“Got any spare change today?”
This is a familiar question to students who live in houses or apartments in greater Ann Arbor, away from the cozy confines of the University’s campus. It tends to come from the lips of older men or women wearing shabby-looking clothes, often sounding like an admission of defeat or a pushy sales pitch instead of a question. Its responses are many, including the snap-decision yes, the harried no, and silence, as the questioned person walks past the questioner looking anywhere but into their eyes.
Though it might as well mean no, what silence means in this context isn’t entirely clear. Does it signal that a passerby considers himself to be above speaking to someone so obviously at the bottom of the socioeconomic heap or that the passerby fears speaking to such a person? That the passerby doesn’t have any change, or at least any that she’s willing to give to a homeless person? Or does it simply indicate a lack of words — the passerby’s uncertainty about how to answer the question given all that it implies? For better or worse, each person who stays silent probably has at least one of these things in mind. Regardless, no is the right answer to this question.
All charity isn’t automatically good or even effective. Look at it this way: Giving a dollar to someone who is panhandling is kind of like voting for a candidate during an election. It makes the giver feel good about him or herself and indicates his or her sympathy for that person or candidate, but the chances of that contribution being the difference between life and death — in a political or actual sense — is infinitesimally small. In Ann Arbor, this wellspring of flaming liberalism, a student could also be excused for thinking that someone else will make a contribution, making any change given personally seem futile.
There’s an important difference between a vote and a dollar bill given out on the street — accountability. A vote for a political candidate creates an obligation for him or her to pay attention to your desires as a constituent or risk defeat in the next election. No such mechanism exists for ensuring that a person spends donated money in a responsible manner.
Intuitively, or perhaps stereotypically, there’s a more-than-decent chance that giving a dollar to a panhandler isn’t going toward acquiring a place of residence, paying for cancer treatments for his or her sick child or putting a down payment on a car. This intuition plays out depressingly well in practice: According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, 60 percent of homeless people have problems with drugs or alcohol. To me, that’s more than enough reason not to give money to anyone on the street who asks for it.
Now before you label me a heartless bastard for assuming that every panhandler and homeless person is a druggie or an alcoholic, I encourage you to reread that statistic and consider its implications. I’m entirely in favor of extending a helping hand to the extremely poor and homeless people, regardless of why they’re in such a situation. However, it’s apparent that handouts of change on the street are more likely to harm than help.
Between that and having no way to see how spare change is spent, giving money to panhandlers isn’t something to be recommended. There are better ways to help out and make an impact, including petitioning government officials to prioritize programs designed to help extremely poor people get back on their feet, volunteering at a community kitchen or giving money to a charitable organization. Any of these things can create real change — spare change cannot.
Eric Ferguson is an LSA sophomore.