The Economics of Street Charity
I've spent a fair amount of time in cities, living, working, learning, hanging out, you name it. As diverse as the cultures, economics, and opportunities of cities across the world may be, however, they always share one thing in common: the street beggar.
This person comes in many forms and may even not be noticed as a beggar at first glance. The messy drunks sitting on dirty sidewalks while wearing torn clothing are probably the easiest to spot, but I've also been approached by a guy who made up a freestyle rap involving my name and occupation, a migratory South African with a story about being held at gunpoint and forced to give up all his cash, and a lady who thought her shoes might have been in Montana. Those odd things happened in Portland, Buenos Aires, and Seattle, respectively.
A New York City hot dog vendor. Image borrowed from hu:User:Totya at WikipediaA bit more than a month ago, Stephen Dubner wrote a blog entry about street charity over at The New York Times. To some friends of his, who include Mark Cuban (and whose succinct response is my favorite), he posed the following question.
You are walking down the street in New York City with $10 of disposable income in your pocket. You come to a corner with a hot dog vendor on one side and a beggar on the other. The beggar looks like he’s been drinking; the hot dog vendor looks like an upstanding citizen. How, if at all, do you distribute the $10 in your pocket, and why?
The article, titled Freakonomics Quorum: The Economics of Street Charity, is very interesting and definitely worth a read.
The situation of concern is far more academic than it is a practical treatment of reality (since both beggars and hot dog vendors are everywhere in New York City, for example), but I provide my answer to it here, nonetheless. Four years ago, I gave a $20 bill to a beggar to eliminate any future moral objection I might have to walking past a beggar without so much as a glance. Thus, I feel my "street charity" work is complete, and if, at any point during the remainder of my life, I feel the need to further assist the impoverished, uneducated, war-stricken, or neglected, I will write a large check and send it to an aid organization that operates in Africa. As such, if I were in the situation described by Dubner, I might buy a hot dog (with chili, cheese, and onions, thanks), but I would not give $10 or any portion thereof to the beggar.
Also, in a peculiar twist of fortune, it should be noted I found his article by searching for information on the nutrition of vendor-bought hot dogs.