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City Places for City People
Generosity and Schadenfreude

Debra Efroymson
Dhaka, 2011

In cities around the world, a common daily sight is that of beggars extending their hand, and often voice, seeking alms from those passing by. Different people regard this phenomenon in different ways: a last-resort option for the desperate, a good source of income for those too lazy to work, a fortuitous way for the very poor to survive, or a social evil that should be banned. Pervading the discussion is a relegation of something less than fully human status to the beggars.

What is less discussed is the perspective of those giving. While for many, no doubt, charity is a mix of compassion and perhaps guilt--and most people are in no position to part with much more than a bit of "spare change"--for some of the very wealthy (and I dearly hope this is a tiny minority) it would seem to be a pleasurable assertion of their superiority to the very poor. I have watched the various ways in which people give money to beggars: those who pause and perhaps say a few words while they place a bill or coin into the beggar's hand or bowl; those who treat an entire row of beggars to a snack of biscuits and bananas; those who ask for change and wait patiently while it is counted out; those who toss the bill as they walk by, as if they would be dirtied by contact. Worst of all was the day I saw someone who handed a beggar a flier, saying, with a sneer, "Read this!" The beggar looked truly pained and confused.

There is plenty of opportunity to witness the ways in which people give, because at least in Bangladesh, where I live, a lot of people give to beggars.

Now, while others might phrase the question in terms of why people wouldn't give to beggars, I prefer to flip that question. (I have very sound, to my mind, reasons for usually not giving: I get swamped when I do, and I'm fairly sure that a good portion of what I give goes to someone organizing the beggars' presence on the sidewalks.) While I hope that in most cases, the act of giving alms is a sign of sympathy for, or even empathy with, the poor, and while in most cases that is all that people can give, I do wonder in the case of those with plenty of material resources. I also wonder in terms of those who could vote, or otherwise work, for policies that are kinder to the poor.

What really concerns me is why some people feel free to extend their largesse to beggars but not necessarily to help out those in need before they reach the stage of utter destitutions, or to support policies which would have the same result.

I cannot of course say for sure that none of the people I see giving alms ever offers more significant help to people. But my personal experience leads me to think it rare for the wealthy to act in ways that could help the working poor: by paying better wages, by responding positively when a worker they know requests help paying medical bills or making an important purchase, by speaking up for a more generous safety net, or by arguing for more rather than fewer government jobs so as to lessen unemployment--and of course by demanding higher taxes on the very wealthy and on corporations to pay for it all.

Yes, the sprinkling of small change can be of great help, and no, politicians don't always listen to what their constituents want. But what I can't help but feel, as I watch the daily passage of the wealthy past the beggars, is that other measures to help the poor would allow the recipient still to maintain some dignity. It is of course always humiliating to ask for money (unless, perhaps, you are the manager of a large bank or auto company), but nothing quite matches the level of sitting on the street in rags, trying to look grateful for whatever scraps people offer. And receiving a higher wage would not incur much humiliation at all. Executives, for instance, seem to take enormous bonuses with nary a blush.

So I can't help but wonder if the rich enjoy giving to beggars because the situation has become one in which equality, or even any reflection of dignity, is no longer part of the equation. Could it be that almsgiving serves some arrogant and small-minded aspect of people that enjoys seeing others surrender their claims to humanity? As if once someone surrenders that claim, others then happily reward that humiliation. This is by no means to say that all people, or even most, who give to beggars subconsciously wish to see people humiliated; rather, that for those in a position to help keep people out of poverty, who consistently fail to do so, and who do however give alms to beggars, there may be a not very attractive explanation for the phenomenon.

I could be wrong here too, but I think if we acknowledged that beggars are fully human (painful as that is to can we accept that people like us must live like that?), we would feel differently about the whole issue of alms, charity, and social justice. That is, by accepting the full humanity of the poor, we would have more motivation to see that their lives improve in significant ways. (In the US one way would be for the rich to pay more taxes, and for government spending to focus not on tax breaks for corporations and wealthy individuals but on creating quality jobs for the unemployed.) Not that we would necessarily stop giving spare change to beggars, but that we would put more effort into preventing people from becoming beggars, supporting stronger safety nets and ensuring in our own realm that we pay fair wages and treat workers well. And by fighting against the absurdly unequal incomes that have become so common in the US and many other countries around the world.

In the meantime, and especially for those who have no scope for change in this manner, take one simple step: give with a smile, and when you refuse, do so with a smile. Funny, this, but I've found that looking beggars in the eye and giving them friendly greetings makes me feel more fully human. It also helps maintains my motivation to fight for more justice in this increasingly unequal world.

Debra Efroymson<