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The Moral Dilemma of The Panhandler

A panhandler, Mr. Will Anderson, outside Grand Central Terminal in New York City, says he rakes in up to $200-an-hour from kind-hearted New Yorkers. And the 43-year-old former theater stagehand is only one of a legion of beggars in the city hauling in big bucks and a smorgasbord of food doing nothing but sitting on the sidewalk with hands out. This example highlights an issue that we have all thought about: should we give money to panhandlers, those appearing less fortunate than ourselves begging on the street?

Let me start by stipulating in principle that we all could- and should- do more for the homeless in our community, but the question I ask is “do I optimize my dollars by donating to unofficial street charity cases?” Let’s start with some statistics – 35% of the homeless are affected by substance abuse and 25% have some form of mental illness. If you agree that substance abuse leads to homelessness and homelessness leads to drug abuse, you have to also acknowledge that there is a real risk that your donations while made with good intentions might actually make the situation worse. Do you believe that by funding a dangerous and regrettable lifestyle, you might be unwittingly encouraging it? Are you selfishly giving monetary aid to the homeless just to make yourself feel better? Or are you giving solely because you want to help other people?

Homelessness results from a complex set of circumstances that require individuals to choose between food, shelter, and other basic needs. The solutions lie not in individual moments of financial generosity but in planned job creation and the provision of affordable housing. This is an example of a philosophy known as “effective altruism.” Effective altruists believe that one should give to the cause that is most helpful, and by giving to any other cause you are wasting your money.

Access to healthcare and especially substance abuse programs are essential ingredients in a transition to a healthy life. Also, there is little likelihood that any contribution to the local panhandler will go towards housing, food, and healthcare.  On the other hand, by cutting out the charity, an expensive middleman for your money, the system becomes more efficient. Peter Singer, the famous Australian altruist, argues that fewer than 1% of charities are efficient distributors of wealth. And so, the question remains: should you continue to donate to the Dunkin’ Donuts cup outside of Grand Central Station or is that morally, economically, and philosophically flawed knowing that the money could be more efficiently spent on places like food banks, shelters, and rehab centers?

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