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Panhandling: Constitutionally Protected Right or Economically Inefficient Nuisance?

I created this page to make an economic argument against the practice of panhandling. My goal is to make people think about the impact of giving money to panhandlers, to get them to redirect their charitable efforts, and for businesses to consider ways to reduce panhandling.


Let me start by saying that I am not an expert on homelessness, and I have very little experience in the area aside from normal interactions and the interviews I conducted for this project. I understand the argument that asking for money is protected by the first amendment. I can see how getting panhandlers off the street could create an "out-of-sight, out-of-mind" effect that could be a blow to the fight against poverty.


My contention is that panhandling is economically inefficient, and is a drain on the resources of society.

1. The money donated is often spent on drugs, alcohol, and gambling, rather than food and shelter. This clip shows how one man spent the money he saved up by panhandling: [1]

2. It is not evenly distributed among those who need it, like the sick, elderly, and children who cannot sit on the street and beg.

3. It allows people who are not working to reap the generosity of others, while those who are working but are struggling to make ends meet might be just as much or more deserving.

4. In the people who give, it creates a false sense of having done one's charitable act; it might detract from other forms of charity.


This is a difficult stand to take, because it is in our nature to take care of those less fortunate. Their stories can be heartbreaking, and their personalities can be charming and warm. It is definitely easier just to hand them some money and enjoy the feeling of having done something to ease someone's suffering. These clips are stories and insights taken from my interviews with three panhandlers in Harvard Square: [2], [3]


But it is in the best interest of all involved to direct our resources toward food, services and shelter for the common good of all homeless people, not just those who choose to sit on the street and panhandle. In addition to being economically inefficient, as demonstrated above, panhandling often results in annoyance, loss of business, and sometimes crime. [4]


Panhandling can be quite profitable for those who aggressively seek out donations and position themselves in high-traffic areas where people are more likely to have spare change. I talked to one panhandler who declined to be interviewed on camera who said that he makes over $20 per hour at peak times outside of the 7-11 in Harvard Square. Here are the interviews with Ernie and Bruce where I asked them about how much money they make panhandling. [5] Bruce's estimate of $20 per day was possibly a bit conservative, and probably a result of his method of standing in a lower traffic area with just a sign that reads "Help." Ernie makes considerably more by jingling his cup and trying to interact with those who walk by him. There seemed to be a sense among those who made more money that they were working harder for it; that they were earning it.


Cambridge attempted to pass an ordinance banning panhandling, but the ordinance was struck down by the Massachusetts Supreme Court in 1997. Benefit v. City of Cabridge. 424 Mass. 918, 679 N.E.2d 184


Since a law forbidding panhandling is unconstitutional, I propose that Cambridge businesses provide alternative outlets for people's financial generosity, as a means of discouraging panhandling.


One possibility is to start a campaign to raise money for local homeless shelters. Every time someone was to receive change at a local business (especially at CVS or 7-11, which seem to be the prime locations for panhandlers to hit up people with change), they would be asked by the clerk if they wanted to "pay it forward." If the customer agreed, the amount of the change (up to a dollar) would be kept and added to a running total which would be displayed on an electronic board above the register.


This would allow charitable people who don't want pocket change to give their money to a good cause and would leave them with no change for the panhandlers waiting outside. The money would be distributed among all those who need it, in the form of shelter and food rather than cash that can be spent on drugs or alcohol.


Another idea is to employ homeless people to solicit money for local homeless shelters or services for the homeless. They could stand by lockboxes that are clearly labeled and people could donate, knowing that their money is going toward food, shelter, medicine, and services for all homeless people. Some cities are utilizing old parking meters to collect change for this very purpose. [6] I would propose taking it a step further and paying someone to solicit by the meter, in order to directly compete with the other panhandlers who are capitalizing on people's sympathy.


A simple way that everyone can help is to support the Spare Change News. [7] This newspaper was founded in 1992 as a way to provide accessible income and skill development opportunities to people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness through the writing, production, distribution and sale of the newspaper.


Finally, people can simply not give money to panhandlers. If you feel like a scrooge when you don't give, then write a check each year to the local homeless shelter, or give your money to street musicians who are adding value to the community. Ending homelessness and poverty is a worthy goal that I believe can be accomplished, but outside the scope of this discussion. The best way to eradicate the practice of panhandling is to reduce the economic incentive they have to stay on the street and beg for money.

Links on Homelessness

Here is an article that discusses the criminalization of panhandling: [8]

The Cambridge Multi Service Center for the Homeless [9]

Comments

Please use this space to add your thoughts, and any ideas or suggestions you might have to supplement those that I have provided.