The Myth of the Swindling, Freeloading Poor

In a Facebook thread discussing charity and giving to the homeless, someone challenged me to explain how I can know that a panhandler isn’t pulling a scam by pretending to be poor or homeless in order to get easy money.

Cogito, Ergo Sum

If we get obnoxiously philosophical about it, who can truly know anything? There is no way for me to know – with absolute certainty – that a panhandler isn’t actually a well-to-do person pulling a scam. That’s just the way the cookie crumbles sometimes. From time to time, we all get scammed.


Let me repeat that. We. ALL. Get. Scammed.

I’ve been studying cons for over ten years. I admire con games. Lying, cheating, and stealing are all interesting and challenging skills to possess, regardless of their morality (or lack thereof). The nature of the con is that anyone can be a mark. Some people are better at spotting cons than others. A lot of us scoff at the people who fall for the Nigerian prince scam, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t fall victim to other scams. Some scams are so smooth, the victim doesn’t even realize they’ve been conned.

Everyone gets scammed. Is that a good reason to not give to the homeless or the poor? I don’t think so. I guarantee you that you are far more likely to be conned by a man in a suit and tie than by someone pretending to be homeless. You’re not going to live your life without ever occasionally falling victim to a con, no matter how careful you are or how tightly you guard your money. Trying to avoid being scammed is an incredibly weak argument against giving to the poor and homeless. In fact, it’s not an argument at all. It’s a pathetic excuse and a pathetic attempt to pretend that you’re not greedy.

Panhandling Is a Shitty Con

CharityIf you’re not aware of how the poor and homeless are treated by the rest of society, spend some time in a Wal-Mart parking lot. Spend time observing the hitchhikers and dumpster divers and panhandlers. More to the point, observe how other people interact with these people. It won’t take you long to hear people shouting ignorant shit like, “Get a job, you bum!”. Frankly, the language will be a lot more colorful. Some people even throw shit at them and physically attack them.

Hell, maybe you’re one of those people who likes to yell at and admonish the poor for being… y’know… poor. After all, why should you have to give your “hard-earned cash” to someone who clearly isn’t working for it? Right? That’s the American way, sin’t it? Pull yourself up by your bootstraps. If you don’t, then clearly you’re not trying hard enough, right?

We like to demonize poor people as free-ride-seeking leeches on society because it’s easy to pick on the weak and defenseless. How quickly we forget how simple mistakes or bad luck – or external circumstances beyond our control – can rapidly change our own fortunes. I won’t deny that some people are better at preparing for adversity than others, or that some people make better decisions than other people. I won’t even deny that there is a small percentage of people out there who are lazy and want free handouts.

But these people are in the minority. Most people who are poor and/or homeless are victims of unfortunate circumstances – the same kinds of unfortunate circumstances that any of us can fall victim to. How would we want to be treated if we suddenly found ourselves out on the street with but a crust of bread?

Think it can’t happen to you? I fucking hope it does. I really do. Anyone arrogant enough to think that it can’t happen to them deserves a good dose of reality and humility.

In the pantheon of scams and cons, panhandling is a pretty shitty one. You only do it if you absolutely have to. There are far better ways to scam people out of their money if you have the means to pull them off.

Selective Outrage

People – Americans especially – seem disproportionately outraged at how their money is spent. They bitch about the tiny fraction of their taxes that goes to assisting the poor, while being relatively indifferent toward the chunk that goes toward other bloated government spending.

SheepleAnd on the subject of scams – corporations do it every single day. They con us into forking over huge gobs of our money for overpriced crap we don’t need. I don’t know how to respond to a person who is worried about losing some pocket change to a homeless person who might be a scammer, but has no qualms about turning over their paychecks to corporations who we know are only concerned with amassing more profit than their shareholders know what to do with. The cognitive dissonance between one and the other is…

Well, that’s what’s wrong with this world, isn’t it?

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