Steven Malanga has written an interesting article in the Summer 2008 issue of City Journal on the rise of sophisticated panhandling techniques in major cities. Here are a few excerpts:
A big part of the cities’ woes is the professionalization of panhandling. The old type of panhandler — a mentally impaired or disabled homeless person trying to scrape together a few bucks for a meal — is giving way to the full-time spanger who supports himself through a combination of begging, working at odd jobs, and other sources, like government assistance from disability payments…
People’s generosity encourages the begging. About four out of ten Denver residents gave to panhandlers, city officials determined several years ago, anteing up an estimated $4.6 million a year. Anecdotal surveys by journalists and police, and even testimony by panhandlers themselves, suggest that begging can yield anywhere from $20 to $100 a day — though police in Coos Bay, Oregon, found that local panhandlers were taking in as much as $300 a day in a Wal-Mart parking lot. “A panhandler could make thirty to forty thousand dollars a year, tax-free money,” [NYC resident Steve] Baker says…
…The rise of online panhandling advice helps explain why panhandlers and “sign flyers” — beggars who use signs to solicit donations — exhibit remarkably similar methods around the country. Currently, the direct, humorous approach is in vogue. That’s why in many cities today you’ll hear some version of: “I won’t lie to you, I need a drink.” Panhandlers also report that asking for specific amounts of money lends credibility to pitches. “I need 43 more cents to get a cup of coffee,” a panhandler will declare; some people will give exactly that much, while others will simply hand over a buck.
If it seems unlikely that a homeless person would surf the Web for advice on how to panhandle, that’s exactly the point: many aren’t homeless and are lying about their circumstances.
Of course, panhandling thrives only because productive people believe they are doing something morally good when they give money to someone on the basis of their need, even if the recipient has no redeeming qualities. This is just one of the consequences of an ethics based on altruism. Hence, it is no surprise that it rewards the lack of virtues necessary to lead a productive life (such as productiveness and honesty).
A contrasting (and far superior) egoistic approach to charity is the one expressed by Ayn Rand in her 1964 Playboy interview:
My views on charity are very simple. I do not consider it a major virtue and, above all, I do not consider it a moral duty. There is nothing wrong in helping other people, if and when they are worthy of the help and you can afford to help them. I regard charity as a marginal issue. What I am fighting is the idea that charity is a moral duty and a primary virtue.
Diana and I gladly donate to charities in a fashion when it is consistent with our values and priorities — i.e., when the recipient is worthy and we can afford it. Using these two simple criteria makes it incredibly easy to decide how and when to give charity to other people and organizations.
If more Americans adopted Rand’s egoistic approach to charity, then they would find that they were supporting their actual values — and also getting more for their money.