Wednesday, 25 October 2017

On Giving To Beggars

The New Statesman has a provocative article out, entitled Why you should give money directly and unconditionally to homeless people - educating us about how to treat the homeless:

"Give your cash directly and unconditionally to homeless people. Don’t just buy them a sandwich from Pret. They’re not four. They have the right to spend their money as they choose – and it is their money, once given. Don’t just give to people performing, singing, or accompanied by a cute dog. Buskers deserve a wage too, of course. But homeless people are not your dancing monkey and they shouldn’t have to perform to earn your pity."

The attitude of the article writer is laudable - for of course we should treat homeless people with the utmost respect. But I have serious doubts about the reasoning - I think if, ultimately, you really want to help homeless people, suggesting we give directly to them is the opposite of good advice.

We all know that if there are concerns about giving a beggar some money because he might spend it on drink and drugs, it is easy to buy him food instead. But even that doesn't go far enough - I'm not sure that giving them anything is helping them in the long run - if you want to help the homeless it is probably better to offer a financial contribution to the agency set up to help them than it is giving them things directly.

In the long run, if giving to beggars creates a culture in which beggars know they can get money on the streets from passers by, it will only incentivise more begging. If prospective beggars can earn three or four thousand pounds a year with few opportunity costs from taking up begging, then they may well invest a lot of their time taking up begging.

Conversely, if beggars could earn only a few pounds a year from begging, they would be less inclined to spend time begging. It's almost trivially obvious: suppose God flicks a switch and, starting tomorrow, nobody in the world has even the slightest inclination to give to beggars - and beggars become aware of this transformation - how many beggars do you think there will be this next year? The answer is zero.

Alas, the problem with my optimal solution of giving to help the homeless charities rather than giving to beggars is unless it is a collective effort undertaken by everyone, it will not be enough to bring an end to street begging. That is, it will not drastically reduce the supply of givers, so it will not diminish the incentive for begging.

That being the case, to whom should you give your money on the streets? Well first you have to remember that not all struggling people on the streets are beggars, and not all beggars are struggling people - some are opportunists making cash out of people's beneficence - they don't need the money as much as other beggars.

Generally, it's pretty safe to assume that the elasticity of sleeping rough with regard to receiving financial help from passers by is probably close to zero. That is to say, the people that need our help most in terms of direct donations are the people least likely to be on the streets in the hope of expecting to receive donations - they will be on the streets whether or not they receive donations, and are probably the ones for whom we should buy food.

My advice in buying food for people on the streets is not to give them the food and walk away - it is to sit with them and talk. I have spent lots of time in life talking to people on the streets after I've bought them some food. They are frequently interesting, edifying often eye-opening conversations - but then, why wouldn't they be? - homeless people are as human as the rest of us.