Panhandling has risen to a new level in Harvard Square. During these few weeks before Christmas, when all of America is supposed to feel some vague feeling of generosity, there have been a number of individuals collecting spare change for things other than the typical food, clothing and shelter. A few feet away from a homeless, hungry, disabled veteran, I saw a few men trying to raise money for, well, road trips.
"Can you spare change for a trip to Arizona?" read a small sign pasted to one man's coffee mug, as he sat outside the entrance to the Coop. "Need money to go to Hawaii," announced another, more ambitious brown cardboard sign. By far, the most gutsy request was this: "Can anyone spare $120?"
Seeing this was quite unexpected. At first, I felt a warm, squishy feeling of empathy and optimism. This could very well be the staging ground for a modernday Christmas miracle, I thought, in which the kindness of the human spirit will rise above all of the greed and callousness that seems to characterize the rest of the year.
But gradually, I saw the darker meaning of the presence of these pious panhandlers. For it means that begging is now seen, by some, as a legitimate way of raising money, of earning a living.
Things weren't always this way. Our country was founded and flourished on a strong work ethic, when men and women took pride in being self-sufficient, in working hard and being independent. Many historians, most notably Frederick Jackson Turner, suggest that the value of work and self-sufficiency on the frontier led to the development of our democratic government. Along with the dignity of work is the humiliation of not working, of being dependent on others. Other events, such as the Great Depression, branded the pain and humiliation of poverty onto the minds of entire generations.
While the pain of poverty has not disappeared, the recent sights in the square indicate that the humiliation has. Begging on the street used to be a last resort. It was a degrading experience to which one would only submit if the need was truly dire.
I have no doubt that many of the panhandlers in our neighborhood are in such circumstances. Some are mentally ill, turned out of state institutions and unable to support themselves. Others are just down on their luck. But the fact that some panhandlers are raising money to fly to Hawaii indicates that begging is certainly no longer a last resort.
Several things may have contributed to the current state of affairs. The first is the growing presence of a welfare class, a group of individuals chronically dependent on the state for survival. As any Ec 10 student knows, the current welfare system makes it difficult for people to get off welfare once they are on. They lose important health benefits and receive no job training to re-integrate them into working society.
The solution is not, as Newt Gingrich would maintain, to slash funds for welfare and place the children of single mothers in orphanages. The problem of poverty is a real one, and the Republicans cannot make it disappear merely by ignoring the depth of the crisis. People sometimes need help, and it is the obligation of any humane, civil society to provide it.
But welfare is a safety net, not a hammock. The growing welfare class (which, contrary to some characterizations, is composed of both Blacks and whites) is bereft of the work ethic that our country was built on. There is no dignity to working for a living, and hence there is no humiliation involved in living off the handouts of the state, or of passers-by who drop a few coins into a styrofoam cup. Not only is there no economic incentive to getting off welfare; there is no longer a moral or ethical one, either.
Once charity becomes a source of income, it is natural that luxuries, such as a Christmas vacation to Hawaii, will be demanded in addition to necessities, such as food, clothing and shelter. This is particularly true in a culture pervaded by a crass materialism. Every radio, every television, every newspaper, and every billboard conditions us to believe that the accumulation of material possessions is the purpose of life. Thus, it is not surprising that poor Americans demand the same advantages that their more fortunate neighbors have, and I would be the last one to condemn someone for feeling this way. Still, it is sad that self-sufficiency and working no longer carries a sense of dignity and accomplishment.
And the actions of these panhandlers will have negative repercussions. The level to which panhandling has sunk is not likely to make the rest of us feel sympathetic towards the plight of the poor. Seeing someone essentially begging for their life evoked real pity, and people were more than willing to spare a few coins to help out someone who was truly in need.
In recent years, though, many have become more cynical about giving spare change to people on the street. "How do I know they're not going to buy drugs or alcohol with it?" We want to know. Our empathy is gone, replaced by a mean-spirited skepticism that, unfortunately, is sometimes warranted. The sights in the Square will only reinforce the idea that the panhandlers really don't need our help.
So call me a cynic, call me Scrooge, call me the Grinch. Tell me that I should see the humor and the hope in the signs of these panhandlers. Maybe so. But when the Christmas lights are down, and when the presents have already been opened, the problems of the poor will still be there, as desperate as ever. And as the decline of the work ethic continues, the problems will only become more intractable.
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