In today's America, beggars can be choosers

Begging has been a part of societies since at least as far back as Biblical times.  But today, street begging seems to be a growing industry.  As in any industry, beggars compete with each other.  As in any industry, begging has its experts.  I will not be unduly astonished to one day see a book titled, The Art of the Beg.  Well, maybe a little astonished

Very recently, I encountered a man who could well become the author of that book.  His method is unique in my experience.  Unlike many who wear dirty, tattered clothing and sport greasy hair, this fellow was neat and clean.  He seemed ordinary.  He approached me and delivered his line succinctly.  His wife had been in a car accident.  He needed money to get to a city, 200 miles away, where she was hospitalized.

Focused on the task I was performing, and momentarily distracted, I reached into my pocket and handed him some change.  I continued my task, expecting him to simply walk away.  In fact, I had only given him the money for that purpose, and had not yet taken any special note of him.

But his next response was memorable.  Quite politely, and with absolutely no hint of threat or coercion, he said that what I had given him was not enough.  He even proffered me a handful of change greater than that which I had given him, implying that perhaps I needed it more than he did, and that he was more generous than I am.

That was audacious.  I had heard of beggars who badger and threaten passers-by, but this was nothing like that.  He was, by dint of his assertive, but not aggressive, personality, negotiating a larger donation.

Although I abruptly ended the conversation, and he did not press the matter after that, I found this event so unusual that it occupied my thoughts, on and off, for the rest of the day.

For several years, I have been ambivalent regarding street beggars.  As a Christian, I feel commanded to give what I can to the needy.  Tomorrow it could be me who is in dire need, but even if not, I would not wish to become so hard of heart that I could turn my back on a widow, orphan, or a disabled veteran who has sacrificed for my freedom.

On the other hand, I did not believe this particular fellow.  I am aware that in modern America, many of those who appear to be poor are not.  I saw a televised interview with a beggar who divulged (foolishly, as it eventually developed) that he made a splendid living through effective begging techniques.  There are also those pathetic souls who spend every penny they get on alcohol or illegal drugs.

How is one to react?  I reluctantly conclude that charity these days is best practiced by institutions, particularly those connected to churches.  My favorite is the Salvation Army.  This decreases the interpersonal reaction that should provide spiritual nourishment, but in the end, it provides a more practical benefit to those in need.

The take-away in all of this is that begging is a market activity.  There are economic forces which direct that market.  What beggars sell is that good feeling one gets from having acted altruistically.  Unfortunately, there is begging malpractice; there is fraud.  When the fraud is detected, it tends to discourage charitable giving by those who, like me, no longer trust the old lady who appears to be a widow, impoverished by misfortune, but who somehow can afford cigarettes.

Were I a Democrat, I might advocate starting a government agency to license, regulate and investigate beggars.  As a Democrat,  I would fund it at one billion dollars per year, not one penny of which would go to the poor, except perhaps in the form of transportation to the voting booth every two years.

On the other hand, we might just try to improve the economy and let the donor beware.