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.