spare a dime .pdf
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Title: Can You Spare a Dime: Ten Perspectives on Panhandling
Author: Brattleboro Citizen
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Can You Spare a Dime?
~Ten Perspectives on Panhandling~
Get this pamphlet at:
1. Panhandling is low-paying work,
but sometimes it is the only
Here and there, one hears lies pretending to be statistics. People will
make up luxurious, fantastical rates of pay for panhandling, and even spread
myths of “secret millionaires” and bankers who gave up their day jobs for
begging. Since evidence that panhandling actually pays somewhere around
Vermont’s minimum wage is fairly easy to find*, we should ask why anyone
would spread or believe these stories. Most likely, it is because some people
want to reassure themselves that the poverty of others is not their problem.
This pamphlet is not trying to say that anything in particular is your problem
or your fault, but this is an attempt to dispel the myths that come between us
and our actual community, so we can figure out how to help it thrive.
If it pays relatively little, then, why does anyone panhandle? It may
surprise you to learn that there are many ways that poverty can make it
incredibly difficult to find other kinds of work. Finding a job under the best of
circumstances is hard, but imagine trying to find work without an ID, a
phone, a car, clean clothes, or a mailing address. Of course, some
panhandlers may have a few of those items, but if you believe most
panhandlers have all of them, take care, you may be slipping back to one of
those comfortable “secret millionaire” myths.
2. If you give a panhandler money,
they will almost always spend it on
food or shelter.
Another story folks tell themselves to justify ignoring panhandlers is that
any money one gives will probably be spent on drugs or booze. Like the
myth of lucrative begging, this story also falls apart when faced with readily
accessible information. While it is true that the rate of addiction is higher in
poor communities, and panhandlers tend to be quite poor, a recent study
found 94% of panhandlers spending their money on food.* If panhandlers
also spend some of their money on their habits and comforts, that is
because they are humans, and they, like you, have emotional as well as
physical needs. Imagine if your pay was docked whenever your boss found
out you were spending money on non-essentials.
*Every sentence in this pamphlet with an asterisk will have a citation at the end.
How much does panhandling pay?
Who panhandles and how do they spend donations?
Humanizing panhandlers (perspective from Pope Francis):
Humanizing panhandlers (perspective from Voltairine de Cleyre):
Anti-panhandling laws do little to change crime rates:
Violence against the homeless:
The cost of jail:
Panhandling and the First Amendment:
Federal Reserve data on the American wealth gap (2016):
5. Laws against panhandling,
loitering, and vagrancy are making it
illegal to be poor. “Rent” in jails is
much higher than in most
Laws which make it illegal to panhandle, to sleep outdoors, or to spend
time in public places without buying something make it illegal to be poor. The
cruel irony is that most of these offenses are punished with fines which the
accused, not surprisingly, often cannot pay. When someone fails to pay fines
and/or court fees, they are given the worst sort of home – a jail cell.
If we consider jail a kind of housing arrangement, “rent” in Vermont costs
4,800 per month.* A quick search for rentals in that range finds that one
could easily live in a fully furnished six bedroom house for the same price.
What does it say about a community that some would prefer to invest
taxpayer money in putting people in very expensive cells rather than
relatively cheap apartments?
6. Panhandling is speech, and is
protected by the First Amendment.
It is strange that panhandling is seen by many as a very different kind of
speech than all the others we encounter day to day. After all, even if all of
the panhandlers were to vanish tomorrow, our streets would still be crowded
with signs offering emotional pleas for your money. Why are the big eyes of
a billboard begging for money so encouraged, and the open hands of a
panhandler so punished?
Legally, there is no grounds for this distinction. Since Reed v. Town of
Gilbert, a 2015 Supreme Court decision regarding church signs, many towns
have discovered that their anti-panhandling laws are unconstitutional.*
Panhandling is speech, and anyone concerned for the well-being of their
municipality should take care not to call for laws that will attract costly legal
battles. To quote the Ohio ACLU: "Cities can’t curb free speech because
begging makes people uncomfortable […] There is no constitutional right to
not feeling bothered by confronting homelessness and poverty."
7. A downtown friendly to
panhandlers will also be enriched by
busking musicians, craft vendors,
What if we were to begin from the position that our panhandlers were an
asset rather than a liability? It is only a small leap from the cleverest sign or
friendliest panhandler you’ve met to the guitar and violin playing buskers,
mimes, fortune tellers, and small cart vendors that make the most vibrant
cities buzz with life.
There is no simple line between panhandlers and street performers
unless one is artificially created by heavy handed town management.
Organically, a community known to treat strangers and street-folks with
warmth and humanity will attract a range of outdoor culture. Perhaps most
importantly, though, such a community has a brighter-eyed sort of
pedestrian, and a humane tone that visitors, including the housed ones, will
speak of fondly.
8. Chasing poor folks to places where
you don’t have to see them solves
It seems that some people’s entire plan for solving poverty is to move it to
the next city over. This logic leads to the strangest arguments, including
folks claiming that social services agencies are “encouraging” poverty, as if
people choose to starve whenever offered the chance.
While driving the poor out of sight, and even out of town, may
temporarily relieve the discomfort of people who do not want to look at them,
it does nothing to solve the economic situation which is actually the source
of their unease. In fact, shuffling poor people from town to town rather than
working together to improve their situation only makes them poorer and
creates a net effect of making our country more impoverished. Likewise,
removing a panhandler’s meager income does nothing to aid in the critical
work of helping them to get on their feet.
9. The feelings between panhandlers
and pedestrians are an honest
reminder of the growing class
divisions in our society.
Why are people panhandling? Because they are poor, and they are poor
because our economic system concentrates wealth in the hands of a tiny
elite. The wealth gap is real and growing.
In 2016, the Federal Reserve reported that 1% of Americans own 38.5%
of our nation’s wealth, while the poorest 50% of Americans own 1% of it.*
Factory walls and oceans conceal the gap between even relatively poor
Americans and those who make our clothing and electronics overseas, but
the wealth gap in our own country can only be hidden by heavy policing and
willful ignorance. Panhandlers are a reminder of the actual world we live in.
10. Giving to panhandlers, to
agencies aiding the poor, and to
organizations which try to end
poverty are ALL important, and no
one can replace the others.
The saying “give a person a fish and you feed them for a day; teach
them how to fish and you feed them for a lifetime” is too often used to justify
indifference. Of course, no one can learn fishing (or any other life giving skill)
when they are starving, so if you really want to see people learning to fish,
there are good reasons to give them fish as well. But, more importantly, the
figure of speech doesn’t consider how solutions to hunger might be bigger
than individual learning. Can we build docks to make fishing possible in new
places? How do we keep our waters full of fish?
Giving to panhandlers assists people in meeting their urgent needs more
quickly than any agency can. Charitable organizations like food shelves,
homeless shelters, and free clinics are often quite efficient in giving aid and
can make your dollar go further, though slower. But also support groups that
work to actually close the wealth gap such as “social justice centers,” labor
rights movements, and even “Democratic Socialist” politicians. If you really
want to end panhandling, they could use a dime as well.
3. Give what feels right. If nothing
else, always try to give eye contact, a
smile, and say “Have a good day.”
Your habits in reacting to panhandlers shape the ways you move
through the world. You can choose to treat panhandlers as threats, avoiding
their eyes and ignoring their words, or you can treat them like humans, and
ask what sort of action that perspective compels. If you’d accept moral
guidance from the Pope, he advises not only giving to panhandlers, but
“looking them in the eyes and touching their hands.”* If you’d prefer a radical
like Voltairine de Cleyre, she exhorts to “Love them and help them, to teach
them to be better.”*
In addition to giving human courtesy, giving money to people who ask is
certainly the easiest fit between what you have on hand and the wide range
of human needs, but there are many others good responses. Granola bars
and restaurant gift cards are easy to carry, but people also need tents,
coats, hygiene products and backpacks. Of course, the more specific your
gift, the more you may need to check whether you are giving your kind gift to
the right person. Not everyone, regardless of need, needs a granola bar.
4. Panhandlers aren't dangerous.
It is difficult, sometimes, to distinguish social discomfort from a
premonition of danger, but remember: not everything that makes you
uncomfortable is unsafe. If you are ever worried that panhandlers are
dangerous, first, consider the fact that thieves are not going to try to get your
attention, or show you their faces in an appeal to sympathy. Someone who
asks you for money is unlikely to try and take it any other way. But, again,
why rely on guesses when there is great evidence available: A recent study
found that anti-panhandling laws had no appreciable effect on crime rates.*
In fact, panhandlers tend to be homeless, and this means that they are
much more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violent crime. One
Canadian study found homeless people being assaulted 35 times more
frequently than housed people.* That is to say, the clearest relationship
between panhandling and crime may be your donation helping someone to
get into the relative safety of a hotel room for the night.
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