A man came up to me in town the other day. “Excuse me, sir,” he said, “I’m sorry to bother you, but I’m homeless and hungry and I just need to get some food today, maybe just a sandwich and some soda, can you spare a few bucks to help me?”
I had just come out of a small discount food store. I could have given him cash, which I knew he was asking for, but instead I said: “Well, is there anything in the store here that you want? Come in, get whatever you like.” He did, picked out a soda and a few granola bars, and I bought them for him.
But I didn’t trust him.
I had no reason to mistrust him, no reason to disbelieve what he said, no reason to think he was going to go spend the money on alcohol, or cigarettes, or drugs. And I would have had no reason to judge him even if he did—I buy alcohol with my money, so why shouldn’t he? I don’t buy cigarettes or drugs, but I know plenty of people who do, and I don’t judge them for it. And yet I decided, almost immediately, to buy him food rather than give him cash.
I have been told this in the past—that people begging for money may not really be homeless, that they may be just trying to support a habit, that they may be scamming you. A neat way to sidestep that, I have been taught, is to offer food instead of money. If food is what they are asking for, what’s the big deal? I get to preserve my charity and my mistrust simultaneously.
The big deal is that I am passing judgment on them, and I am humiliating them, even if they don’t know it. You see, what I am really doing is saying “I know you are already in a painful position where you are completely dependant on the charity of others, most of whom can easily afford to be charitable, but I am still going to make sure my charity deprives you of just a little bit more autonomy. I am still going to make sure that when you spend the money I give you, you do it in a way I approve of.”
Of course I am not alone in this impulse. We see it writ large on our society daily. We do mostly agree that the poor should receive help, that there should be a baseline standard of living in our society, and that people in unfortunate circumstances should have the chance to get out of them. But we are also stingy bastards.
In fact, we are much more intent on judging and controlling the poor than we are on helping them. If you’re poor, some of us don’t trust you with more than $25 at a time. Or we think you have no right to decide what you eat, even if it basically costs the same. And by the way, if you want public assistance we increasingly claim the right to test you for anything we deem unacceptable beforehand. Our charity comes with so many strings attached that the poor are basically our puppets.
And the things we demand of them in exchange for our help are often impossible. The poor are already stuck in a society that is structurally biased against them. We insist that those lazy bums go get a job, while simultaneously refusing to hire anyone who has been out of work for more than a few months. We tell people to get their finances in order while simultaneously refusing them access to banks and loaning them money at usury rates. We are happy to demand that they stand up and take responsibility for themselves, all the while removing every little bit of autonomy they may have left. And we happily and self-righteously condemn them for failing to get up every time we smack them down.
I remember what it was like to be on food stamps, and to grow up living paycheck to paycheck, and to have to cut out things that we couldn’t afford. I remember my father and mother working very hard indeed, because on top of trading a lot of work for a little money, they had to find ways to juggle all the bills from week to week without getting too far behind. Being poor is fucking hard work.
And if they ever spent a little bit of money on something we didn’t need, like popsicles for me and my siblings, or a slightly more expensive cheap coffee, it was because you can’t live with nothing. You have to have little wins, and little indulgences, and little ways to tell yourself that things are not quite on the brink, because when you don’t, you despair.
In my adult life, I have not had self-righteous politicians telling me what I can and can’t buy. I have not been forced to take a drug test in exchange for food. I have not had to beg on the street corners. I have not had to cash checks at places that take 20% of my income in exchange for doing it, or borrow money from people who demand twice as much back. I have not had to be out of work for weeks into months into years watching my chances of self-sufficiency slip away.
But the next time someone asks me for money, I am going to withhold my judgment and give them the cash. Because the very least I can do is to let them make their own choice about what they need the most.