Tuesday, August 03, 2004

charity -- why not to give

I was prompted to write about begging and the Christian response to it by an experience I had in San Francisco. In that post I tried to distinguish people who were really in need (and intended to use the money to satisfy those needs) from professional beggars who would only use the money to by drugs (including cigarettes and liquor). I said there that it isn't good to give money to people in this latter class.

In the follow-up I concluded, somewhat to my surprise, that there are two cases where it is good to give money to professional beggars: when you are so naive that you believe they really are just out-of-luck starving people, and when you are so Christ-like that you can do it with the right attitude. I'm afraid that most of the time I don't fit in either category. In this post I argue that for the rest of us, neither child nor God, it is wrong to give these people money.

It is wrong in general to give money to a drug addict to buy drugs (including alcohol). I don't have any objections to drinking or smoking in moderation. Nor is it my responsibility to stop strangers from making bad decisions. That would be pride.

However, I do have a responsibility not to work toward bad ends and my money, given freely, is an extension of my work, my labor. So this is not a matter of me trying to control what others do, but a matter of what I do myself.

It is different when I give money in payment. When I pay money rather than give, it is no longer an extension of my work, it is an extension of the work of the person I paid it to. For example if I was trying to carry a couch to my car and a beggar asked me for money, I might offer to pay him for helping carry the couch. It makes no difference to him why I gave the money --he's going to buy drugs either way. But it makes a difference to me. I paid him the money for services rendered. It's now an extension of his labor, not mine. What he does with it is his responsibility, not mine.

Another reason not to give money to professional beggars is that they are causing harm to people who really are in need, and we should not reward them for that. In the first post in this series I told of how I denied help to a woman in need because I was so used to avoiding professional beggars. I don't think this is an isolated occurrence. Probably thousands of people each year end up stranded or hungry (if only for a few hours) because they can't get anyone to listen when they ask for help. And the reason they can't get anyone to listen is because people have become accustomed to ignoring beggars.

When you give to beggars, you encourage them to beg again. And this cycle leads to a situation where there are so many professional beggars that you can't see the people who are really in need. One reads occasional stories about how callous people in big cities (usually New York) are to strangers. How they ignore strangers on the street that need help. I suspect that this is partly because people in big cities are so used to being put-upon by professional scroungers (beggars as well as con artists) that they just develop a habit of ignoring strangers. We let that happen when we let professional scroungers take over the street.

I'd like to thank Mark W. for his comments, which tell me I need to re-emphasize something: if you really believe that the money you give these people helps them, then this doesn't really apply to you. I wouldn't tell you to stop doing it. You should do what you feel led to do.

My argument is entirely for people who believe --as I do-- that you don't actually help these people by giving them money, and are torn --as I am-- by the gap between the appearance of charity and actual charity. It seems wrong not to help people who are in so much need, yet we also know that nothing we can do in five seconds is going to address those needs.

Mark's parable of the scorpion (in the comments section) doesn't apply to me in this case. To me, giving a drug addict a dollar is more like throwing stones to the drowning scorpion because I can't find a life preserver. I don't think it is a good deed.

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