Stop Giving Money to Bums!

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Stop
giving money to bums! Before I get dragged off to a sensitivity
reeducation camp, give me a chance to defend that imperative statement.
First, when I say bums I mean able-bodied people who ask
you for money, not because they're in a pickle but because they
have less than you do. (Which is not to say that you should
give money to the other varieties of beggar, but that's a whole
different question.)

When
I first moved to New York, I was appalled by the myopia of these
bums, particularly the showered and glib ones. Why didn't they get
their act together and get a real job, which they obviously had
the physical ability to hold? But then I started estimating
the actual revenue these guys pulled in, and on a busy subway ride
we're talking easily an average of $1 for a five minute routine – walk
in, say, "Excuse me ladies and gentlemen, sorry to bother you
but…" and walk to the next car, holding out a hat or some other
appropriate receptacle. Now that doesn't sound so hot, does it?
Poor fellow; he has to suffer the indignity of asking for a measly
$1. When someone starts the ball rolling he'll get $3 or $4, but
often he'll go away empty-handed, his head bowed in shameful rejection.
There but for the grace of God go I.

Huh?
"You do the math," as they like to say. His earnings work
out to $12 an hour, but they're under the table, so it's more like
the equivalent of an $18/hour job. The bum is his own boss, he can
set his own hours, he doesn't need to wear a tie – in fact, he doesn't
need a change of clothes at all for work, he complies with
few government regulations (occasionally cops might hassle him),
and he can match any corporate suit with a laptop by doing his job
on the subway. Here I thought I was being productive
by reading a stuffy econ book, while the cool cat next to me is
just kickin it to the misogynist rhymes of the Notorious B. I. G.
But we're both sitting on our asses, while the true
entrepreneur is hustling sales.

That's
right, sales. If I had the time, I'd organize a bum cartel, eliminating
wasteful competition. I'd perform market research to find the profit
maximizing bum appearance and marketing pitch – you can't be
too dirty, but you can't be too clean, you can't be too unintelligible,
but you can't be Dennis Miller, you have to be polite, and above
all else you have to give some song-and-dance about the short-term
nature of your plight, and what steps you have been and are taking
to get back on your feet. I would interview applicants for my coveted
positions, asking such things as age (20-40 years old is ideal),
whether married with children (you'll get a signing bonus for that),
and your race – with a preference of course for blacks, without
any prodding from the NAACP.

For
some reason, do-gooder whites give more money to black bums than
to u2018equally qualified' white ones. I don't know if it's because
of guilt or fear or condescension or what. But most black subway
patrons – perhaps because they actually know what real poverty is – can
distinguish a legitimately needy person from a fraud. Like the guy
in running pants and snow white Air Nikes telling me he hurt his
back and lost his job just yesterday. Right. And I'm Cyndi Lauper.

Let
me be perfectly clear: I am not criticizing the bums. What the hell
do you expect them to do – go work for minimum wage at the Gap? I
am criticizing these cowards who give them money because
they don't want to deal with the problem, and then pat themselves
on the back for helping "the poor." They actually pay
people to ask them for money, and then they wonder why there are
so many u2018needy' people. To paraphrase the late Murray Rothbard,
we can have as many bums as we're willing to pay for. The reason
bums congregate in big cities is that's where their customers are.
Bums don't work in suburbs because they'd go out of business.

Now
my twin sister Bobbi is a pansy liberal type who despises my hard-hearted
economist viewpoint. (She won't even talk to me at family picnics.)
But even she is saddened when people give money to bums. I don't
really follow her, but I think her argument goes something like
this: Just as giving a joint or a bottle of whiskey to a bum would
be doing him a disservice – by merely allowing him to postpone the
day of reckoning when he pulls his life together – so too is it not
really helping someone to give him your spare change. Who loves
their kids more – the parents who keep paying their credit card bills
and let them blow off eight years getting a degree in business,
or the parents who cut them off and tell them to get a job?

Apparently
there was this one young "African American" (as Bobbi
called him) boy who rode the subway she took to NYU. Every day,
he would make the same pitiful (in the literal sense) speech, with
genuine tears rolling down his cheeks (every day!), about how he
was raising lunch money for his younger brother and sister. Now
Bobbi wanted to sit this boy down and say, "Listen. It's terrible
that you're in this plight; I honestly can't even imagine. But what
are your plans? Are you going to do this for the rest of your life,
or are you going to go to church after church, until you find one
that will help you get cleaned up and get a job to support your
family?" I of course think the kid was full of crap – yeah, I'll
bet he's got a sister and brother at home – but Bobbi is very
trusting. That's a liberal for you.

I
hope the moral is clear, whether you're a realist like me or a bleeding
heart like my sister: Stop giving money to bums!

July
25, 2000

Bob
Murphy is a graduate student in New York City.

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