Feb. 26, 2009

Begging the question

Refusing to give money to the homeless forces us to dehumanize them

Of all the awkward pauses at the University of Chicago, this one is the worst. No matter how interesting the conversation is, no matter how comfortable you are with the other person—whenever you walk down East 57th Street and pass the homeless people outside the Med begging for change, words cease up for half a second.

It’s embarrassing. You try to ignore them so that you don’t have to give them money, but somehow, you can’t do it completely.

The only time I haven’t experienced that pause is when I was with a friend who did stop to give money to the Streetwise guy. “I don’t think you know this about me,” she explained later, “but I always give to people on the street. I probably spend five or seven dollars a week on it.”

“Huh,” I thought. “I probably spend five to seven dollars a week on Chinese buns from Cobb.”

And then I thought, “Wow. I really am an asshole.” But then I realized that for the low, low price of five to seven dollars a week, I could stop being an asshole.

Of course, this is a terrible reason to give beggars money—you’re doing it because you care about your welfare, not theirs. But this is one of the situations where what matters is action, not motive. And the reality is that I’m a white, upper-middle-class kid who already spends too much of his money on frivolities. (Did I really need those Bob Dylan tickets? Why did I buy an Under Armour T-shirt when an ordinary one would have worked fine?) I can afford to give money to homeless people.

So what if we think about it in terms of game theory? If I give them money, the worst that can happen is that I’ll be out a couple bucks. That’s less than even an ATM fee. But if I don’t give them money, not only will I feel guilty about it, but I run the risk of not helping someone who is actually in need. The logical thing to do is to give them money.

But if everyone followed this strategy, the world would clearly be worse off. It would encourage people to panhandle rather than get real help. Most people justify not giving to beggars in this way. They don’t need it. They’re probably faking it. And even if they’re not, they’ll just spend your hard-earned spare change on booze. The only real way to help them is to direct them toward institutions that provide comprehensive care and support—food, a bed, job training, mental health and substance abuse counseling—and we should give money to those institutions, not to individuals. Yet few people actually base their behavior on those ideas, using them instead simply as justification for the way they already behave.

When you ignore the guy outside the Med, you don’t just hurt him. You hurt yourself. The real danger is not that you lose some money or that the homeless guy uses it to buy cheap vodka. The real danger is that you let yourself become alienated from other people—that you create a divide that prevents you and an entire segment of society from interacting on even the most basic level.

You don’t have to take Sosc or read Hannah Arendt to know how terrible the consequences of dehumanization are. And that process begins right here, on 57th Street.

But at least that awkward pause and those feelings of guilt remind us that it’s not complete yet.

Andrew Alexander is a fourth-year in the College majoring in chemistry. He is an Associate Viewpoints Editor.