Conditional Giving

Last week, Brian and I were strolling through SLO’s infamous Farmers’ Market — one of our favorite Thursday night pastimes — when we happened upon an intriguing conversation.

A man, barefoot and greasy, clad in board shorts and a graphic tee, was panhandling — not uncommon during the elite’s downtown Thursday gathering — when this young family stopped in front of him, as if to proffer some money. So the bum asked them if they had anything to spare.

The woman of the group said, “No, I’m not giving you any money. I don’t know what you’ll do with it.”

This seemed to ignite a sort of playfulness in the bohemian, not to mention quite a bit of discomfort for the woman’s husband who was faux-distracted by their sleeping baby.

“Not even just a dollar?” the drifter sheepishly bargained, shrinking slightly into himself.

Mother dearest returned curtly, “No. Not even a dollar.”

This exchanged happened in a flash. Quick enough that as passersby, we heard the whole conversation without pausing. (We’re Southern, so we’ve mastered the art of polite, discreet rubbernecking.) All the while, though, I was drinking in this woman. Blonde, lean, and impeccably dressed, she looked casually expensive; she and her husband were a match set. Rounding out the ensemble was baby — clad in a tiny Ralph Lauren onesie, suede moccasins, and swaddled in the latest Bjorn, he was snuggled closely to Dad’s chest. All three were the personification of luxury.

The rest of the night was clouded in the memory of that interaction. I kept wondering to myself is it really so inconceivable to give even a dollar to a stranger sans stipulation?

What better embodies altruism, I thought, giving money or assistance without question or offering conditional help in a way to avoid enabling “bad” behavior, “wrong” choices?

The Atlantic recently featured an article—”Should You Give Money to Homeless People“—which offers one answer to this predicament: the best way to help panhandlers, beggars, and the homeless (which, by the way, aren’t synonymous) is by donating to a trustworthy, responsibly-run charitable organization. Derek Thompson, the author of the piece, argues:

… the ultimate danger in panhandling is that we don’t give to every beggar. There’s not enough change in our purses. We choose to donate money based on the level of perceived need. Beggars know this, so there is an incentive on their part to exaggerate their need, by either lying about their circumstances or letting their appearance visibly deteriorate rather than seek help.

I’m not convinced.

Ethically speaking, is it truly generous if giving is conditional?

Maybe the answer is different for everyone, but for me, the answer is no. Some panhandlers or beggars might exaggerate their circumstances or lie, and yes, that sucks, but it’s the nature of life. Sometimes, cheaters win, and the people who are truly in need are overlooked.

But what’s worse: asking for more help (a beggar/homeless person exaggerating their circumstances is still a beggar, is still homeless) or giving less? If anything, I’d argue giving one-on-one to a person in the street offers more transparency than donating to a charity.

So whether the bum buys alcohol or the CEO of the nonprofit embezzles funds or the church misappropriates tithes, it is literally out of my hands.

We will never know what actions might inspire change or spark generosity in others, so I’ll continue to give unconditionally. That’s my one condition.