Begging the question

Refusing to give money to the homeless forces us to dehumanize them

Of all the awkward pauses at the University of Chicago, this one is the worst. No matter how interesting the conversation is, no matter how comfortable you are with the other person—whenever you walk down East 57th Street and pass the homeless people outside the Med begging for change, words cease up for half a second.

It’s embarrassing. You try to ignore them so that you don’t have to give them money, but somehow, you can’t do it completely.

The only time I haven’t experienced that pause is when I was with a friend who did stop to give money to the Streetwise guy. “I don’t think you know this about me,” she explained later, “but I always give to people on the street. I probably spend five or seven dollars a week on it.”

“Huh,” I thought. “I probably spend five to seven dollars a week on Chinese buns from Cobb.”

And then I thought, “Wow. I really am an asshole.” But then I realized that for the low, low price of five to seven dollars a week, I could stop being an asshole.

Of course, this is a terrible reason to give beggars money—you’re doing it because you care about your welfare, not theirs. But this is one of the situations where what matters is action, not motive. And the reality is that I’m a white, upper-middle-class kid who already spends too much of his money on frivolities. (Did I really need those Bob Dylan tickets? Why did I buy an Under Armour T-shirt when an ordinary one would have worked fine?) I can afford to give money to homeless people.

So what if we think about it in terms of game theory? If I give them money, the worst that can happen is that I’ll be out a couple bucks. That’s less than even an ATM fee. But if I don’t give them money, not only will I feel guilty about it, but I run the risk of not helping someone who is actually in need. The logical thing to do is to give them money.

But if everyone followed this strategy, the world would clearly be worse off. It would encourage people to panhandle rather than get real help. Most people justify not giving to beggars in this way. They don’t need it. They’re probably faking it. And even if they’re not, they’ll just spend your hard-earned spare change on booze. The only real way to help them is to direct them toward institutions that provide comprehensive care and support—food, a bed, job training, mental health and substance abuse counseling—and we should give money to those institutions, not to individuals. Yet few people actually base their behavior on those ideas, using them instead simply as justification for the way they already behave.

When you ignore the guy outside the Med, you don’t just hurt him. You hurt yourself. The real danger is not that you lose some money or that the homeless guy uses it to buy cheap vodka. The real danger is that you let yourself become alienated from other people—that you create a divide that prevents you and an entire segment of society from interacting on even the most basic level.   

You don’t have to take Sosc or read Hannah Arendt to know how terrible the consequences of dehumanization are. And that process begins right here, on 57th Street.

But at least that awkward pause and those feelings of guilt remind us that it’s not complete yet.

Andrew Alexander is a fourth-year in the College majoring in chemistry. He is an Associate Viewpoints Editor.

  • John Howard

    The author appears to be contradicting himself. How can he insinuate that society would succumb to utter dehumanization if we all ignored panhandlers after making the very lucid argument that, “…if everyone followed this strategy [to give a few dollars], the world would clearly be worse off.”? It’s as he’s telling us that by acting in society’s best interest, we’re dehumanizing it, and, while we should definitely feel really bad about ourselves, we’d better not stop acting in that same way or society might get a lot worse.

  • Rod Lauture

    Since when does saying “no” equate to dehumanization? When a child demands a toy at a toy store and you say “no”,is that dehumanization? When you say “no” to a friend who asks you to borrow money, is that dehumanization? The power to say “no” is sacred, no matter what you are saying no to. I bet you the author is pro-choice, and believes a woman has a right to say no to an unwanted pregnancy, yet he says we should feel bad about saying no to a panhandler on the street. The author assumes that everyone feels guilty for say no to a panhandler. I can tell you for a fact most people don’t feel bad about it. If the author is ashamed because he’s a middle-class white person, then that’s a problem he needs to work out for himself. For what ever you say “no” to in life no one has a right to judge you for it, because some of the most courageous acts started with someone saying no, think of Rosa Parks.

  • Mary Dory

    Alas for our author, giving individuals money simply to make himself feel warm and fuzzy for five minutes only serves to make him more of a self-indulgent asshole (to use his own terms). As the author himself notes, donating to institutions that help individuals segue out of homeless – such as the Emergency Fund or any number of transitional housing programs in the city – will probably serve more individuals in the long run, particularly if Mr. Alexander saves up his frivolous $7 a week and donates a chunk of it at once. The fact that the author is aware of this and instead only chooses to alleviate his guilt in the short-term is rather repellent.

    But let’s get back to the immediate situation of what to do if someone asks you for money on the street. I agree with the author that rejecting an appeal simply because you think the recipient is going to use the money for nefarious purposes is ignorant. Not all unhoused individuals necessarily want to go to shelters or transitional housing programs, and the decision to withhold money simply because you think the recipient won’t use it for “proper” purposes is patronizing in its own right. After all, we don’t think twice about what a waiter is going to do with his or her tip – simply because the person on the street is asking for money in an un-traditional manner does not mean that we should make judgments on how he or she chooses to spend that money.

    However, I also don’t think the choice can be reduced to a choice between dehumanization and..recognition? Empowerment? Choosing whether or not to give money to someone on the street is a deeply personal choice and one that largely depends on the individuals involved. That being said, for those readers out there who stubbornly refuse to give money on the basis that the recipients “could just get a job”, I recommend they look up the Streetwise program and reevaluate their position. Alternatively, they could try their hand at standing on the freezing street for hours on end, soliciting total strangers, and then come to a conclusion as whether it constitutes “work” or not.

  • Lucy Lu

    As is typical of the UoC population, the comments have veered off into a theoretical world full of intellectual masturbation.

    Who cares about the semantics?

    Props to this author for giving back.