Bryce Covert has written a thoughtful, balanced, carefully researched piece on whether to give to panhandlers. “On the whole, all the evidence, from the statistical to the spiritual, points in one direction: if you can give, you should give. It won’t solve the problems of mass homelessness or impoverishment. But it will improve someone’s life ever so slightly and briefly.”
She also quotes Anna Popova’s and my work on how the poor tend to spend cash: “Overwhelmingly, they found that giving cash ‘had no impact on spending on alcohol and tobacco,’ Evans said. ‘In a number of cases, it even seemed to have a negative impact—people spent a lower proportion of their budget on these temptation goods.’”
After that, I go off a little bit on how we needn’t judge the poor’s spending habits, even if they did decide to go and buy a beer: “‘Do we get rid of an effective way of helping the poor just because there are a couple of people who don’t use the money in the way that we think is the most constructive?’ he [Dave Evans] asked. Perhaps, he went on, a trip to the liquor store isn’t necessarily unhelpful. ‘If a poor person wants to buy a beer and that’s going to help them feel better at the end of the day, is that something we should criticize or be concerned about?’”
I’ve often thought: Oh, rather than donate to panhandler, I’ll give the same amount to some organization that helps the poor more systematically. Here’s Covert on that: “As the economists I spoke to pointed out, most people are not likely to take the dollar they would have otherwise given a panhandler and donate it to a nonprofit later. And while service organizations do a lot of good, what they do is generally something different than give money directly on the street, one American to another—a service that has its own merit. Just as the man I saw on the median needed something other than what I’d thought to give, there is value in the simple handoff of cash in a personal encounter.”
I believe there are multiple defensible stances on what to do when someone asks for money on the street. But Covert uses evidence and reasoning to rule out those stances based on false presumptions about the poor. Read her article. It’s much better than my quotes.