Sunday, November 7, 2010

There but for.

So it's Thanksgiving, when a young girl's heart turns to the destitute. In my neighborhood, we have a good congregation of homeless, because the street by my house connects the two major freeways. I always feel uncomfortable when they walk past my car, holding out a hand and a sign. There's the initial awkwardness of being panhandled, but also there's the awkwardness of being a Christian and, even more damningly, a Mormon.

In the Book of Mormon, King Benjamin said in no uncertain terms that we're beggars of Christ and that we can not ignore the destitute without jepardizing our own salvation. Of course, when this verse comes up in Sunday School, it always leads to some discussion of whether those who panhandle are really the worthy poor. Of course, I'm an economist at heart and so I'm skeptical of the incentive structure of panhandling generally. Am I paying off my guilt? Are the homeless earning money through emotional blackmail? And then I develop elaborate ethics and standards: eg, if they're a street musician, I pay up what I think they deserve because I like music a lot, and who cares if they spend it on booze? I don't worry about my dentist taking his pay and using it for self-destructive purposes. Some people have good "outs" in terms of what they give out--$5 gift cards, granola bars, water bottles.

Still, last month on a Sunday gathering of good people from my congregation, someone told the incredulous story of how they gave their really first-rate leftovers to the homeless until they once encountered a homeless guy selling chicken nuggets cheap--obviously the alms someone had given him. Again, the economic thought returns: we don't give people what they want, money, so they have to sell off the less liquid assets at a great reduction. Like selling food stamps, but really just selling food. That's not economical for the one buying the sandwich for the homeless guy and neither is it for the homeless guy who needs cash (whether for booze, drugs, bus fare, gluten-free food, insulin, or anything else on the spectrum of worthy or not). The person who happens to love getting cheap food from people without food handlers' permits, though, makes bank. Besides, since food is inelastic, couldn't the homeless person eat off of your donation and then have extra money available for drugs from cash donations?

So maybe I skip direct giving all together and just decide to give to a well-established homeless shelter/job training program/food bank. Easier said than done. And it's tough intentions when there's someone with hungry eyes staring at you. Right. Now. They should make out cards that say, "A donation has been made in your name to the Micah 6 Food Bank of Austin."

Speaking of which, I got to work at that food pantry this last week, which was a humanifying experience. Hmm, I think that's what bothers me: I become dehumanized into a source of money, and they become dehumanized into The Poor. Bagging groceries at the pantry, I could tell that some people wanted to just be ignored, the ones who weren't used to coming, but others were eager for hearing me ask questions like, "How do you like this bagged?" and "Did you find everything you need?" The ones that I made feeble attempts to communicate to in, say, Spanish or Sign Language were especially responsive. I liked working there a lot. I ought to go back. I want to go back, but it's hard to find the time to care as you really ought to care. It'd be easier to just give the panhandlers money and be done. Easier, but less comfortable.