A strange story about panhandling

Thanks to Barry Peterson I read this strange story about coordinated panhandling for profit in south Lansing today. To quote,

Jasman owns a shop near Edgewood Plaza. He says a couple of panhandlers came into his store about a month ago to order some food.

He couldn’t believe what happened next.

“They started pulling money out of each pocket, both the guy and the girl,” he says. “And then they started talking about going over to Meijer and buying a flat-screen TV, a brand-new flat-screen TV. And that’s where I thought, ‘Wait, where’s the validity?'”

The article goes on to say that most panhandlers really are in need – but it can be a lucrative “business”, making a person hundreds of dollars a day. The director of Lansing’s City Rescue Mission, one of the organizations our church supports, recommends giving panhandlers food or water and then forwarding them to one of the city shelters.

We’ve certainly given panhandlers money before, but I think I’ve mentioned (maybe on Twitter…) that I try to carry $5 Subway gift cards with me and give those away to people in apparent need – that way there is no chance they’ll use the money for alcohol or drugs (or televisions!). I know some people prefer to personally dine with panhandlers and really get to know them – hey, I’m not that brave.

This story also reminds me of a section I liked in What is the Mission of the Church? that was not about panhandling, but was about economics. The overriding theme was that Christians who want to help people need to be smart about it (which could include understanding economics). Your first thought, “an apparently homeless man in need of money, I should give him some” is not always a good idea, and could even be harmful, even if your heart is in the right place.

If Christians are to truly help the poor, and not just help ourselves feel better, we must arm ourselves with more than good intentions. Sometimes well meaning Christians accomplish little or even have a negative effect on the people they are trying to help because they do not understand basic economic realities.

The authors offer three guiding principles,

1. Wealth is not a zero-sum game – the rich can be getting richer at the same time the poor are getting richer. There needn’t be a winner and a loser in all economic transactions.

Related, we should also note that charity (the richer giving to the poorer) alone will not solve world poverty – overcoming poverty requires wealth to be created in the poor countries, which often requires changing the conditions in those countries (enforcing rule of law, protecting property rights, and the like).

2. Remember the law of unintended consequences. Minimum wage laws sound good at first, but they could result in employers eliminating or refusing to create new entry level positions. Experience has shown that charging people a slight fee for mosquito netting makes them more likely to value it and therefore use it than giving it away for free. Consider the second and third consequences of any idea you have.

3. The world is not utopia – there will be flaws under any economic system or proposal, so you cannot use the existence of those flaws as a reason to ditch the system entirely.

Pick up the book (chapter 7) to see these elaborated a bit.

(Blogging note: Since I wrote this today, I’ll do the Alister McGrath post tomorrow.)

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