On Not Giving Money to Beggars

I just came back from the grocery store where I bumped into this woman asking for money. She had two kids with her, and she told me a story about how she needed to get a hotel room for $43. She was either sincere or a good actor: I couldn’t tell. So I gave her $5.

Every time a beggar asks me for money, I generally say “no.” And this has bothered me for years. Part of me thinks that the stories they tell me are lies and what they really want the money for is drugs. I’m sure that’s true for some of them, but it can’t be for all. The problem is that I don’t know who’s honest.

Sometimes I think that the cynical part of me is there to help mask my selfishness. Perhaps I simply don’t want to give them money and finding an excuse makes me feel better. I often say to myself, “I have a close friend who’s a social worker in LA and he tells me not to give money to beggars, because of the social services available to them.” But even if my friend is right, that’s for LA; it may not apply here. Maybe there aren’t sufficient social services in Saint Louis.

Maybe there are and maybe there aren’t. I don’t know. But what I do know is that I act like a selfish person when in doubt. I don’t know anything about the number of social services here, but I assume that there are enough of them. And what do you know? It also makes me feel better for not giving them money. I don’t know if any of the stories they tell me are true, but I’m going to assume that they’re not. And what do you know? It also makes me feel justified in not giving them money.

In addition to being selfish, I think there is another reason why I generally don’t give money to beggars, and it’s because I don’t want to feel like a fool. I don’t want to be the person who believes in their fake stories. I suspect I've been fooled multiple times in the past, and I don’t want it to happen again.

Here’s a question: Am I willing to forgo giving money to honest beggars to prevent the chance of feeling like a fool? Apparently, I am, even though I don’t think it’s right.

Here’s another question: Who am I to try to determine whether or not beggars are being honest? I’m not the best judge of character nor do I possess high social intelligence.

I also try to justify my stinginess by pointing to my financial situation. “Right now, I’m a poor grad student who has to plan out his finances,” I say to myself. "When I get tenure, I'll start being more generous. I'll start carrying around dollar bills just so I can give them out," I say to myself. But maybe that’s the lie. Maybe that’s the story I shouldn’t believe.

It seems that I'm very charitable to myself but not to beggars.