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New Worlds: Can You Spare a Coin

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The practice of begging came up in passing back in Year Four, when we discussed charity. I want to loop back around, though, and look at it again from the perspective of the person asking and receiving, rather the one giving, because they’re really quite different. The giver has a fleeting transaction; for the recipient, this can be a state of affairs that lasts for days, years, a lifetime.

Who is most liable to wind up a beggar? Pretty much anybody can be under the right (or rather wrong) circumstances, but some groups are more vulnerable. Orphans, with no parents to look after them; widows, especially those with young children, especially those living in a patriarchal society that makes them heavily or wholly dependent on their husbands’ income. (There’s a reason many religions make particular mention of caring for widows and orphans as a societal duty.) Those with mental or physical disabilities that make it difficult for them to earn a typical living; wounded soldiers can make up a large percentage of this group, especially after a major war. Refugees from such wars or from natural disaster, who may have fled their home with very little and/or spent what resources they had getting to the place where they now reside. These may face a high degree of bigotry as an additional hurdle to making ends meet, which both drives them toward a beggar’s impoverished life, and makes it harder to gain charity once they’re there.

There’s another category as well, whose situation is rather different. In reading about English history I’ve come across multiple references to “licensed beggars;” from what I can tell, we might more properly term them “itinerant fundraisers.” Beggars of this kind solicit donations not for themselves, but for some institution or cause, like the repair and renovation of a church. I’m not sure if the licensing aspect existed outside of England, but I do know of e.g. Japanese monks raising funds in a similar way, so the overall practice is a broader one. It raises a lot of logistical questions for me: a private beggar usually has only small amounts of money quickly spent on food and shelter, but a fundraiser would presumably be collecting far more and holding it for later use. How did they avoid it being stolen before it could be delivered to its destination? Did these people travel with a lockbox and an armed guard? I have no idea. Fundraisers like that are a bit aside from our main focus here, though, so let’s return to ordinary beggars.

Money isn’t the only thing a person might beg for, especially in a society that doesn’t make heavy use of currency. Food, drink (alcoholic or otherwise), clothing, shelter — all the basic necessities of life they can’t afford on their own. Their meals might come from the scraps handed out by a household or restaurant at the end of the day; shelter might just be a homeowner kind enough not to kick the beggar out from under the overhang of their front stoop, not kind enough to let them indoors. Where there are a lot of people in severe poverty, you might have establishments like the ones in Victorian England that charged fourpence a night for a spot on a bench, with a rope tied across your chest to hold you upright.

Historical accounts, especially in later centuries, are full of descriptions of the tricks beggars practice to make themselves seem more pitiable. Wounds or diseases faked up with primitive cosmetics; limbs bound out of sight to make the beggar seem disabled, which “miraculously” regrow at the end of the day. I have to admit, I’m skeptical. It’s entirely possible that did happen from time to time, but if you’re so poor you have to beg, are you really going to spend money on flour to fake up a scar every day, instead of flour baked into a bun you can eat? The same accounts that describe these deceptions tend to assume the beggars in question are perfectly hale and hearty individuals who rake in enough profit from their begging that they simply choose not to do an honest day’s work.

Because there is, of course, a whole moral and social angle to this process, with society judging beggars for being in need of charity at all, and withholding it from those who don’t seem sufficiently “worthy.” (Widows and orphans: sure, we’ll pity you, at least some of the time. Foreigners, or those whose disabilities are insufficiently visible? Ask such people right now how society responds to their needs.) Beggars who don’t pass this test might be thrown in jail or forced into a workhouse, a slavery-adjacent institution where they’re forced to perform grueling and/or humiliating labor for their keep, in order to teach them the value of work — as if a lack of such understanding is the only thing standing between them and a normal life.

Nor is the moral element only at play on society’s side. From the beggar’s own perspective, there’s often a great deal of shame associated with having to rely on the generosity of others, instead of being able to support yourself and/or your family. Such a life entails not only the physical hardships of malnutrition and being out on the street in all weather, but the mental and emotional strain of constant abjection, pleading with others to fulfill your basic needs.

In light of that, it may not be surprising to discover that beggars can form a society of their own. Not always a friendly one; if a particular beggar has staked out a good spot, they may not take kindly to someone else encroaching on their territory. But that doesn’t mean it’s entirely a dog-eat-dog world, either. The one type of deception I do believe has happened on a frequent basis involves lying about familial relationships, with two unrelated kids passing themselves off as siblings or an adult “adopting” a kid as their own child or grandchild, the better to evoke sympathy from a passer-by. And beggars can and do help each other out, even to the point of forming something like a mutual aid society. That’s a subject we’ll talk about more generally in a future essay, but for now I’ll just say that if someone you’ve known for years dies, you might well chip in what pittance you can spare for them to get a proper funeral.

A post-scarcity economy of the type mentioned in April would presumably eliminate the problem of extreme poverty, and an egalitarian band of hunter-gatherers is unlikely to develop it in the first place. For everybody in between — which is to say, the vast swath of human history — it’s a persistent issue. Which means that, whether we mention it or not, it’s probably somewhere in the background of every story we write.

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9 thoughts on “New Worlds: Can You Spare a Coin”

  1. A couple of weeks ago I was begged by a woman to buy her a small bottle of vodka. Despite the customers who witnessed her request and my processing of it and decision to do to giving me a lot of wise-cracking at my idiocy for doing so, I did it. She was about 40? homeless, it was starting to rain. What she needed was a roof and food and lordessa who knows what else — she had hardly any teeth. What she got was a half pint, and jeering from the o so cool (white) bros, when they came out of the store.

  2. I hadn’t heard about licensed beggars before, but it sounds rather like a practise still in use in the Netherlands; it’s likely one reason the country still scores well on the amount of charitable donations even though people are quite secularised.

    Every week of the year, one licensed charity gets council permission to sollicit donations in person in that town.
    Recognised charities can ask local government to allot them one week to send volunteers to all the doorsteps they can reach, to ask for donations to the charity. The big ones like the Heart fund, Lung fund or Cancer research fund have the same week each year, nationwide; smaller ones apply yearly, only in those places where they have enough volunteers, to get alloted one of the remaining weeks.
    Not every charity has large enough volunteer organisations in every town to cover the whole town, so a lot of weeks no-one will come begging at the door; but once a week, someone might.

    This is how it works in practise, in modern times.
    The volunteers have a local volunteer coördinator, who hands out sealed pitchers with a slot for coins to the volunteers at the start of their week, and their volunteer ID. Each volunteer gets several streets to knock on doors, usually in their own neighborhood. At the end, the volunteer hands in the still sealed pitcher to the coördinator, they open it together and count the take, enter it into the charities accounting lists and sign off on it together.
    The volunteer coördinator then deposits it in the charity’s bank account.
    I used to get about €60 in my pitcher, for 3-4 streets, about 4 hours of walking and knocking on doors, for the Heartfund or Lungfund. For less well known charities you can collect a lot less, for the same amount of time, e.g.for Amnesty International I only got €40 for nearly 5 hours collecting.

    Socially speaking, collecting money for a good cause is seen as a worthwhile volunteer activity, and something quite different from begging, which is not accepted.

    1. Marie Brennan

      Yes, those two things get *wildly* different responses — even if e.g. the charity doing the collection is one that seeks to help the homeless.

  3. In American society some people seem to make handouts to the homeless and other marginal people contingent on degrading them. I bought a cup of coffee and a cheese Danish for a guy outside Starbucks a couple of years ago. No one seemed to object to this, but when I handed the food to the guy I said, “Here you go, sir.” A woman walking by was offended by this: “Sir? REALLY?” She walked off shaking her head.

    I didn’t know his name, so I called him sir. What should I have said? “Here you go, creep?”

    1. Marie Brennan

      Good on you for treating that man with some dignity. It’s appalling, how much dehumanization they get subjected to.

  4. When I filled in as a church secretary I was instructed never give a beggar cash. Take a bit of the stash from a locked drawer across the street with the beggar and buy them a sandwich and coffee, or bus fare or whatever.

    Money never went into the beggar’s pocket because we all knew it would end up at the liquor store.

    Same when I worked for an Insurance agent who was well known in AA circles. He kept an open account at the deli next door. He’d make a phone call and the beggar could go collect a sandwich and coffee. Only about half took advantage of free food. They wanted booze and nothing else would do. I’m certain this happened in Victorian times when gin was cheap and readily available.

    1. Marie Brennan

      I do understand why they want the alcohol; there’s a certain need to numb your pain (and after a while, if it wasn’t already true, you might wind up as an alcoholic who *needs* the booze to function). But yeah, when it’s feasible to give or arrange food instead, that may be the better choice.

  5. Over the years I talked a few times with a regular homeless girl in Harvard Square; later I went to her memorial service. People there thought she had been younger than she had told me; I suspect she started lying about her age to keep getting ‘youth services’. Can’t say as I blame her.

    She complained one time about affluent teens who would come in and pretend to be homeless and beg. I can say that there was a group of less scruffy-looking teens who cleared out before it got too late, and that one of them gave her some of their money or food, I forget which.

    The memorial service was darkly amusing for me. Various people getting up and saying “there was just something about her that drew me”. What I didn’t say: “yeah, she was a scrawny young white chick who looked pitiable and _safe_”.

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