Raw Thought

by Aaron Swartz

Money and Worth

The streets of San Francisco are lined with poor people looking for a little spare change. Many different strategies are tried — some just shake a jar, others call for help, some make specific small requests, and a fellow I saw today just kept sunnily repeating “a nickel and a smile will last a long while” in an endearing tone. Others, however, try to earn their keep — playing music, doing tricks, selling special papers like Spare Change.

I have a strong urge to help out the first group, those who simply ask, but helping the second has always struck me as odd. People tell me that it’s better if the poor receive their money by doing work, because it lets them retain some dignity, but I’ve never quite bought that. After all, how much dignity do you get when your income comes from people patronizingly pretending to buy a newspaper specially created for this ruse?

But there’s a much more serious problem with only giving the poor money for doing things. It encourages them to think their worth as a person is defined by their success in the capitalist economy.

Now there is a grain of truth to this delusion. There are many useful jobs for which society can compensate you. (Although even that, frankly, requires a level of non-useful skill at fitting into the general capitalist system.) But that’s about it. There are many useful jobs that society doesn’t compensate well. There are many useful people who can’t do any of those jobs because society never trained them or gave them the opportunities required. And even if, perchance, there existed someone who cannot and even with training and opportunity could not do anything useful, it seems clear to me that their simple existence as a human being endows them with some inalienable value. (If human beings didn’t have value, then we would have no one to do useful things for.)

People on the street don’t deserve our money because they can pretend to do certain menial jobs. Nor should their sense of dignity be bound up in doing them. Instead they, like everyone else, deserve our money because they are people and if we cannot care for other people, then we have precious little else.

You should follow me on twitter here.

April 20, 2008


Thank you for this post. This is an amazingly lucid and compassionate exploration of human values, dignity and our ways of caring for each other.

posted by Amy on April 20, 2008 #

I completely agree that the Street Spirit / Spare Change delusion doesn’t really help anyone, and that it is simply better to help a fellow denizen out of the goodness of the act.

Let’s not throw this upon the capitalist pyre just yet. Having a reason to get up in the morning and a way to contribute to society, whether for financial, social or personal gain, to feel that you matter in some way, to some one, is all we’ve really got, so the real question is how to you provide baseline subsistence so people don’t have to make the motions of contribution and not require, but rather encourage a rich, active, not necessarily capitalist life.

I’ve got no answers.

posted by Dan on April 20, 2008 #

People don’t “deserve” our money. Human beings, however, do deserve our respect as human beings. Equating respect with giving them money is, if I am reading this entry correctly, your mistake.

I think the direction your thoughts take on this sound very much what I understand co-dependence to be. Most people’s situations are of their own making. If you insist that there is now way you can know what they have been through, I would half agree with you, but I would also point out that assuming that they have no control over their lives is condescending and says how little you think of them.

They deserve a chance, they deserve a break, they deserve opportunity, they deserve real hope that can actually bear(bare?) success. Unfortunately, if handouts to someone in your home-town compares to the global handouts to places like Africa, I think the current zeitgeist is that we are learning that handouts of any sort tend to be destructive.

posted by KiltBear on April 20, 2008 #

here’s the problem:

we’ve made this a moral discussion.

it is well within your moral rights to simply donate money to people on the street without expecting anything in return.

and it is certainly a moral thing to recognize the innate value in every human being.

but it is impractical to start assuming that just because the action is moral, means that you have to do it all the time.

if you made it mandatory for yourself to walk through the city each evening and gave $20 to every beggar you saw, you’d be making a moral decision. and a positive one at that.

but how long do you think you’d survive on what you had left? my guess is you’d end up begging on the street yourself before too long. how does that help them, really?

i think giving money to the poor is good. but i think there are other things that can be done that are even better: where i live, i sometimes help out RIFA, a charity that offers free computer classes, job placement services, a food bank, temporary lodging, and a host of other services aimed directly at helping people lift themselves out of poverty.

maybe that’s fanatically capitalistic of them.

or maybe there’s more to helping the poor than tossing cash at them.

posted by nic on April 20, 2008 #

Aaron, you write like someone who has been much loved in his life.

This is, sadly, more the exception than the rule.

“if we cannot care for other people, then we have precious little else.”

That’s a laudable sentiment, but it doesn’t pay the rent, buy food, get medical care, etc.

It’s also unconvincing to anyone who isn’t already convinced (to a good approximation).

posted by Seth Finkelstein on April 20, 2008 #

I recently spent some time in San Francisco. I was amazed at the number of people giving money to beggars. I even saw a man give his daughter a dollar bill to take to the panhandler to put in his hat.

In London this is much less common. Although it does still happen (otherwise we wouldn’t have beggars).

Westminster City Council and The Big Issue (our very successful equivalent of Spare Change) recently ran a large advertising campaign asking Londoners not to give money to homeless people begging on the street …

“Are you killing with kindness? The money you give to those who beg may actually keep them on the streets. In some cases you may be helping them buy drugs that could kill them.” http://www.killingwithkindness.com/

I think the idea of the Big Issue (and Spare Change?) is that they vet sellers of the paper in some way so that you can be a lot more sure that your contribution is constructive (as long as you make sure you are buying from a badged vendor).

On a personal note I haven’t given any money to beggars since I gave five pounds to a young man with a convincing line about needing to get into a hostel for the night whom I saw shooting up later the same night.

posted by Thomas David Baker on April 20, 2008 #

“Equating respect with giving them money is, if I am reading this entry correctly, your mistake.”

That’s pretty much what I was thinking.

I’d say another mistake is thinking there’s anything simple about asking for money. It takes a lot of persuasive skill to convince people to give. Whether it’s asking or singing, you’re rewarding a performance either way. The former group is just so talented at performing that it looks effortless to you.

posted by Scott Reynen on April 20, 2008 #

Aaron says:

“if we cannot care for other people, then we have precious little else.”

Seth follows:

“That’s a laudable sentiment, but it doesn’t pay the rent, buy food, get medical care, etc.”

Not only is Aaron’s statement laudable, it is common sense. Are you saying, Seth, that if we care for society’s most destitute, we all lose?

posted by Peter Rock on April 20, 2008 #

I think that simply giving money to people on the street is not the best use of resources. “Gifts” and other sporadic donations to homeless/jobless folks, regardless of need, doesn’t seem to address the structural issues that put them on the street in the first place. As mentioned, the sporadic and completely undependable frequency/quantity doesn’t leave much room for Tomorrow, only Now. What concerns me is that if we enable these individuals to remain on the street, how do we move them from the street to a self-sufficient/supported lifestyle?

That isn’t to say, “Epic Fail” because they haven’t succeeded in the ‘capilatlist economy’ and therefore should be ignored, or allowed to freeze in the street [I suppose that isn’t such a problem in San Fran as Toronto?].

Resources, which are most likely hard to find, or already stretched to the limit, are, in my opinion, a better use of the money which may otherwise end up in the hands of street beggars; food programs, accessible housing, out of the cold [or the equiv. for you tropical folk], job search/creation services, and many more.

posted by Chad on April 20, 2008 #

Chad says:

“”Gifts” and other sporadic donations to homeless/jobless folks, regardless of need, doesn’t seem to address the structural issues that put them on the street in the first place.”

I agree though while structural solutions are absent, I see nothing wrong with sporadic giving - even if the receiver sometimes puts the gift to unproductive use.

posted by Peter Rock on April 20, 2008 #

Chad: Does anyone actually say “Hmm, I could give some spare change to this fellow, or I could donate it to a nonprofit working to solve the structural problems that cause homelessness?” I doubt it. I think most people could easily do both.

That said, I’d love to hear recommendations for San Francisco and Boston groups addressing structual causes of homelessness to donate to.

posted by Aaron Swartz on April 20, 2008 #

Minor nit Aaron. “The poor” creates IMHO negative images. I was strafed by a blind guy for talking about the blind as a generic group. “We are people, who happen to be blind”, sort of puts the emphasis where it should be. People first.

Funny how ‘you are one of the clever’ doesn’t work, yet, ‘he’s one of the poor’ does. Derogatory? I’m not sure.

Thoughtful post though.

posted by Dave Pawson on April 20, 2008 #

Peter: I’m saying that while homilies are fine, they also are very limited. While it is not wrong to preach them, it also is not all that productive either. Many people go around saying some variant of “The best society is when everyone acts their best”. Okay, right. But there’s very many local incentives for people to be selfish bastards. Now what?

posted by Seth Finkelstein on April 21, 2008 #

Make no mistake, you are advocating violence here. People who think they have a right to take my money and give it to others, would best be prepared to eat lead.

posted by Jim on April 23, 2008 #

Aaron: not sure what meets your definition of “addressing structual causes of homelessness”, but I can say that Women’s Lunch Place, in Boston, does a great job of providing resources for specific homeless women to get back on their feet, and would make good use of any donations.


posted by Joe on June 10, 2008 #

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