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.