realize that, for what they are paying, I would not want to be there at 3am.

  • http://www.twitter.com/nicoleintrovert Nicole Introvert

    There are these great people who have been dealt a shit hand either in life or with their health. I feel very sorry for them, and will help when I can (but that is rarely.)

    Then you have a couple of situations I have been in. The first one being a man & woman who LIVED ACROSS THE HALL FROM ME and would beg at the corner a couple blocks from our apartment. They quite obviously used the money for alcohol (as I could hear and smell). Both my husband and a friend of mine have had situations where they purchased food for someone who was pandhandling, and they got mad, and threw the food out in front of them. On the flipside, my husband met a homeless guy in a trainyard when he used to paint, and bought him a cellphone. It was enough to help him have a contact number to land him a job.

    I know those are few and far between experiences, but they have happened. So it is VERY hard for me to trust.

    I try to help by giving to organizations like Food Not Bombs. http://www.foodnotbombs.net/

    • RowanVT

      This is why, when people ask me for change, I ask if they would like me to grab them some food as I have no change. If they decline, it was probably for drugs/cigs/alcohol and I do not feel bad.
      I’ve only had 3 people decline, though.
      There’s a fairly large population of homeless folks near my work place, and every payday I find of them and buy them a large lunch. I don’t have terribly much to spare, but I do what I can when I can.

  • http://AztecQueen2000.blogspot.com AztecQueen2000

    Why a burger and not groceries? If you’re homeless, you don’t have a kitchen. What are you going to do with those groceries? You’re basically limited to bread, fruit, and raw vegetables–healthy in themselves, but not very filling and completely lacking in protein. A fast-food burger, for all the empty calories, a least has some meat in it to make it filling.
    There was this homeless woman outside the supermarket where I did my weekly grocery shopping. I used to buy her a pouch of tuna (I didn’t know if she had a can opener), some bread or crackers, and some cut-up fruit. Since she didn’t have a kitchen, I figured this was the best way to at least get a balanced meal.

    • kisekileia

      Raw vegetables also need to be washed.

    • RowanVT

      I’ll often buy the pull-top cans of soup … after asking if they have any allergies so I can avoid stuff that might make ‘em sick.

  • smrnda

    The problem is that poverty is caused by structural problems, and what we get with the homeless is a problem that ought to be solved by some top-down strategy that instead gets ‘solved’ by random individuals with poorly coordinated strategies. I lived in a town where there were lots of ‘food pantries’ and a few places you could stay if you were homeless, but overall the system was either loaded with inefficiencies (too many food pantries and too few places to stay) or else I suspected that the people offering ‘help’ were just trying to find a way to get warm bodies in their church.

    The streets stay paved because we have a government agency that handles that. We ought to have one that handles homelessness.

  • Niemand

    The poor make me feel overwhelmed. I can give some money to a homeless person or buy him or her lunch once in a while, but can’t find them a place to live or a job or get them the social or psychological help they may need. Not by myself anyway. I feel resentful that the agent that I’ve “hired” to deal with this problem-the government-is doing such an inadequate job. Perhaps I’ve been underpaying them, but they keep insisting that not only do they not need a raise, but that they will refund some money…but they refuse to do their job any better either, preferring to blame their clients (people in need of assistance) rather than acknowledge their own failure.

    • smrnda

      wow, what a great way of looking at the problem. perhaps the real issue is that the agent that you have hired really doesn’t want the problem to be fixed and has their own agenda. perhaps it’s because many ‘agents’ actually have profitable enterprises of their own running.

      • Niemand

        Don’t we have anti-trust laws for just this reason? You’re right, of course, but no private charity really has the power or resources to deal with the problem adequately, so we’re stuck trying to push the government into doing its job properly. I despair of it going in the right direction any time soon.

      • smrnda

        I think there’s a huge danger to leaving social problems up to private charities. Their help is usually take it or leave it – a place that would offer housing in a town I lived in would only let you stay if you agreed to attend their church regularly, and to participate in promoting the church. Private means unaccountable, government at least should be accountable.

        Part of the problem I think is who is in government. Politicians are mostly affluent, and they are running government for their own benefit and not the benefit of their constituents.

      • http://ripeningreason.com/ Bix

        That sounds illegal, although maybe it’s not if they aren’t accepting any government funding. I interned at a Food Bank, and its affiliates, many of them churches with food pantries, could not make any such stipulation, because they received food partly through state and federal funding. So if they are accepting any funding–and it’s not always obvious if they are–what they’re doing is illegal. If they aren’t, then they are pretty unaccountable.

      • Niemand

        Private charities can’t cover it. With the best will in the world, they have neither the resources nor the scope to really change the situation for people living in dire poverty, especially those who are homeless. There needs to be a government level effort to ensure equal access, get resources where they are most needed, and make the necessary resources available on a regular basis. A charity that depends on donations can’t be sure that they’ll be able to feed all the hungry or house all the homeless: they just don’t know what they’ll have in the way of resources on a regular basis. And they’ll have the fewest donations just when the need is highest. It has to be the government if we really want people fed, housed, and helped out of impossible situations. Or, looking at it another way, it has to be society or the people, not just some small portion of them (us).

  • victoria

    Have you ever heard of Belo Horizonte, Brazil — the town that declared food a human right and then set about creating structural solutions to make sure everyone had access to it? (This is a good article: http://www.yesmagazine.org/issues/food-for-everyone/the-city-that-ended-hunger)

    I think this is one of those issues where real, permanent change is going to HAVE to come from the public sector (I think the private sector and nonprofits can help, but only so much), and I wish that people were more upset about this type of issue than, say, where the 35% tax bracket is going to kick in.

    • Alexandra

      Thanks for that link! I did not know anything about this. My husband is from BH and we will be going there to visit family for Christmas, I really should know more about it!

  • Maria Lima

    If we insist in blaming individuals for their poverty or for being homeless instead of an economic system we would have to say that people are not as lazy in Europe (specially Scandinavia) as they are in US, and that people in Africa and India are extremely lazy. This can’t be that simple, obviously.

    • Aurora

      Oh please don’t suggest to them that people in Africa are lazier than people in Europe. I can only imagine how horribly, horribly wrong they would take that.

  • smrnda

    Exactly true Maria. In fact, I’m pretty sure that people in Africa and India and many people in China are working way harder than well-to-do Americans or Europeans. Having enough has to do with access to resources.

    The people who control access to resources control the people who do not have them, since you must in some sense enter into a relationship with them (where they are a far stronger bargaining party than you are almost all of the time) in order to get some. It’s in their interest to make sure some people have nothing so that those who get just a little bit will feel fortunate. The question of who should control access to resources, and human survival, and why they should control it is a good one.

    I’m not totally opposed to private property or even to the ownership of businesses by private people, but we need an adequate amount of democratically controlled resources to ensure everybody gets some minimum standard of living.

  • lucrezaborgia

    I don’t care if they spend it on beer or drugs. In fact, I’ve actually bought an extra six-pack for the homeless people in front of the store on occasion.

    • Karen

      I agree. Drugs and alcohol are ways to deal with crushing despair. They’re not very good ways — but I, as an individual, don’t have a way to offer a better solution.

    • Alexandra

      I totally agree!

    • Ray

      Agree. Plus when you start going into ” Well, they’re gonna use it for drugs, beer, etc”, it’s really sad because there is a possibility they are saving that money for clean clothes, a bus ticket to go south, or something else.

    • AnyBeth

      Hey, plenty of states want to (or even do) make state benefits including aid for food and housing dependent on passing drug tests. Leaving aside the issues of this being wildly uneconomical (there’s much less drug use among folks that haven’t money and testing costs), this means that many politicians think that drug users should be homeless and hungry. It’s so much easier to get clean living on the streets with an empty belly, right? Odd that the “Housing First” program seems to be working so well where it’s used and also saving those places so much money. Even for those who don’t care about homeless people ought to be more interested in them getting housing quickly, whatever is going on in their lives.

      • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com WMDKitty

        It’s also unconstitutional, as it is an unreasonable search and seizure, and violates a person’s right to equal treatment under the law.

    • http://www.twitter.com/nicoleintrovert Nicole Introvert

      Perhaps you’ve never lived across the hall from a couple who were panhandling and buying a lot of alcohol. Hearing them fight verbally and physically. Watching the male kick the door in twice, not just fearing for his partner’s safety but my own.

      Or maybe you’ve never dealt with addiction at all in your life ever.
      I cannot knowingly contribute to addiction.

  • Maria Lima

    People that are on the streets begging because they have a drug or alcohol addiction are extremely sick from this addiction on dependency. Let them starve or freeze to death on the streets because they have this disease is not only judgmental, it is cruel. You rapidly change your mind on this when it is one of your own that go homeless and utterly destitute. This people need help, treatment, not pointing fingers. Granted that lots of them are too sick to get help, but they don’t deserve to starve, nonetheless.

    • Maria Lima

      *or dependency , *These people (sorry!)

  • AnotherOne

    “Second, I began to wonder if people like Mitt Romney in some sense have to assume that the extremely poor are where they are because of their own laziness and bad choices. Why? Because otherwise the guilt at being so rich while others have absolutely nothing would surely be completely overwhelming. If I, a graduate student raising two children, feel guilty at how much I have when I encounter a homeless person, how much more guilty must a person with a private jet or an elevator for his cars feel?”

    There may be an element of truth in this, but we also have to deal with the fact that even those of us who aren’t necessarily well off by American standards live a lifestyle that simply isn’t possible to extrapolate to the rest of the world. There aren’t enough natural resources for every family in the world to live like middle class Americans do. This is why I can never really get on board with the 99%/1% discussions–they ignore the global reality that to the rest of the world, we middle class Americans are the 1%. Just by living the lives that we do, we’re complicit in a world system in which we monopolize a grossly unfair share of the world’s wealth and resources. I’m not sure what to do with that. I do take actions toward changing that system, and to decreasing my own use of resources, but it doesn’t feel like enough.

    • http://kagerato.net kagerato

      The studies you’re indirectly referring to which show that the world can’t replicate the American middle-class lifestyle make a variety of unjustified and illogical assumptions. Here’s a few of them:

      (1) That fossil fuel resources will continue to serve as the primary energy source for the future. This is incredibly unlikely over the long term. I think I can safely predict that if civilization holds out (a good bet for the last eight millenia or so), the vast majority of energy will be obtained elsewhere. Among the key contributors will be solar (both photovoltaic and thermal), wind, geothermal, tidal, and nuclear fission. There is enough energy available from the sun alone that if we actually used our full efforts to do so, we could not only completely replace the existing infrastructure but increase capacity by several fold. Energy has turned into a problem of political and economic will that is just not there, and most people don’t realize just how essential it is to modern life. A huge part of the resistance is that a massive amount of accumulated wealth is bound up in companies who profit from the continued use of fossil fuels.

      (2) Resource efficiency won’t increase at a rate equal or greater to population growth. Although huge efficiency gains seem somewhat unlikely now, nearly all of the developments of the 20th century appeared almost laughably unlikely in the 19th. Even assuming that resource use and re-use remains roughly as inefficient as it is now, this can be overcome by acquiring more energy.

      (3) Population growth won’t stop. If the population eventually levels out at a particular level — and many quality analyses project it to do so — then resource use hits a peak absolute cap. This can ultimately be managed to assure a decent quality of life for everyone, assuming we can overcome the social and political barriers.

      (4) Technological growth ends, or begins a steep fall-off representing diminishing returns. Although I think there are some specific technologies that will hit their maximum effective peak within the next few decades (including the Complementary Metal-Oxide Semiconductor [CMOS] technology that fed the growth of the digital age), there is no real certainty that replacements or alternates will not be found for them. Likewise, in key sectors such as agriculture certain techniques like singular and persistent pesticide use may be hitting limits on how much they can improve yields. This says nothing about what new processes might be discovered or used in the future to continue the trend, however.

      (5) Every society will replicate some or all of the grossly inefficient choices made by America in the mid-20th century. It’s rather unlikely that the future will have every country on Earth relying primarily on a massive network of personally driven internal combustion engines, for instance. Similarly, the level of meat consumption in the U.S. is almost certainly not going to hold up as a trend for the rest of Earth.

      • smrnda

        Very good points there.

        One about the food supply – I hear it said that enough food is grown that could ensure everybody had enough to eat, but because the emphasis is on making food production profitable (rather than meeting demand) is why not everybody has enough food.

        And on the use of fossil fuels, a lot probably has to do with infrastructure. I’ve lived in large cities my whole life where using mass transit is a way of life, but a lot of people in the US live lives dependent on the idea that everybody will own a car and drive. Residential areas get planned with the idea that people will drive and often, mass transit cannot be deployed effectively in these areas, and at the same time, the houses cannot be simply abandoned while people go live elsewhere since if we made a huge shift away from cars, nobody would want to live there and the current residents would lose a lot on their house.

      • AnotherOne

        Very true. But all those things are future hypotheticals, and the people using the lion’s share of the world’s resources right now (i.e., us) aren’t taking many steps to bring them about. These possibilities do give me hope, but hope for the future doesn’t change the fact that middle class Americans, even those in the lower middle class, are using far more than their fair share of the resources we have access to right now, while hundreds of millions of other people, even billions, suffer deprivation.

    • Aurora

      There’s actually a TED Talk that’s sort of related to this, challenging the idea that it isn’t possible for everyone in the world to own a washing machine. http://www.ted.com/talks/hans_rosling_and_the_magic_washing_machine.html

      Smrnda–You’re completely right about the issue of transportation, and it’s a far bigger deal than just housing and fuel. I grew up in a really small town. The nearest “city” (with less than 14,000 people) was half an hour away. The nearest ACTUAL city was close to an hour away, and the nearest major metropolitan area was two hours away. There were basically no jobs in town; most people had to drive at least a half hour to work and back every day, which was a particularly big deal in the winter because it’s an area that gets a lot of snow. This reality extremely limits the possibilities for people in that area, which keeps the community rather poor (few people moving in, people with opportunities moving out). If we were to work hard to develop underdeveloped nations, we would (hopefully) take great care to design them in such a way as to decrease reliance on cars and to have a good public transit system, because that isn’t just good for the environment and for resources, it’s good for economic growth and stability, as well as the well-being of the people.

  • Elizabeth

    I am very hardened to people asking me for money on the street. When I lived in Austin, I had some acquaintances who were homeless. For them, there truly were other options and they preferred the “freedom” of being on the streets.

    In Chicago, many people asking for money make up elaborate stories, most of which are clearly designed for maximum emotional impact. I hate being lied to like that. I once had a man tell me he had just had a baby, tell me all about the baby, and once he had me emotionally hooked lead into how he needed a few dollars to get on the train to see her. Last week I saw a woman on a train give $7.00 to a guy who promised he would pay her back when they got to their destination. She was not paid back. Maybe I would be more likely to feel sympathetic if people were honest about what they want money for–whether food, rent, beer, or whatever. If I gave a dollar to everyone who asked on my daily commute, I would probably spend $5-10 per day. I could afford that, but it seems like kind of a lot of money.

    I’ve also offered to buy food for people instead of giving them money and been refused. A friend of mine once bought a woman lunch and ate with her. During the course of the meal, the woman revealed that she had an apartment and a “regular” job and panhandled because it was an easy way of making extra income.

    I’m deeply conflicted about this. Many of the people I see on the streets are clearly mentally ill, and I think it’s shameful that we as a society don’t have better options for them. And I definitely think everyone should have access to enough and good food. But I am not sure that most of the people asking me for money are really hungry, or that me giving them money makes a difference.

    I feel heartless for even posting this, but I wanted to share some of my thoughts on this subject.

    • Saraquill

      I hear those stories quite a bit. The worst was from a man who said that he was recently released from prison, was jobless, divorced, and lived in a homeless shelter with his little son. There were notes of anger in his speech about how his ex wife was remarried and had a home and car, while he had nothing. The then went on to say that his son will grow up without a mother, but he’s three years old, he’ll get over it.

      I really hope that the man didn’t truly have a child, it’s painful to think that the man would rather have a child live in poverty and unstable circumstances with a decidedly cold parent.

  • Niemand

    If I gave a dollar to everyone who asked on my daily commute, I would probably spend $5-10 per day. I could afford that, but it seems like kind of a lot of money.

    This sort of statement always disturbs me: $5-10 per day isn’t a lot of money to Romney or Ryan or Koch. It is to you-you can afford it, you say, and would do it to help people in need, but this makes it into poor versus middle class issue when there are rich people who could give more than that without even noticing that it was gone, if only the proper mechanisms were in place to take the money from them. If Romney or Donald Trump paid $10 more in taxes per day-$3650 more per year-it wouldn’t be even a 1% increase in his income. But it would make all the difference to people who need it if it were applied to HUD or food stamps or WIC. Why should you feel bad about giving or not giving money that you can’t really afford when those who could easily afford it aren’t even being asked to give?

    • smrnda

      A great case against any flat tax nonsense. I also think that private charities are often a way that middle class people are left trying to fix problems created by the upper classes.

      The marginal utility of a 1 is pretty high to a homeless person. The marginal value of 1 to a rich person is negligible. In fact, the marginal utility of a million dollars for a rich person is probably less than the marginal utility of a 1 for a homeless person as the lack of another million won’t cause any discomfort (other than to their inflated sense of entitlement.)

      I will admit though, people out asking for money can get irritating. Some of the same people will congregate around bus stops and it can get uncomfortable when people won’t leave you alone, but it would be uncomfortable even if they weren’t asking you for money. I also don’t really like being told “fuck you bitch” when I say I don’t have any money, or, if I give something less than what they expect to be told “what the fuck you expect me to do with this!” But the solution is that there ought to be some program for people like this so that they’d never be out asking for money on the streets to begin with.

  • Jaynie

    Somehow the obscenely rich have convinced the middle classes that our natural enemies are the very poor. I think this is strategically useful for them. Make the middle class worry about benefits scroungers and people on foodstamps buying potato chips and whathaveyou, which costs a comparatively tiny amount to the taxpayer, and maybe those middle-class folk won’t notice how much profit CEOS are raking in off of products that cost pennies to produce. While we get our panties in a twist because a heroin addict might have been given a place to live, someone is thinking of buying a second private jet with the money we were too afraid to tax.

    Note: I do not think all rich people are like this. In fact I’ve noticed a fair few who are very in favour of increased taxes etc. But for those motivated by selfishness and narcissism, well, it’s awfully convenient to have the plebs fighting amongst themselves while you quietly count your stacks of gold…

  • Sarah

    After 6 months of volunteering at a homeless shelter, I was given the opportunity to work there. I love my job, but it has changed me in some ways. Sometimes I see our clients pan-handling, and I try to avoid their gaze. I see other people who are not eligible for services from us for one reason or another, and I’m always conflicted. Mostly I’ve learned about the huge barriers to employment that so many homeless people face – a woman might not have any ID because an abusive husband or boyfriend destroyed it, a man might have deep undiagnosed mental health issues from serving in the military, people suffer from injuries left untreated for years, etc.

  • H

    One of the things you mentioned, about feeling like you are lucky because at least you’re not in whatever situation, is an aspect of what is commonly called the “oppression olympics”. Somebody always has it worse than you do (a poor person on food stamps is better off than a homeless person, is better off than a refugee in somalia, that refugee at least has all of their body parts… and so it goes). It’s often given as a reason not to complain about your particular injustice. However, somebody also has it better than you, and every little bit of justice makes the world that much better.
    As for the homeless man, maybe that meal gets him through the rest of the week, maybe he passed away in the night. But either way, he felt the warmth of human compassion. When I hear an obviously false story from a panhandler, I at least think that they cared enough to make up a story. Consider it entertainment, rather than lies. Plus, I feel bad for people who go through the world thinking that everyone else is a sucker. They’re obviously missing out on some pretty cool parts of life.

  • Anonymous Coward

    I struggle with helping the needy all the time. Beggars on the street, that is. But when I really think about it, if I help 10 people and only 1 really needs it, it is worth it. I feel the same way about healthcare and welfare. It’s sad because we all know so many people are cheaters and abusers, but there are some that are not. For those, it is worth it.


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