Is Panhandling Work?? Part II

root - Posted on 01 January 2000

PNN staff intern questions POOR Magazine’s notion of Panhandling as work

by Takuya Arai

( POOR Magazine released Volume #4 The Work Issue in 1998. In that issue we explored the concept of Unrecognized labor and specifically the idea that Panhandling was, in fact, work)

I was walking down Haight Street in the city of San Francisco with my roommate. After the consecutive cold days of rain and chilly wind, we finally had a nice, warm day. We were approaching Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream Shop on the corner, where a group of four teenagers with eccentric attire were begging for change from the pedestrians. When we walked across the street, I noticed that one of them looked at me and turned to her companions to talk about my MTV T-shirt, which I knew looked pretty stupid. They were laughing at me.

"Can you spare me some change?" she said to us with a sneer.

"I am sorry, but I am broke too," I replied, because my financial situation is getting really tight these days.

"No, you’re not!" To my surprise, she suddenly raised her voice, telling me not to lie to her. I think she was just trying to get some fun out of us because it seemed they did not have anything else to do. But I felt offended.

'That's none of your business. Get out of my sight." I did not say that, but I wanted to.

I just ignored her and went to a bookstore to buy my textbook. With the textbook in my hand, we passed Ben & Jerry's again on our way back. They were still there.

"Now you have some change because you bought something." I could not believe how she could have the nerve to say that.

"What the fuck!? I'll give you a penny if you lick the sole of my shoe." I did not say that, but that was my immediate response. Instead, I just stared at her eyes for about 15 seconds as we passed her by. She cast her eyes aside, so I stared at her other companions.

I am Japanese. Haight Street is introduced in the Japanese best -selling tour book "How to Walk the Earth" as one of the hottest spots to visit in San Francisco. Whenever I go there, I encounter several Japanese tourists wearing nice, fancy clothes with GAP shopping bags in their hands (although I have no idea what GAP has to do with Haight community). So I knew how she felt when I told her that I am broke, because I think she knew that I was Japanese and most of the Japanese people she sees on Haight Street can afford to go traveling and shopping.

If you live in a big city, you have a few chances a month to encounter people who ask for change on the street. The other day, I was driving my car and I stopped at a traffic light where a homeless person was standing. It was a cold, windy day. With a brown cardboard sign that said, "Homeless, even a smile would help," this disabled man in his 50's, wearing a torn shirt and ripped jeans, was bending forward and asking drivers in every car that was stopping at the traffic light for change. Although I did not know anything about this person, his shabby appearance immediately aroused a feeling of pity and made me want to do something for him.

At the same time, however, he reminded me of a teenage girl on Haight Street who was basically doing the same thing that this homeless person was doing. Instead of giving her some change at that time on Haight Street, I gave her a contemptuous look. While I was thinking about the difference between the girl on Haight Street and this homeless person at the traffic light, he came to my car. I opened the window and gave him eight quarters. With a big, warm smile on his face, he said, "Oh, thank you. Oh, thank you. Now, you have a pleasant day." He had a hoarse voice, but I felt good. I gave him change because I thought it was worth more to him than it was to me. I guess I gave him money out of compassion.

I wondered if it was the right thing to do. I think I did the right thing because I helped him, even temporarily. But then I wondered if he deserved money that I gave him.

We live in a free-market capitalistic society where money is used as a means of transaction. Money is an officially issued coin or paper note that is legally established as an exchangeable equivalent of all other commodities. It is used as a means of storage of assets and as a measure of comparative values on the market. Therefore, whenever somebody pays money, they get something of equivalent value in exchange.

When I gave the homeless man money, what did I receive in exchange? It is true that I felt good when I gave him money, because I felt like I helped him and he thanked me. But does that mean that I bought conscience? Did I receive good karma? Was he selling misery? If so, is there any demand for the product or service he offers? When he spends money that he received from the pedestrians, how does he feel about it? Does he feel guilty? What if he lived in a society where barter is the main form of commercial transactions? Would he still be begging for food without giving anything in exchange?

According to a dictionary, "work" is defined as physical or mental effort or activity directed toward the production or accomplishment of something. A "job" is defined as a regular activity performed in exchange for payment, especially as one's trade, occupation, or profession. It is a task that must be done, a specified duty or responsibility, and a specific piece of work to be done for a set fee.

Without any guarantee to secure enough money to get by, panhandling on the street for 12 hours a day, 7 days a week must be harder than any type of job we have on the market. But when people are standing on the street begging for change, how are they contributing to the good of the society? What are they producing? What are they trying to accomplish? Are they responsible for anything? Are they trying to give us a signal that the society is not functioning properly? I really do not know if we can call panhandling work.

One thing is true. When I gave him change, it was mutually beneficial. I felt good and he got what he wanted.


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