Several Western backpackers have recently come in for some criticism for panhandling in Singapore. The young tourists had apparently set up in a local bus station to play music and hawk postcards while asking people to “support our trip around the world.” The Tab, a student-run comedy-cum-news site based in the UK, seemed particularly upset by the episode, claiming that foreign students shouldn’t be taking resources from native populations and labeling the ersatz beggars “the epitome of entitled white privilege.”
A few weeks earlier, Pope Francis had made another one of his minor media uproars when he magnanimously declared in an interview with a Milanese magazine that giving money to someone on the street “is always right” (translation via the Catholic News Service). Acknowledging that many passersby worry how the homeless might spend their money, Francis said it’s important not to attach strings to one’s charity. Most importantly, the pope emphasized the spirit in which we give matters as much as the gift itself: “Tossing money [at the beggars] and not looking in [their] eyes is not a Christian” thing to do, Francis said. The New York Times editorial board cited the teaching approvingly, wondering aloud if the pope’s emphasis on face-to-face encounter might offer a cure to the “toxic” pathologies of the current political climate.
And more recently still, the American Civil Liberties Union saw another victory in a lawsuit it had brought against the city of Worcester, Massachusetts, for legal fees related to a 2015 panhandling ban. The ACLU had previously convinced a District Court judge that the city’s prohibition on begging within 20 feet of public places and at traffic intersections was unconstitutional, a ruling the Supreme Court eventually endorsed. The civil rights group continues to monitor panhandling restrictions, believing they constitute a clear violation of the First Amendment.
What do these disparate little vignettes say about attitudes towards begging in America? At least that we should be prepared to take the good with the bad. People beg for spare change for all sorts of reasons: sometimes it’s to buy a meal that will save them from starvation, sometimes it’s to drum up the cash to catch a bus in a strange country. Charity consists in a free response to a felt need, and the pope seems correct to draw attention to the face behind the outstretched hand. The fact that some people depend on begging to live does not itself suggest that everyone who begs must be equally desperate.
Aside from evincing a zero-sum approach to charity (there’s no reason a person can’t give both to the homeless man and the cash-strapped tourist), the breathless reaction to begging backpackers suggests there are those who think only certain people are worthy of charity. But does not the act of giving already suggest a disregard for consequentialist calculations in favor of a simple moment of solidarity? One can’t help but think that few people—least of all the ‘real’ panhandlers—would be better off in a society where people are made to question the merit of every gift they give.