Sunday, November 29, 2009

To Give or Not to Give

As I write this, I'm on a plane from San Francisco to Tokyo, having spent the last week and a half in the home where I grew up. When I was younger, my neighborhood was a middle-class one, trending later towards the upper middle-class. Now, thanks to Silicon Valley wealth, it's become distinctly upper-class.

There are three supermarkets, one of which caters to the wealthy: better service, more imported items, higher prices. It's changed a little, but there's one thing that's changed rather noticeably: at each of the two entrances, an older black man sits on an overturned milk crate, displaying a cardboard sign soliciting donations. One sign asserts that the man is a veteran, the other that the man lost his job in the recession.

Living in Japan, it had been a long time since I'd really thought about the question of the homeless and/or panhandlers. Should one give? Surely a down-on-his-luck veteran and a recession victim are very sympathetic characters; is that just a coincidence? (One certainly never sees such a sign that says, "Need help–lost money gambling.") Do they really need to be given money, or is this simply in preference to working at, say, a McDonald's? Is the money they get the only thing keeping them from living on the streets? (These men were not unkempt, unhygenic, or shabbily dressed.) I would definitely prefer to work at a fast-food place than to solicit money from strangers, but maybe that's not true for everyone. Are they being truthful? There's no way to know.

For me, though, the most difficult and interesting aspect of the situation is how it makes me feel. I feel uncomfortable passing them and not giving anything. (Which, clearly, is the idea.) My income puts me squarely in the middle class, maybe on the low side of the middle, so I'm far from rich. (The store in question sells the best donuts in town, so I indulged myself while I was there; what passes for a donut in Japan I consider barely worthy of the name.) But going into that store is a virtual announcement that you have so much extra money you can afford to buy overpriced food. So, how can you do that while ignoring the sympathetic figure to whom you could give that money and go shop at Safeway?

The problem, of course, is Kant's categorical imperative: what if everyone did the same thing? If more people gave, would more people solicit? People I know who've gone to India and seen its wretched poverty say that they were advised not to give to the highly sympathetic five-year-old beggars: if you do, they were told, you'll be surrounded in under a minute. But it seems counterintuitive to think that a large number of people in America would prefer to solicit than work. So, one could argue that the categorical imperative suggests that we should give them money: it would not likely cause large numbers of people to quit their jobs and become beggars, and the people who did so wouldn't need to do it for so long before they'd gather enough money to live. It could be seen as people doing individually what they should be doing collectively: make sure that no one lacks sufficient resources to live, especially in such a wealthy society.

Which brings me to one of my favorite themes: individual responsibility and collective responsibility. The store in question has a sign near the entrance that urges people to give to organizations that help such people, rather than give to them individually. But this is clearly self-interested; the store surely doesn't want such people near the entrance making customers feel uncomfortable (and would likely not have a sign urging such donations were it not for the people in front of the store). More importantly, the guy in front of the store is someone you can see, and identify with. Giving to a charity is an abstraction, one that's easy to avoid when nothing is staring you in the face. The guy in front of the store is forcing you to think about the issue. In a society with such a huge income gap, where conspicuous consumption is often celebrated, that may not be such a bad thing.

While I was there, I mostly ignored them. On the last day, as I left the store, I gave one of them a dollar. Why? I'm not sure. If I lived there full-time, would I give them money regularly? Give to a homeless/social welfare organization? Out of good citizenship, or wanting to be able to look such people in the eye? I'm not sure about that, either. But it's good to think about it.

1 comment:

  1. I know what you're saying here. I always feel distinctly uncomfortable walking past people who are begging. I used to give something when I could afford to. I like to give the benefit of the doubt. Now though?The town I'm at university in has been hit pretty hard by the recession. I don't like to give to one person, and not to another who's seen me giving. People seem to be becoming more desperate too. I have a tendency not to give to people who accost me. Asking for some spare change is one thing, accosting me with a long rant as to why I should give them something is another.

    That said, I gave one man some money because he came up to me and told me "I'm an alcoholic, I want to go and buy a can of cider, can you spare some money?" Such honesty took me by surprise, and I did give him something. A lot of people would look down on me for encouraging alcoholism, but I looked at him, and I knew that whether I gave him money or not, he'd end up drinking. I'm not saying I approve, but I'm not one to judge a situation I know nothing about. People begging on the streets is becoming more common in these times, and whether we give or not is a choice a lot of people will have to face. I personally now will buy a copy of the Big Issue while I'm out, that to me shows the person is wiling to do something to help himself. For those not familiar, the big issue is a magazine. It's sold exclusively through homeless people. They buy the magazines at a low price, and sell them on for £1 each. They then get to keep the profits.