Froma Harrop: Charity vs. panhandling

Froma Harrop

Froma Harrop

I’m paying up at this discount store, and the nice woman at the cash register asks me something like, “Do you want to support a program to help homeless teenagers get drug counseling?”
“Suppose I don’t” is the thought never uttered. Instead, I say, “No, thank you” or, less forthrightly, “Not today.”

This happens at upscale stores, as well. The scenario is the same. Your wallet is out; the cause sounds noble; and people behind you in line are listening in on your response. Your choice is submit or feel heartless.

This is coercion, and the weapon is discomfort. One could try clarifying with “This sounds like a great program, but I already give elsewhere” or “I have never heard of this group and don’t know where the money would end up.”

But don’t bother with explanations. Shoppers in line want you to quickly finish the transaction. And the cashier has zero interest in your views on charitable giving.

Such requests for donations come painfully close to panhandling. I know, I know. There are major differences. Street beggars are not serving others, and who knows what will be done with the money. Unlike cashiers, panhandlers may also come off as threatening.

But the similarities are noteworthy. In both cases, the “ask” is face-to-face, purposely creating tension. Both push you to say “yes” or “no” publicly. And both use fear of embarrassment to win compliance.

Next month, the U.S. Supreme Court will look at a law in Worcester, Massachusetts, that bans “aggressive begging” — defined as asking for handouts within 20 feet of a place where people are waiting in line. That could be a bus stop, a bank, a theater, a cafe. The law covers every form of begging, from noisy demands to sitting silently with a cup and sign.

A homeless couple have brought suit against the city. The American Civil Liberties Union contends that the pair are being denied their First Amendment right to free speech. But there are counterarguments, and they’re more compelling.

A federal appeals court in Boston held that Worcester’s 20-foot no-begging zone is acceptable because panhandling can cause “serious apprehensiveness, real or apparent coercion, physical offense, or even danger.” Those words were written by former Supreme Court Justice David Souter, acting as a visiting appeals court judge.

Note that the Worcester law focuses on locations where people must line up. Elsewhere, one can skirt around beggars. In lines, you are captive. The cash register at a store is another instance of being stuck in place and thus unable to avoid a solicitation.

Other cities are trying to curb panhandling. Defenders of the practice routinely accuse those backing restrictions of being callous toward the less fortunate.

“Pure and simple,” one advocate for the homeless told The New York Times, “people don’t want to be reminded that there are poor and homeless people in America.”

It seems odd that the people being forcibly reminded are those who take public transportation. They have panhandlers in their faces, while motorists can zip unharassed out of town.

In reality, the advocates are doing the poor a disservice. The sadly destitute don’t go begging. Panhandlers tend to be assertive, and many are con artists. People who think they are helping the poor by handing money to street beggars are ignoring others in far greater need. Service organizations would better direct their contributions.

Some guidelines for charitable giving: Do write checks to good causes. Solicitations at the checkout are your call. (Frankly, I’d rather hand the dollars to the low-wage person behind the register.) And don’t let street beggars work you over for money. Don’t be a sucker.


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