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Should effective altruists give money to local beggars?

by Liface1 min read27th Feb 20203 comments


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I currently do not. My current thought is that I have no idea where the money is going, and if the person is actually poor (for example, I live in Oakland and there are a bunch of Romani women walking around our trains with sleeping babies, aggressively panhandling, who actually live fairly good, middle-class lives in a local suburb).

While most beggars are probably very poor, there are beggars in less affluent countries who are probably worse off.

On the flip side of that, maybe the beggars in less affluent countries are happier, because happiness stems more from comparison with those around you than actual means?

I also feel like giving money might further encourage begging, which is undesirable social behavior.

On the flip side, beggars being around might encourage more people to think about charity in general.

But on the flip side of that, if people give them money, they might give less money to effective charities because of moral licensing.


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3 Answers

I think the best argument for this is developing the social skill of being able to interact with people who are different from you. When you give money to a panhandler, it's an opportunity to have an interaction you wouldn't have had otherwise.

I like this answer from theunitofcaring on tumblr:

Q: What do you do when (presumably) homeless people ask you for money? This happens fairly regularly where I live and I really don't think "I'm sorry sir, you are not the most efficient from of charity" would be received well. So I tend to ignore them, or say "no" and keep walking. Which feels cruel. It doesn't help that the ask is something like "any spare change?" so if I don't want to give them money I usually have to lie or get into a longer conversation.

A: I used to give homeless people money a lot because of basically this problem! I eventually realized that was unsustainable and stopped carrying cash so I did not have the option, and could truthfully say “I’m sorry but I don’t carry any cash”. This is inconvenient if you want to carry cash for emergencies or that one stupid Berkeley sushi place that doesn’t take cards, but “I don’t have any cash to give you, sorry” is always true. I still occasionally buy someone ice cream but this feels less pressure-y and more “it’s hot out, it will make me happy to buy myself and this person some ice cream”.

It also is totally okay to ignore people on the street. It feels bad to me too, and I try to avoid it, but streets only work because people mostly agree not to make random costly requests of one another except when desperately needed, and it is morally fine to avoid interacting with people while out in public.

My impression is that many of these beggars are earning enough to survive, albeit in poverty, so your marginal dollar is probably more effective elsewhere given most people are not making the choice to give to them or not based on EA principles and others will continue to support them. If you consider local homelessness a top priority, my guess is that other interventions than small direct giving would be more effective, though I have not looked into it.