King Benjamin and the Moral Irrelevance of Panhandlers

April 6, 2012 | 51 comments
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For many people, being confronted by a panhandler presents a moment of profound moral choice. I think that these people are confused. As I understand it, the panhandler presents a moment of profound moral choice because he forces us to confront the reality of poverty and our willingness to do something about it. To give money to the panhandler is to act as Christ’s disciple, ministering to the poor. To walk by the panhandler is to ignore the poor and the downtrodden. The text I have most often seen in church for framing this crisis comes from King Benjamin’s address:

And also, ye yourselves will succor those that stand in need of your succor; ye will administer of your substance unto him that standeth in need; and ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish. Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just — But I say unto you, O man, whosever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent. (Mos. 4:16-18)

I don’t buy it.

First, to be clear, I believe that poverty is a great moral evil. I believe that God has commanded us that we are to have a special concern for the poor. I believe that we have a moral obligation to materially assist the poor. I don’t know the exact extent of that obligation, but I think that C.S. Lewis was right when he suggested that if your charitable giving does not impose some kind noticeable economic pain on you, you probably aren’t giving enough.

But it is precisely because I believe this that I do not believe that the choice to give money to a panhandler is morally significant. I begin with the exegesis of King Benjamin. He says that we have a duty to succor those that need our succor and that we should not let the beggar turn his hand up to us in vain. I take this to mean that we must do something to alleviate the poverty and suffering of others. One possible way of looking at this is that we have an unconditional duty to give aid to panhandlers.

In the movie Becket, there is a wonderful scene between King Henry II, played by Peter O’Toole, and the Archbishop Thomas Becket, played by Richard Burton. Becket is distributing blankets to the poor.

A skeptical King Henry asks, “Why are you giving these people blankets?”

“To keep them warm,” says Becket.

“He’ll only sell it to buy drink,” insists Henry, pointing to a ragged man.

“Then that will keep him warm,” says Becket.

Based on King Benjamin’s sermon and this scene, which for some reason has always stuck with me, I have given many panhandlers the contents of my pockets. When I have done this, I have often felt good about myself. I have felt as though I have survived some moral gauntlet. I have felt that I have reached out to help the poor.

I am no longer convinced that this is true. First, I don’t believe that my contributions to panhandlers are especially significant, even to them.   In part this because I almost never carry very much cash, but even more because I am simply not convinced that giving money to panhandlers significantly alleviates poverty, including the poverty of the panhandlers. Second, in at least some cases, I am sure that Henry is right. Giving cash to someone on the street may well facilitate self-destructive behavior.

But doesn’t this run smack into King Benjamin’s insistence that it is sinful to say to ourselves, “The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just”?

I am trained as a lawyer, and I train lawyers for a living. This means that I am – if I do my job right – skilled at making fine distinctions and offering sophistical arguments in favor of the forces of mammon, who after all are the ones that are usually willing to fork over $250 an hour for legal advice. I note this, only to be fair to those who wish to dismiss what I am about to say as pettifogging hairsplitting. You are more than welcome to the rhetorical resources I give you for the ad hominem riposte.

So here goes. I think that King Benjamin is saying that it is sinful to withhold our support from the poor on the basis of a belief that the poor deserve their poverty and are getting their just resorts. King Benjamin makes this claim not because he believes that all poor are deserving poor and none have brought their suffering upon themselves. Rather, as I read him, he is saying that the beggar who brings poverty upon himself is an everyman. We have all done unwise and sinful things that leave us as beggars before God, and if God is unwilling to ultimately make his decisions based on the idea of desert, then neither should we.

It is, however, consistent with King Benjamin’s teachings to withhold from the panhandler if one believes that giving him money is going to be destructive. This is where I think that Becket’s response to Henry is fatuous. It is presented as a kind of moral purity, a willingness to love in the face of human foibles. Ultimately, however, I think it is actually a form of indifference. Becket’s ultimate choice in the scene is not about trying to alleviate poverty. It is about trying to perform a virtuous act, in the most shallow sense of a virtuous act. By this I mean an act that reveals the good intention and good character of the actor without regard to the effect or consequences of the act in the world.

But if our duty is to succor the poor it ought to matter to us a great deal whether our act helps or harms. We ought to engage in acts that help, and we ought shun acts that harm. This means that we need to make judgments about those for whom we have an obligation to care. We are not making judgments about whether they are worthy of our concern. We should, however, have a realistic sense of their character. If we know that they will sell the blanket for drink, we ought not to give them the blanket. Not because selling the blanket for drink makes them unworthy of our concern, but because indifference to whether the blanket helps or hurts them is ultimately not an act of concern, but a kind of moral narcissism.

The reality is that I know virtually nothing about the panhandlers who approach me on the street. They may be desperate victims of circumstances. They be a hucksters in need of a fix. I can give them a few dollars, and imagine that I have fed them if only for a moment. I can refuse to give them a few dollars, and imagine that I have kept them from sinking further into self-destructive behavior. (If I give them a few dollars believing that they will use it on self-destructive behavior, then I think I am simply confused.) None of these stories has that much to do with helping the poor. They have a lot to do with constructing a vision of myself as a righteous person. It seems to me, however, that the heart of King Benjamin’s teaching is that constructing such a vision of your self is not important. Indeed, it is something that will almost always be deceptive and will often be sinful.

So when a panhandler approaches you on the street, what do I think you should do? My answer is that it probably doesn’t much matter. The amount of money involved is trivial. One might argue that you should always give, just in case, or perhaps as a way of having a real and personal moment of confronting poverty. It seems just as likely, however, that endowing the moment with this moral significance will give you an inflated sense of your own moral sensitivity deadening real moral concern. Alternatively, you can say that you don’t give to the panhandler because you don’t want to enable self-destructive behavior. Such reasoning, however, can very easily be an excuse for doing nothing.

I think that what we should do is simply stop pretending that panhandlers present an important moral decision. Rather, what we should do is find ways of giving that we are confident will actually help the poor and then give far more than the change in our pockets.

51 Responses to King Benjamin and the Moral Irrelevance of Panhandlers

  1. Geoff-A on April 6, 2012 at 11:13 pm

    Aren’t King Benjamin and others who describe a Zion society as having “no poor among them” advocating for a society that has that idea as a central theme.

    Would a society without panhandlers be a more Christlike place.

    Is that a capitalist society? Perhaps modified/regulated capitalism.

    Perhaps the Lord would like us to have this admonition in front of us when the time to vote comes, rather than when we see the consequences on the street?

    Are there financially healthy societies where there are no panhandlers. I live in Australia and haven’t seen a panhandler for years. I believe this indicates a more healthy/Christlike society.

    I would agree that a contribution to a panhandler is not important in the scheme of things, but perhaps raising the value of the desire to remove the necessity for panhandlers would be a positive idea, particularly at election time.

  2. Russell Arben Fox on April 6, 2012 at 11:38 pm

    It’s nice to know you haven’t changed, Nate.

  3. DavidH on April 6, 2012 at 11:45 pm

    A while ago a nonreligious visitor interested in Mormonism made an interesting point in Sunday School along the same lines as Becket, but with a different twist. The visitor, who had seen more than her share of tough times and who had family members with serious addictions, said, “An addict rarely starts to recover until s/he hits bottom. If the addict chooses to use the money I give him/her to buy alcohol or another drug, I see that as possibly advancing the day that s/he will hit bottom and therefore start to recover.” Since then I have stopped worrying about whether a person requesting assistance might use it for self-destructive purposes. At the same time, because in recent years I rarely carry cash, if I am entering a restaurant (usually fast food)when approached, I sometimes invite them in and buy them a meal. Or if they do not wish to come in, I buy food and bring it out to them. None of them has tried to resell the food; every time, so far, they have been genuinely hungry, sometimes voraciously, as evident in the enthusiasm with which they consume the meal. (Of course, one might take the position it is immoral to give a beggar fast food. I have no response to that objection.) I am no angel, and I don’t provide food every time I am approached. But sometimes I do, and I don’t mind doing so.

  4. Howard on April 7, 2012 at 12:03 am

    Sure moral narcissism is possible. There are a few lazy bums who don’t want to work. There are a few frail old people who probably can’t work or find work if they wanted it. But most people on the street are mentally ill. Drinking and drug use are not typically moral failings at that point because most are beyond choice they are self medicating their mental illness and/or addicted. Withholding your donation will not change any of that. Is it self destructive? Sure, so is high stress, obesity or being a couch potato. It’s just a matter of degree. When they have mental clarity there are basic resources available for the homeless. When they are mentally confused often the best they can do is depend on a local hand out. If they look sleepy, dirty or lame chances are they need your help because they haven’t enjoyed shelter in a while. If they look clean and rested chances are they don’t. I often carry some ones and give those who look like they need it a couple of bucks occasionally a five or ten. But I have given much more, to a mother of two for example. I got to know over several months, she often stood just outside Temple Square and on Christmas eve she was being ignored. She needed a motel for a few nights so she could be with her kids in a warn safe place and a couple of presents for them. I saw her a few days later she was very thankful. Do sick church members need a casserole?

    Mormon 8:39 Why do ye adorn yourselves with that which hath no life, and yet suffer the hungry, and the needy, and the naked, and the sick and the afflicted to pass by you, and notice them not?

  5. Allisan on April 7, 2012 at 12:42 am

    I like the “buy them a meal” approach. And especially since I don’t carry cash and rarely have time to even buy myself a meal, I’ve gotten in the habit of carrying a whole box of granola bars in my purse. No moral ambiguity there, everyone deserves a granola bar!

  6. SteveDensleyJr on April 7, 2012 at 12:59 am

    Well put.

  7. lucy on April 7, 2012 at 1:02 am

    I need $5. I prefer Western Union.

  8. chris on April 7, 2012 at 1:20 am

    Your money won’t change their poverty. But it could be an act of kindness to show them someone esteems them of worth. It also demonstrates to you and God that you place a higher value on that individual than you do on your money. The simple act to you may be profound to them and symbolic of many things for you.

    Could not the savior ask, “What will my suffering do to help the billions of selfish souls who care not for the things of god. These drops of blood will not cause millions of my so called disciples to render more effective service….”

    All I know is that the scriptures say if we turn away the needy we are as hypocrites who deny the faith and our prayers are in vain.

    Intertwined with Christs doctrine of charity and compassion on the poor we find the deep doctrines of the atonement and the remissions of sins for us. That good feeling you experience from true compassion, be it a meal, fifty bucks, or a conversation is not just self deception but the sanctifying power of the atonement itself where we retain a remission of our sins.

  9. Aaron B on April 7, 2012 at 1:51 am

    I think your reading of King Benjamin is sound; your point about moral narcissism is one I’ve made more times than I can count. To believe that Benjamin wants us to think nothing of the actual effects of our “charitable” giving is perverse. It’s easier to illustrate this for the incredulous if you substitute your own child for the beggar in these scenarios. Everyone agrees that a parent should consider carefully the effects of his/her assistance on his/her offspring, and we would frown upon a parent unwilling to practice “tough love” when needed. Yet with an anonymous stranger, it’s easier to tell ourselves a story to the effect that the consequences of our giving on the receiver are somehow morally irrelevant. Bizarre.

  10. Peter LLC on April 7, 2012 at 3:13 am

    “You are more than welcome to the rhetorical resources I give you for the ad hominem riposte.”

    A martyr for the cause–I like it!

    Anyway, I appreciate your point about moral narcissism and turning such everyday encounters into situations fraught with moral significance. It won’t do to regard ourselves as saviors on mount zion when all we’ve done is part with some pocket change.

  11. Dan on April 7, 2012 at 4:13 am

    Rather, what we should do is find ways of giving that we are confident will actually help the poor and then give far more than the change in our pockets.

    Like strengthening labor laws, providing unemployment benefits to those who lost their jobs, food stamps to people who cannot purchase food, universal health care to ALL children (if we’re not going to give universal health care to adults for fear it smacks of that dreaded socialism, at least ensure that in our society, every child is cared for), free education to all so that they can be taught how to catch a fish instead of being given a fish. I know these things are all those dreaded socialist programs y’all on the right hate with a freaking passion, but they ACTUALLY help the poor.

  12. NBO on April 7, 2012 at 7:03 am

    Peter: I am nothing if not a selfless martyr to the cause of righteousness.

  13. Kevin Barney on April 7, 2012 at 7:30 am

    As someone who works in Chicago and therefore actually faces this decision point at least a dozen times a day, I have long felt that if you really want to succor the poor you should donate to shelters, food banks and other nonprofits that will leverage your contributions and do vastly more good than you as an individual can possibly do for any person on the street.

  14. Howard on April 7, 2012 at 7:57 am

    Nate wrote: I am simply not convinced that giving money to panhandlers significantly alleviates poverty, including the poverty of the panhandlers. Some don’t want to be on the street they are there due to financial hardship, given some seed money, access to resources and a job they could get off the street. But for others it is a choice. Psych meds have very undesirable side effects. They make you feel drugged and sluggish many choose the symptoms of their illness over the side effects. This often leaves them uninhibited so they take to the streets. Better meds would help a lot but short of that I don’t think many will change. What good is it to think more normally but think slowly and act like a zombie no one likes it except those pushing the meds!

    This is very different from the issues of chronic third world poverty which can be alleviated.

  15. NBO on April 7, 2012 at 8:21 am

    Howard: Any one who thinks that we all know how to solve chronic poverty in the third world should spend some time reading some of the literature on development economics. Turns out that it’s really complicated and difficult as well.

  16. Howard on April 7, 2012 at 8:46 am

    NBO,
    Sure I know it’s really complicated and difficult but don’t tell these kids from Laguna Blanca private school in Santa Barbara who started H4O because they’re busy doing it today.

  17. Howard on April 7, 2012 at 8:48 am

    Oops try this link: player.vimeo.com/video/36995453?title=0&byline=0&portrait=0&autoplay=1

  18. Anne on April 7, 2012 at 8:49 am

    For almost two decades I’ve worked for an organization that serves homeless and formerly homeless individuals. I get asked the question frequently about whether it’s a good idea to give to panhandlers. My recommendation is to give something like a gift card for food (I carry Dunkin’ Donuts $5 cards) and not to give cash. Staff in our org are prohibited from giving cash to panhandlers. We try to engage people and encourage them to work with us to help them find housing, employment, detox services, etc. While many have addiction/mental illness issues, others are homeless as a result of leaving prison, loss of housing due to illness, divorce, domestic abuse, etc.

    There’s been a sea change over the last decade or so as systems have shifted away from shelter models to rapid rehousing models. A significant challenge to ending homeless is the lack of affordable housing. In the Northeast where I work the cost of living puts many people at risk of becoming homeless and contributes to the challenge of housing those who are. So another important way to help alleviate poverty is to advocate for more affordable housing.

    I agree with Kevin’s statement:
    I have long felt that if you really want to succor the poor you should donate to shelters, food banks and other nonprofits that will leverage your contributions and do vastly more good than you as an individual can possibly do for any person on the street.

  19. jax on April 7, 2012 at 8:52 am

    How many people are baptized each year that never make it back for church? How many have we lead into making covenants who will only bring damnation upon them for not keeping those covenants? Is not our baptizing of them doing more harm to their salvation than good? If our duty is to help save souls it ought to matter to us a great deal whether our act helps or harms. Therefore we should stop baptizing people too.

  20. Howard on April 7, 2012 at 9:56 am

    NBO,
    My dentist is part of the Ethiopia Smiles team. He calls his service there a life changing experience: http://blog.smilegeneration.com/we-serve/ethiopia-smiles/ Something happens to you and to them when you actually get involved.

  21. Raymond Takashi Swenson on April 7, 2012 at 10:58 am

    Working five years in the San Francisco financial district, I got to know several of the regulars along my walk to the office. They were frank about their addictions being the cause of their circumstances. In SF, these folks actually get a stipend from the city, a service to other nearby communities who don’t have as many of them.

    Giving money to someone delays their crisis, and helps them avoid taking responsibility for their own lives.

    The greatest disservice to these people was the courts overruling laws that allowed communities to take them into a protective custody. Putting the mentally ill and addicted out on the streets is not a kindness. Many if not most are eligible for regular benefits such as social security disability but are incompetent to access them. I have offered to buy people a burger, and occasionally might give money to a rare person who is not typical. But the biggest problem is the egotistical assumption that people who are incompetent are better off free but in the gutter.

  22. Howard on April 7, 2012 at 11:35 am

    Giving money to someone delays their crisis, and helps them avoid taking responsibility for their own lives. There is a lot of truth to this but it isn’t universally true, for some their crisis may end up being freezing to death tonight! Other than giving a couple of dollars to those who appear to need it I look for opportunities to invest a little pump priming money in someone with a plan to better their situation and I’ve had success with that.

  23. Larry on April 7, 2012 at 11:55 am

    Good post. I have been troubled in times past with the scene of beggars asking for money, giving them what I had on me, and not knowing if it would buy them food or drink. I grew up poor and understand what it means to go without, even though I never felt poor. Today I respond with the same conclusion that Nate has brought to the table. I believe that this will illustrate Nate’s point.
    On one occasion (actually two) I was going to the neighbourhood drug store for something or other, when a young lady(obviously pregnant)approached for help in getting some medication. After asking one or two questions, I was assured that her need was real and gave her enough money (around $70) to buy the medication. After the baby was born I saw her there again needing money for food for the baby. I again gave her money, but also assisted her in getting aid that she desperately needed. A short time later I received a letter from her mother thanking me for the assistance offered. The daughter was able to go back home with the baby.
    What is interesting is that I did not know the girl, nor did she know me. Her mother lived in Eastern Canada, far away from where I lived. The need was real, and the gift given was for the right reason, but the receipt of that letter still has me baffled to this day, and was a greater gift than that which I had given.
    It has been my privilege to assist others who were truly in need on occasion since then. I now have a testimony that God watches over us all. I don’t get the warm and fuzzies when I do it, but consider it a privilege to help those truly in need. With that I think i will double my Fast Offering contributions and continue to contribute to the Temple Patron assistance fund. Perhaps then i will be fulfilling King Benjamins admonitions . . . and Nate’s.

  24. clark on April 7, 2012 at 12:05 pm

    I haven’t seen them for a while but there used to be signs around temple square giving the address for the various homeless organizations in SLC and asking to donate there instead of giving the money to the beggars.

    Howard’s point about the mentally ill is a good one. I used to donate a lot of time and money at shelters until I just couldn’t take it anymore due to the size of the mentally ill population versus the homeless through no choice. The latter I truly feel for. While I understand the effects of medication the side effects on others of not taking medication make me strongly feel it a very selfish choice. However there are many people through circumstance end up in shelters. I remember one family (husband, wife, kids) were there due to a truly horrible set of circumstances. Donate to the good programs as there really are some great ones in Utah and they’ll make sure the money gets distributed on things that matter – especially things like dentistry for homeless kids, toothpaste and toothbrushes and other such things. Typically a quick visit to the county offices will provide you a great list of programs that are in place right here and now. Donating to the United Way is also extremely useful.

  25. Julie M. Smith on April 7, 2012 at 12:36 pm

    Kevin Barney writes, “I have long felt that if you really want to succor the poor you should donate to shelters, food banks and other nonprofits that will leverage your contributions and do vastly more good than you as an individual can possibly do for any person on the street.”

    When the kids and I helped at a food pantry, we learned that the pantry could “buy” food from a regional food pantry for 19 cents per pound (they weren’t really buying it, obviously, just covering transport costs to our suburb). After that, it was sort of heartbreaking to see people come in with food donations that they had paid retail price for.

  26. jax on April 7, 2012 at 1:30 pm

    “Giving money to someone delays their crisis, and helps them avoid taking responsibility for their own lives.”

    Sometimes I wonder why being homeless = crisis. I have a good friend who just passed away who lived for 50+ years as a Hobo. He traveled the country on the railroads by choices, and lived the life he wanted. He was in a town once when a reporter came to do a News piece on how to help the homeless. She asked to speak with him and when he understood what she was trying to report on he told her she better talk to some of the other men because he was there by his own choice. Was he poor, absolutely. Was he in a crisis? NO. There are many people on the streets who are there unwillingly, but many others who are there by choice. It is no crisis for them. They are living the life they choose to live and are in fact taking responsibility for their own lives.

    Just because someone doesn’t want to participate in our culture of working for money doesn’t mean they are in a crisis. If they want to spend their days in a park talking to passers-by, or in a library reading books for free, and then asking people for money to eat and sleeping in public shelters, does that constitute a crisis for us that they are choosing not to spend time in menial labor only to be able to afford similar food and housing to that which he could pay for himself? I think it is possible that SOME of them are more wise then we are in that regard.

  27. jader3rd on April 7, 2012 at 1:39 pm

    In the discussion here there seem to be three categories of panhandlers: people who are victims of an unfortunate set of circumstances who would do good with the money, people who are prone to self destruction, and the mentally ill. You can look at this and say “Hey, if the mentally ill can’t take care of themselves couldn’t we create a shelter or some sort of system for them?” We used to have places for the mentally ill, insane assylums. After ‘One Flew over the Cuckoos Nest’ came out, it has become very taboo in our society to even suggest some sort of care facility for the mentally ill. Were there problems with insane assylums, of course there were. But instead of trying to improve upon them, we’ve taken people who can’t take care of themselves and let them wander aimlessly on the street. I suspect in many cases this hasn’t been an improvement in lives they lead. They don’t really have any other options. I don’t think that it would be a blight upon society to have places which provide for the mentally ill.

  28. Bonnie on April 7, 2012 at 1:48 pm

    Working in poverty alleviation, I say exactly what all of us say, over and over: give to someone who knows what they’re doing, and they’ll do the most good. But sometimes, we can use the spirit to discern a situation, and we have to slow down and pay attention to do that. As Geoff-A stated in comment #1, would a society without the poor be a more Christlike place? Sometimes I think we desperately need the poor, not so that we can engage in moral narcissism, but so that we can overcome it. I write about this pretty frequently, and I’ve related a recent experience here if you’d like to read. This seems to me one of the issues that creates us as Godlike people as we work it over and over and over in our minds.

  29. Meldrum the Less on April 7, 2012 at 2:17 pm

    I am panhandled on a daily basis since I ride public transportation in a large violent American city. My opinion is grounded in actual experience and not derived from reading books and academic articles. I get to know these people and they are without exception dangerous con artists. In fact they have to fight for possession of territory where they might get something. If a person who actually needed help ever encroaches on their territory they will suffer physical violence. If you don’t believe me next time you get hit up, start competing with them nearby a few minutes later and see what happens. Watch your back side, for a blade or a bullet.

    I have this acquaintance I see on the train from time to time who used to work under cover as a cop and now works in administration. You ought to see the change in attitude when she flashes her badge. The panhandlers act like the criminals that they are, running for cover. If they were not involved in criminal activity they might expect the police to be their friends. The perspective of the police on the street with these people (and they ought to know) is that there are thin lines between panhandling, pick pocketing, various con games, mugging, and assault that can include murder. If you could get their names (they won’t give you a truthful name) and do a criminal background check you would run the other direction.

    About 99% of what you give a panhandler in a modern American city goes into substance abuse. If you want to feed that industry, then don’t complain about hours long commutes to get you kids in a place where they are safe. Panhandling invites more violent crime, drives away customers and businesses and increases the poverty when property values fall. Food deserts in big cities are caused exclusively by extreme violence and panhandling is only the fringe of the problem. Panhandling in cities invariably goes on within half a mile of churches that feed the poor three times a day and provide places for them to sleep. Why do panhandlers always want cash not food? Give them real food and watch the excuses emerge; bad teeth, diabetes, low salt diets, gluten intolerant, food allergies. diarrhea, etc.

    Those scriptures were given in a context; no welfare state, overactive law enforcement, no civil rights, relatively rare criminal behavior, genuine lack of opportunity and help, etc. Today we have huge networks of well-organized relief and help available. But some people love their bad habits that lead to life on the street more than anything else. Quite a few are insane and should be in institutions but are just able to make it on the street as petty criminals. I would also offer you the opinion of the family of Elizabeth Smart for your consideration. That all started with panhandling and religious insanity. If you want to be kind to them give them a flower or tell them a good joke.

    Campers are told “Don’t feed the bears!” The exact same reasoning applies to panhandling.

  30. Stephen M (Ethesis) on April 7, 2012 at 2:36 pm

    As someone who works in Chicago and therefore actually faces this decision point at least a dozen times a day …

    That is a huge issue. Of course I’ve been looking at experimental ethics, so I’m looking at things from a far different perspective, but I encounter panhandlers probably a dozen times a year.

    I find it easy to be kind to them, and to not let it disrupt my approaches to other things.

    But if you are being swarmed a score of times every day?

    Howard — Psych meds have very undesirable side effects — when I was on a list doing court appointed representation of people who were hospitalized with severe psych problems, it was the side effects that pushed them off their medications.

    Owen Tipu, a friend of mine shot to death by police officers right after he fixed the porch of the widow next door to him as they attempted to take him into custody to force him to take a new medical regimen, went off his medication for that reason as soon as the prior court order had expired.

    Anne and Bonnie — well said.

    Nate — thank you for the post.

  31. Howard on April 7, 2012 at 3:51 pm

    Street life certainly has more crime but in 9 months of living with and like the homeless in western cities I never encountered anything like Meldrum does. I was never bothered and never in fear.

  32. Stephen M (Ethesis) on April 7, 2012 at 3:53 pm

    I am informed that outside of my small slice of DFW things are exactly as Meldrum describes and I stand corrected.

  33. Chadwick on April 7, 2012 at 5:03 pm

    #5: My wife shares your exact same sentiments! Let them eat granola bars!

    Nate:

    I noticed you quoted CS Lewis and giving until it hurts. This puts me in a rather sticky point as a Mormon. I give 10% (or more, when it’s all said and told). That is a lot and SHOULD hurt. It doesn’t, really, though, because I’ve always given 10% and don’t really know any better. So. Am I giving until it hurts? Or should I start giving more? And if I give more, say another 1%, and in five years time, now THAT is the new norm. Now do I have to up it to 12%? I guess the question is, how do we quantify giving until it hurts?

    A very nice post.

  34. Robert Monson on April 7, 2012 at 10:03 pm

    “Then let them die and thus decrease the surplus population.”

  35. Thomas Parkin on April 8, 2012 at 2:14 am

    “But if our duty is to succor the poor it ought to matter to us a great deal whether our act helps or harms.”

    I disagree, since it is not dependent on us whether the act helps or harms. A gift is not an opportunity to mold the character of the recipient. A gift is free. The ultimate example of this is God himself who ’causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and the rain to fall on the just and the unjust.’ He perpetually beams out messages that well received will improve us. But He sends out those ‘liberally’, and He ‘upbraids us not’, and heaven knows that not every one of those messages are used for good. The difference between a blessing and a curse is only in the way any given gift is received.

    If I give a beggar a blanket, and he sells the blanket and buys a drink, so much the worse for him. But I gave him the blanket and it was thereafter his to do with as he pleases. If nothing else, it gave him the chance to sleep one night more comfortably. Or, he had the bitter succor of his drink when the wretch had nothing else.

    I don’t give to every beggar that petitions me, because walking around Seattle … I don’t carry enough cash to meet a fraction of the requests. I no longer have the cash to give, anyway. (It is amusing how, in these discussion, the poor is always ‘them’ instead of ‘us.’ The distinction itself exhibits a kind of poverty. It is also amusing the degree to which the idea of improving a person is tied to improving them economically, however many instances the effect of economic improvement ruins a person.) But when I feel I should, which is often, I do. Not because I’m a righteous person, I’m decidedly not a righteous person. I don’t love all mankind. In fact my contempt, bordering for moments on hatred, for any number of my compadres in this strange endeavor, has been running pretty full recently. When I give it is because a request has been made.

  36. Jack on April 8, 2012 at 2:20 pm

    I’m always shocked at the cold-heartedness of some of my fellow co-religionists, despite King Benjamin’s counsel. But the worst sin, it seems to me, is to want the Lord to draw a line and make it easy for us: over here is good, over there is bad. I had a religion teacher at BYU who used to argue that the Lord purposely keeps many lines blurred so we have to think, to search what is in our hearts, to work at coming up with answers and solutions to problems such as panhandling. I applaud those who have made an effort to come up with creative responses, such as supporting a homeless shelter or giving out a meal card that can only be spent on food. Another approach might be, since we can’t realistically help everyone, pick out one or two and try to get to know them and what they really need. My daughter’s MIA class once took blankets to homeless people who were sleeping on heating grates in the middle of winter. They all said it was the greatest experience they had ever had.

  37. Meldrum the Less on April 8, 2012 at 6:32 pm

    I concede that all paupers might not be as dangerous as our local Atlanta-ites. And I really should do more with the local outreach programs that try to help. And I admit the line between crime and insanity is not distinct. But…

    This morning on the train a familiar face began his same tired sorry story about getting out of jail last night and wanting a little jingle for some breakfast. I piped up: “Y’all know they’s still serving breakfast over at Ebenezer Baptist. That be where I got my morning victuals.” The man spit in my face and left the car.

    Not the greatest experience I ever had.

  38. Stephen M (Ethesis) on April 8, 2012 at 9:41 pm

    Meldrum the Less Bless your heart.

  39. Adam Greenwood on April 8, 2012 at 10:25 pm

    Thanks for letting us have a glimpse of your wizened, miserly soul, Nate O. :)

    My experience with panhandlers has been somewhat soured by having the same guy approach me two weeks apart with a story about his car having broke down while he was traveling cross-country to see his kids or something. When I pointed out to him the second time that he’d given me the same line a few weeks earlier, he ran to his car and took off at about 90 mph before I could call the cops. Apparently his adrenaline rush had healed his carburetor. Also by having a sad sack guy come buy asking for work to help feed his family, taking us for a couple of hundred dollars in exchange for doing nothing much except killing part of my lawn, stealing quite a bit of our loose property, attempting to scam us as part of some scheme he had going, and threatening my wife.

    In short, I’m absolutely opposed to giving cash to bums, which is why I donate Saltines to politicians.

  40. Howard on April 8, 2012 at 11:08 pm

    It would be nice if those in need were all honest law abiding citizens with manners who didn’t drink, smoke or do drugs but they’re not.

  41. Velikiye Kniaz on April 8, 2012 at 11:50 pm

    There is a blonde woman who has stood at the northeast corner of Temple Square for at least the past seven years, (I drove by her every day on my way to and from work until I retired), holding a sign stating that she is homeless. Her clothes are always clean as is her face, hands and hair. This woman is not homeless… she is fully “employed”. This is her “job” and she is there every day for a minimum of 8 hours. (Her hours get longer during the tourist season.) She has a nice bike that I have seen her riding on her off hours and she lives near downtown. One day, quite ironically, she was getting off her bike near a local grocery store when she stopped my foster son and attempted to panhandle him. He recognised her and told her that he had only enough to buy what groceries he needed. He is a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, manic depressive who manages on an extremely modest Social Security stipend. His illness is so profound that he cannot work. Later he told me of the incident and asked me if he was wrong by not giving her money. I told him that he made the correct choice. I then explained the broader concept of “theft by deception” and explained that this woman was in reality a thief preying on charitable people so that she needn’t bother to work for a living. She willfilly deceives them by her sign and has found this to be such a lucrative and tax free form of income that it has become her career. By contrast, I will meet an individual who appears to be genuinely homeless, and I do as others have mentioned above, and buy them a meal. I always ask them first, what do you want the money for? Then I tell that I won’t give them cash or coin but I will buy them a meal. I’ve only been turned down once. My experience with these folks is that there is more that just “bas luck” that has placed them in their circumstances and it would/will take more than just money to lift them up to a position of self-sufficiency. I believe that another commenter noted that they knew of a man who freely choose this “lifestyle” and I know one as well. He is a L.D.S. (and quite a bright young man now in his 30′s) and he gets very incensed at the idea that his fellow Saints don’t have a moral obligation to support him gratis. This is a very knotty problem for our time country, with no easy or “magic bullet” answers.

  42. Velikiye Kniaz on April 8, 2012 at 11:55 pm

    Addendum: “My experience with these folks is that there is more THAN just BAD luck that has placed themin their circumstances…”

    The last line should read; “this is a very knotty problem for our time AND country, with no easy or “magic bullet” answers.

  43. Brad on April 9, 2012 at 11:57 am

    The panhandlers and homeless represent only an extremely small fraction of poverty. Nonetheless the causes of homelessness and panhandling are quite diverse and differ from region to region. Alleviating poverty requires a combination of private and public initiatives, and there really is no one easy answer.

  44. Joe on April 9, 2012 at 1:43 pm

    Amen to this article. This is in harmony with the signs put up at temple square saying that the Church does not advise people to give to panhandlers. I have always believed this. I refuse to be guilted to give to panhandlers when I give to fast offerings.

  45. M Buxton on April 9, 2012 at 2:04 pm

    I agree with much of what Nate says here. We certainly should not be lulled into thinking that our giving pocket change to panhandlers excuses us from doing something more meaningful to combat poverty. But Nate’s approach–to “stop pretending that panhandlers present an important moral decision”–seems likely to lead to similar sort of pernicious thinking. Something along these lines: “Nate presented a cogent argument for why I don’t have to worry one way or the other about what I do in my daily interaction with my city’s poor, so I’ll stop worrying.” But it seems to me that a certain amount of worrying about my response to the poverty that I see around me is in order. Indeed, although my individual decision whether to give to a begger is probably not something that I should either pat myself on the back for or beat myself up about, it might not be such a bad thing for me to have an internal struggle in which I honestly consider what I am doing to help the poor and whether I couldn’t be doing more.

  46. M Buxton on April 9, 2012 at 2:10 pm

    Joe’s (44) comment–especially the wonderful last sentence (“I refused to be guilted to give to panhandlers when I give to fast offerings”)–is Exhibit A to my concerns (45).

  47. forgetting son on April 9, 2012 at 10:02 pm

    It is so very interesting to watch people justify actions one way or the other, and in doing so it appears we have forgotten the simple and beautiful truth that our Saviour has asked us to give all that we have to the poor. Without any qualification He offers the saving grace of the Atonement to all, I believe He asks us to follow His example and offer our love to everyone without qualification. More than that, we expressly covenant this very thing, with immediate efficacy lest we be buffeted and placed in Satan’s power, in the Temple.

    For years my wife and I struggled, not feeling the closeness with the Saviour that we desired, especially in light of the beautiful promises given to each of us in relation to our sacred Covenants. A year and a half ago we decided it was time we took the leap that “exercising our faith” in the Lord required. We gave up all of our worldly possessions, giving most to the poor and needy who lived immediately around us, and the rest to the organizations who could put other assets to more effective use than we could with our little knowledge. We were very fortunate, a family from an impoverished country had moved into our stake, and they were able to us many of the things we no longer needed to maintain our household. Keeping only food and raiment, a few valueless, but deeply personal items (journals, sentimental objects, so on), what we own could go in a handcart. (including this phone, required for my wife’s work and our internet connection to keep up with our families, I would ditch it if I could, but that is a different thought line).

    From that week on we survive on a very meager income, and all of our monthly surpluse is given to the poor, 50% distributed by us, listening carefully to the Spirit as to where we go to give it away, but never putting one of our brother or sisters’s need ahead of another’s. The surplus is the Lord’s so we follow his example. The other 50% is given to the Church’s welfare. Both of us have also realized that we a shepparding our finacial stewardships with greater care so there is more to give. Additionally with our conscious effort to leave the the world behind and live on less means tithing hurts and is a true sacrifice for us now. Said blessings from tithing: greater and received with real genuine gratitude.

    We also fast often outside of the monthly church fast. We give the value of those meals to the poor anywhere we meet them. To anyone that asks. Our one rule, we always look them in the eyes, treat them as our family, and always let them know how much we love them. Judging my tears on both sides, maybe this is what they need. Love. The personal sacrifice make this a very intimate and personal experience that filling out the fast offering slip never provided before. Interestingly it matters now when we fill it out.

    Life has never been better. In fact we both have great feelings that we are no longer just enduring to the end, but we are progressing to the end. Our relationship with the Saviour has bloomed into something beyond words. Our love for each other has grown. I can confirm with experience that being active in the Gospel is even better than just being active in the Church.

    I am not saying the choices we made are right for everyone, in fact I believe we are fortunate in that despite our prayers we have not been blessed with children. Fortunate in that we have opportunities to serve while we work at making a larger family. My wife works as a NICU nurse, and I am self employeed. As I said, fortunate life situations, made this easier.

    I also do not offer our experience up for praise, and I am very aware of how explaining our life as we live now can come off to others as “holier than thou.” This is not my intent. I only wish to add what a good year’s experience has taught me.

    I love all of our brother and sisters in ways I could have never understood before. Satan’s power over our little family is gone, and we have experienced some of what I know is just the beginning of the loving Grace the Lord offers.

    While we ponder on beggars, welfare, panhandlers, scam artists, or those with true need, let us ponder also that we are all lost sheep. We are all the “one sheep” who’s value was equal or maybe even greater than ninety and nine. I wish it was as simple as “because Jesus asked us to,” but when we grow up we forget that the answers in Primary are always right.

    What value is there? Infinite value. To learn, love, and progress.

  48. Dave on April 10, 2012 at 4:29 pm

    I most often see panhandlers while visiting temple square in SLC, as they are typically few and far between in endless suburbia. I admit that I sometimes feel inner conflict as I pass, especially remembering that exact King B verse. I typically don’t donate, and since I’m a student I have never given more than a couple dollars. My perhaps flawed self-justification typically revolves around the following points:
    A- I am poor student and planning to go into debt in the future, giving would result in more debt, with interest that will lessen my future ability to donate. The poor you have with you always.

    B- Salt Lake has pretty decent soup kitchens and opportunities for rehabilitative employment; as terrible as it is to say, it’s more likely that these panhandlers are just lazy than it is that a panhandler in a developing country is. Government billboards discourage giving to panhandlers, and encourage donating to soup kitchens or other welfare instead, which I do(this is common in cities across the country, not just Mo-heavy Utah).

    C-I don’t like seeing them around temple square, as they shift my thinking from enjoyment or spiritual contemplation and reflection on my life and current focuses, to a replay of the thoughts in this article and some days even to guilt. I don’t like reinforcing behavior that ruins temple square’s pleasant serenity, and they closer they are to the square the less likely I am to donate. Maybe hypocritical, but we all know that how they chose that place to stand-it gets results.

    If I get to a place I feel financially secure and able to provide for my family with long-term confidence, I might try adopting a bum and helping them build a life, but until then I will probably keep walking by panhandlers and donating bit by bit to organized charities.

  49. You won't know me from Adam on April 10, 2012 at 5:48 pm

    #48

    I wonder if you even stopped to consider what you just said. Beggars ruin your temple experience? Perhaps you have missed the point your covenants. Perhaps you have missed the point of the temple teachings. Perhaps you miss the point of the Prayer Circle.

    I am not saying this to provoke contention. I offer these thoughts only in hopes that maybe you will stop and think. It sounds like Benjamin was actually speaking direct to you and the condition you find yourself in now.

    My heart is sad.

  50. Meldrum the Less on April 10, 2012 at 7:59 pm

    Reply to #38;

    Bless my heart; well it does need a blessing. To keep those coronary stents from clotting off.

    If you consider blessings in the broadest sense, including scotch blessings, then I sort of was blessed with what I deserve. For telling a little white lie. I actually didn’t get any food from Ebenezer Baptist.

    I believe we are to HELP people. If the best thing we can do to help is give them a swift kick in the pants then I think that satisfies the spirit of the law. Tough love. The problem with the boots approach is that we have to thoroughly know and understand these people in order to best place the boot in the right location and in the right way and that is very difficult.

    Reply to # 48-49:

    As far as beggars ruining the temple experience, does that include all of the begging that the bishops and various leaders indulge in constantly, trying to get us to go? I think this begging is about 10 times as pervasive. I always thought it was better if you went to the temple because you really wanted to go and not out of guilt and nagging.

  51. Storm on April 24, 2012 at 12:15 pm

    What matters most is what’s in your heart. Your $1, $5, $20 or maybe $100 isn’t going to get a panhandler off the street. What’s important is your willingness to give and help someone. What they do with that money is their perogative…they will answer to it one day. Judging what someone’s going to do with the money before you give it to them isn’t pure love of Christ. Willingly giving the money hoping that it will make a difference in that person’s life is all we need to think about. Period!