Sense and Nonsense: The Begging Industry

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In 1770, Boswell records the following passage about Samuel Johnson in London: “He frequently gave all the silver in his pocket to the poor, who watched him, between his house and the tavern where he dined. He walked the streets at all hours, and said he was never robbed, for the rogues knew he had little money, nor had the appearance of having much.”

What caught my eye in this passage, besides the fact that this doctrine as a canon of safety would never work today, was something almost local. It was the peculiar combination of giving to the poor, to the poor who, at the same time, seemed quite deftly able to spot, indeed stalk, a soft-touch. But behind their apparently benign presence lurked some legitimate worry about being robbed. Thus, a wise man would prefer to appear rather shabby so as not to tempt the “rogues.”

A federal judge in San Francisco maintained that begging is but an aspect of “free speech,” so you cannot prevent someone from hassling you. A federal judge in New York, however, held that you have a right not to be accosted by the begging industry in subways because you fear getting robbed or beat up. “Rights” conflict, right?

More and more, every corner in Washington is occupied usually by a rather young man, mostly healthy-looking, strong even, though appropriately unkempt. He is usually armed with what appears to be a large-sized plastic cup from McDonald’s or Dominos with a few coins in it. The man shakes the cup as you go by. He sizes up the likely and ignores the unlikely with a practiced eye.

If he is of a rather worldly-wise, even vindictive sort, the beggar will usually say, with noticeable bite in his voice at your hard-heartedness, something like “have a nice day,” or “thank you, brother,” when you do not give him a quarter, the going minimum rate. He, posing as the righteous victim, lets you know not too subtly that you have just ignored Christ’s commandment on Judgment Day about the cup of water, cup provided by McDonald’s.

On most corners, occupied during the busy hours, almost always sits the same man, now black, now white, never oriental, and rarely Latino. He is diligently there day after day, week after week, almost as if there is “turf” here, the result of unseen battles for profitable spots.

During my Roman years, when I taught at the Gregorian University situated in the center of the city between the Trevi Fountains and the Piazza Venezia, we used to see something of the same phenomenon. We had the same man always begging before our door, but only on class days. He seemed to have the schedule. He often had his morning espresso in the same local bar and about the same time that I would go there for a cappuccino.

Here in Washington, as you go over Key Bridge into Virginia, five or six men appear to have formed a kind of cottage begging co-operative. As the traffic lights at the corners pile the cars, these enterprising young men walk up and down the lines of traffic, shaking their cups.

Some drivers give the man a dollar for his line or to salve some compassionate scruple. These six seem to be the same men day in and day out. I suppose there is some rotation. They work diligently at their trade of not working.

I even saw a woman not too long ago over at the traffic light where MacArthur comes into Canal Road. Women are rare, however. Every Saturday, there is an anxious lady over by the Stone House on M Street, always with the same small grip. In fact, I saw her there the other day. She invariably asks for bus fare to get home. When you get the same pitch three weeks in a row, at the same spot, from the same person, you begin to understand.

As I often walk or drive by these corners in Georgetown, I am struck by how often the men actually get something, especially from the cars. So I would judge the corner at the Washington side of Key Bridge to be rather lucrative. Otherwise, cups would not be there. I believe the rules of free enterprise also work in the begging industry. Adam Smith would understand.

Now, Christian that I am, a reader of the admonitions about preferential options for the poor, a clergyman, in fact, I still would not give a nickel to any of these men. I am sure everyone who lives or works in Washington has had the same dilemma: essentially, how do you tell if these men need what they are asking for? Note well: the cup and the garb isn’t sufficient proof.

Why do apparently able-bodied men, under 35 for the most part, need this trade? Maybe it was just needed under Bush, and Clinton will provide a subsidy, I don’t know. Most folks, I figure, give for subjective reasons anyhow—their guilt or pity, not because they think the men are clearly in need. I suspect the men with the cups know this, too. They understand the residues of Christian guilt still flickering in the populace.

Everyone, and not just here in Washington, has a moral problem with this sort of situation. Will you be confronted in the Everlasting Hills, you wonder, by the Lord wanting to know why you did not give a spare quarter to that apparently bedraggled worthy at the corner of 31st and M Streets, at 2:27 P.M., on, say, June 27, 1993? None the less, you mutter to yourself in self-defense, “or on September 10, or on February 10,” as the same man will be there at the same corner at the same time with the same cup.

You even wonder if you should not tell the man with the cup that there was a sign for a job back at Wisconsin and O Street? But of course, you can surmise the man knows where jobs can be had. You wonder if you should buy him lunch? But, too, you know that he knows exactly where he can get a free sandwich and a cup of coffee over at the Church on O Street. He even knows the places he can sleep free, the ones that make him take a shower and the ones that do not.

Then you worry, maybe the man is a psychological case? But that is not quite the same as a poverty case. Next, like Johnson, you wonder if he is dangerous? You read in the paper that even the Chief of Police in Washington said there were armed gangs roaming the streets. What sort of place is it when a police chief tells you that armed gangs are roaming the streets in your city?

Does giving money to this “compassion industry,” as I call it, do any good? Does it do harm? I do not, frankly, think it does much, if any, good. In fact, I think it mostly does harm. It encourages something that ought not to be encouraged. Am I hard-hearted, anti-poor, cynical? Well, not exactly.

However, I do not think that the average citizen has any real knowledge about what happens to the quarter he puts in a Wendy’s cup at the corner of M and Wisconsin. My rule is, in these cases: if you don’t know, don’t give. Do I then advocate “licensed,” “qualified” beggars, with another pensionable bureaucratic office in the D.C. government to issue begging permits? You bet I don’t.

What do I think about all this begging industry, then? I think a rather chilly heart and a warm smile are usually the most appropriate policy for random walkers and passing motorists accosted by the cup-bearers. Filling Washington, or any other city, with young men with a cup on every travelled corner does nothing for poverty problems except encourage them and the ideology that causes them. It creates traffic problems and promotes begging instead of working, while its outlawing would probably see a rise in pilfering, though I am not sure.

I would like to think the reality were such that you could actually give only to those in real need, something we should, of course, do if we can. The fact is that you have not the slightest idea what the situation is when you give on the streets of Washington. You know the political explanation, but you also know you would be a fool to believe it.

The begging industry has come close to corrupting any proper motivation for giving at all. Prudentially speaking, I fail to see how putting spare coins in Dixie cups has much if anything to do with the command to provide for the needy poor. Thomas Sowell had it about right when he wrote pithily, “The problem of beggars in the streets will never be solved so long as people continue to give them money.”

A couple of years ago, a young woman I had had in class stopped to chat with me on campus. She told me she had been working as a volunteer in a local soup kitchen one day a week. At first, she told me, she felt that she really did some good. But after a while, she noticed that the same people came back week after week. The soup kitchen was not, as she thought, a sort of respite to go back to a normal life, but a way of life itself. She quit, she told me, when she realized this fact. “Now you understand something about the real world,” I told her. The begging industry is indeed part of the real, that is, political world. You would do well to understand which part before you toss your quarter into the Dixie cup.


The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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