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Cash Values
Beggars Can Now Be Choosy

By Eric Alterman

A web site invites us to pick our favorite panhandler pitch-- and by doing so, forces us to rethink our response to the needy

I pick up my daughter at day care every day on 64th Street between Columbus Avenue and Central Park West in Manhattan. I used to enter the block from Columbus, which is a shorter walk, but now I tend to go the extra distance to CPW, which is a quieter, prettier street and holds the added attraction of the occasional smile from Sarah Jessica Parker or Parker Posey on the way back. It's hardly a tough call, since the difference is only one block, but I wonder if my choice of the new route isn't also influenced by the guy who stands outside the Chase Manhattan branch on 64th and Columbus. He sells the homeless newspaper Street News in a particularly loud, aggressive voice--as if he were the newsboy shouting "EXTRA!" in an old movie. Before I made the switch, I used to walk by the guy every day, thinking, I would give you the money, fella, if only you would tone down the pitch.

What Mr. 64th-and-Columbus needs, if he's at all interested in customer relations, is to consult with Needcom ( www.pbs.org/weblab/needcom), the first--and probably only--place on the Web to specialize in "market research for panhandlers." Funded by the Web Lab Development Fund and maintained by PBS Online, the site tests panhandlers' pitches in much the same way any fancy market research firm would. Enter the Panhandling Effectiveness Survey section of the site and you are invited to rate various panhandling pitches. Each of six mini-sites contains photos of an actual panhandler (including his props, like crutches, a wheelchair, a tin cup, etc.), and a text and audio version of his typical rap. Next, you vote with your virtual wallet by clicking on the amount you would give if this experience were actually happening.

Most people, it turns out, are pretty stingy--even when handing out the functional equivalent of Monopoly money. While I found myself handing out a buck to almost everyone, the average donation to these obviously needy people was less than 30 cents. Of course, my donations were entirely hypocritical, since I actually paid nothing and did not have to approach these sorry characters in real life. But why were other people holding out? Grace doesn't come any cheaper than this. What is so awful about panhandlers? Why doesn't everyone want to feel good about themselves by giving away free money?

Needcom investigates such questions. Marc Weiss, Web Lab's founder, explains that the site provides a "safe environment [to] put people into an encounter with panhandlers that provokes them to think in new ways about these relationships. People are protected. They don't have to deal with an actual person, their own fear, and the rush of the street." This presentation of panhandler market values invites the rest of us to consider more fully our reactions to these people and the moral and philosophical prejudices that underlie them.

Cathy Davies, who created the site and is now a graduate student in Los Angeles, says part of Needcom's purpose was to challenge both the traditional liberal and conservative outlooks regarding panhandlers: that they must be either helpless victims of a heartless economic system or spineless parasites on the rest of us. The quandary is apparently eternal. In Luke 16:22, Lazarus the beggar dies and is "carried by the angels into Abraham's bosom." Meanwhile, the greedy "rich man," on whose crumbs Lazarus was forced to sup as they fell from his table, is "sent to his torment in Hades," where he must longingly view the ex-beggar's heavenly embrace. It's a beautiful story but hardly a workable business plan.

Most of us want to help the desperately needy but feel overwhelmed, both by the size of the problem and the desperation of the need as well as by the almost universal belief that what we earn is rather less, truth be told, than what we deserve. What's more, panhandlers can be intimidating, even frightening, because fear and intimidation work. One visitor to the site realized that she "seldom gave to the people who seem in some ways to need it most--women, kids, the handicapped or ill." The very sight of them makes her feel "sad, guilty, angry (at the gaping holes in the social safety net)," she says. "As a result I seem to want to avoid interacting with them as much as possible."

Another complication arises from the unstated belief that panhandlers should stop annoying the rest of us and get a job at McDonald's. The reported "earnings" of panhandlers interviewed on Needcom range from $15 to $100 per day. At the higher end, assuming a six-day "work" week, that's nearly $30,000 a year untaxed--nearly three times the $5.15 hourly minimum wage. Of course, we should resist the urge to generalize on the basis of insufficient information, but how can we help it?

Enthusiastic capitalists are rarely conflicted about turning away from an open palm, as most believe that the U.S. economy offers everyone a fair shot and therefore losers are just plain losers. Interestingly, many leftists act similarly for opposite reasons. The socialist political philosopher Michael Walzer notes that the anti-capitalist Left has always reviled charity, viewing it as a kind of Band-Aid that hides the sores of an unjust economic system from the rest of us and salves the consciences of those who commit the greatest crimes. Willard Gaylin, M.D., a psychiatrist who heads the Hastings Center, comes close to this position when, citing the vestiges of what he terms his "prepubescent Marxism," he complains that giving a dollar to someone on the street "serves the vanities of the bourgeois by allowing you to go home and say how swell you are" but may not help that person.

Many say they feel more comfortable giving to organized (and therefore tax- deductible) charities than to individuals in need because they believe that the money will be spent more responsibly. They hold this belief even though a significant portion of such contributions must necessarily go to administrative costs, salaries, and the like. A Needcom visitor explains that he doesn't give directly to the poor because he wonders if he is being "pimped" by someone: "I don't like the money I give to be used for cigarettes or booze, so I give through my employer, who matches the money." Interestingly, the folks I called who actually run charities seem to give anyway. George McDonald, president of the Doe Fund, a New York City work and residence program for the formerly homeless, says he gives to anyone who asks, "but I also take the opportunity to try to talk to them about the Doe Fund." Loring Henderson, director of the Redemptorist Center, an emergency assistance program in midtown Kansas City, Missouri, says that "while a lot of people who work in this business get so used to asking questions, asking for documentation, I still think it's our responsibility as a Christian, or just as a citizen, to help out, no questions asked."

Based on the Needcom testimonies, the most effective panhandling pitch--one that may circumvent both conservative philosophical objections and liberal existential crises--is that old standby, comedy. "Help me hire a hit man to kill my husband," reads the sign of a panhandler outside a subway station in San Francisco. She apparently does quite well. In Olympia, Washington, there's a guy who gets results with motorists by holding up a placard reading, "Why lie? I need a beer." My personal favorite is a man I see in Times Square who offers this only-in-New York service: "Tell me off. One dollar."

Davies says she plans to send out a press packet to street newspapers to let readers in on the results of the Needcom voting. Alas, she is not terribly optimistic that panhandlers will change their pitches/ strategies as a result. Her interviews taught her that panhandling techniques are much more the by-product of necessity rather than of any conscious strategy. After all, if panhandlers could transform themselves so easily, why would they be panhandlers?

As for the rest of us, the choice of giving or not giving remains an intensely personal and often quite difficult one. The easiest reaction is to give without thinking or else simply to walk away. The ultimate value of Cathy Davies's strange Web site is that it inspires us to take--with our virtual nickels and quarters in hand--at least a small measure of ourselves.

Contributing editor Eric Alterman is a columnist for The Nation, MSNBC.Com, and IntellectualCapital.Com. This is his first column for Worth.

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