Panhandling is a tragic reality of city life, an obtrusive, cup-clinking reminder of the poverty that persists alongside the bustle of our most successful neighborhoods.
Often, it’s easiest to avert our eyes, or give quickly and move on. But those who have peered deeply into the netherworld of public begging have found a fascinating subculture, in some ways as orderly and rule-bound as any professional community.
To succeed, panhandlers have to hone a unique mix of skills: the ability to look both needy and worthy, to attract attention without seeming aggressive, and to accept help and contempt in equal shares.
What’s more, they observe an unwritten code of conduct, a set of rules that keeps the peace and makes the begging life marginally feasible.
Ever wonder, for instance, how beggars avoid fighting over prime spots? First-come, first-served is the governing law, according to both a study from New York and interviews with panhandlers on the streets of downtown Boston. It doesn’t matter who manned the exit at Downtown Crossing on Tuesday. Come Wednesday morning, that spot is considered available.
Lying behind this rule — and so many of the norms governing panhandling — is a basic and often misunderstood fact of street life. Begging for handouts is quite rare, and not very well paying. Downtown Manhattan generally has just 8 to 10 working panhandlers at any given time, according to research from an interdisciplinary team that included an economist at Columbia University and a sociologist at the City College of New York.
Repeated observations of central Boston sidewalks suggests we may have slightly more than that, but the number of active beggars at any moment is still some number in the teens — not the hundreds.
Panhandling is for the desperate few
Some of the stereotypes about panhandlers seem to be true. Surveys are rare, and the last comprehensive look from the Census Bureau was issued 20 years ago, but it found that people who keep skin and bone together this way — asking for money while offering nothing in return — are mostly male, often with a history of homelessness, unusually bereft of family connections, and particularly likely to have struggled with drug addiction.
For many, panhandling seems to be more a chronic than a casual activity — a desperate act rather than a one-time attempt to raise money for a concert or train ticket. Using that same Census survey, researchers at Penn State University found that over half of panhandlers had experienced at least two homeless episodes, and one-third had been on the streets for over two years.
The one big disconnect between public perception and street reality is that panhandling is extremely rare, even among the most desperate. Of every 10 homeless individuals in a big American city, one or two might resort to begging; the rest find other ways to stay afloat.
One reason people assume panhandling is more common is because they see a few sign-wielding folks on their daily commute and figure there must be many others on nearby streets. But it doesn’t work that way. Panhandlers tend to cluster in a handful of the highest-traffic spots — precisely the ones you’re most likely to traverse. And when you walk by, they make sure to be seen; they have to, if they want to fill their cups.
But the population of panhandlers is quite limited, and liable to stay that way even when new opportunities come to town. The same inter-disciplinary research team that counted just 8 to 10 panhandlers at any one time in lower Manhattan also found that the numbers didn’t increase even after the rebuilding of Ground Zero was completed — and whole new avenues of steady traffic opened up.
The constraint, it seems, isn’t the number of good spots or likely donors but rather the number of people who can stomach a life where money comes with so much shame and stigma.
Panhandling pays, but not that much
Hour by hour, panhandlers tend to earn something like the minimum wage. That’s hard to verify precisely, since few panhandlers are filing taxes or even keeping careful track of collections, but it’s the consistent conclusion of various surveys and investigations.
Asked how much they could earn by begging, several Boston panhandlers said that it was $40-$60 dollars for a half-day’s work. That roughly matches what surveys have shown in San Francisco and Toronto.
These take-home amounts generally reflect part-time panhandling, which seems to be the norm. Collect enough for lunch, an occasional hotel room, or to feed an addiction — and then call it a day or two, until a new urgency presses. It’s not a 40-hour work week so much as an on-and-off, up-and-down cycle.
No doubt there are also scammers among the desperate, people with elaborate stories designed to manipulate peoples’ sympathies to get free money. But while these stories get a lot of attention, sociologists have found no evidence of widespread fraud. The panhandlers they observe and interview simply don’t fit that pattern, which makes sense given that the potential payoffs are relatively small.
Panhandling in downtown Boston
In the area between Boston Common and South Station, there are just a few standout spots for panhandlers. Outside the T stations, in the pedestrian walkway on Washington Street — and not much else. That makes good economic sense: the spots with the most commuter traffic should be the most attractive.
But drill down farther and the economic logic seems to dissolve. Sometimes you’ll find two people begging within 10 feet of each other, surrounded by several empty blocks (with nearly identical foot traffic.) Return several hours later and that doubled-up spot is suddenly empty.
Perhaps the best explanation is that as long as you’re in one of the busy areas, the exact placement just doesn’t matter that much. With so few panhandlers to compete with, you don’t have to fight over turf. There are more than enough decent spots.
Plus, if you can’t get a good place now, you can probably find one later. Day to day, hour to hour, there is a lot of flux. Commuters and tourists walking past the same spot at different times are liable to encounter different panhandlers.
Should we try to end panhandling?
A policy assault on the underlying causes of panhandling, like homelessness and drug addiction, would surely be a good thing. But beware the short-cut, where cities try to end panhandling by banishing panhandlers. That’s not just a much more ambivalent goal; it’s unconstitutional.
Panhandling is broadly protected under the First Amendment, and courts have regularly forced cities to rethink or repeal laws designed to restrict public begging.
Legal issues aside, it’s also possible that the benefits of panhandling actually outweigh the costs. Giving doesn’t just help people in need, it often makes the donor feel generous and caring. So putting a dollar in a panhandler’s cup can be a win-win. Particularly if there were a credentialing system, where select panhandlers would be certified respectable, and potential donors could check a smartphone app to be sure they were donating wisely.
But even that high-tech approach only returns us to the deeper problem: What would happen to the panhandlers considered unworthy, perhaps because they’re struggling with addiction and liable to buy drugs? Helping them would seem to require some more systemic answer to the problem of desperation.
Until then, maybe it’s enough to give more and feel less guilty. Odds are your money isn’t going to some scam. And you can be pretty confident it isn’t encouraging more begging. If rebuilding lower Manhattan didn’t attract new panhandlers, your dollar probably won’t either.Evan Horowitz digs through data to find information that illuminates the policy issues facing Massachusetts and the United States. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeHorowitz