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Begging in the Age of Credit

Panhandlers Will Need a New Plan in the Absense of Cash

By Daniel Altman

Most city residents know the feeling of encountering a panhandler without any change in your pocket. Not having any ready cash, or professing not to have any, voids the necessity of the big decision-to give or not to give. So what will happen when cash disappears?

There is something to be said for the feel of crisp bills or clinking change in the palm of your hand, but credit cards and automatic teller machines (ATMs) are taking over the market for money. The machines have popped up on every street corner, and you can pay with plastic just about everywhere-even supermarkets happily accept ATM cards these days. Limits on credit availability and allowable amounts for purchases have also begun to varnish.

When cash finally becomes obsolete, panhandlers will fall between the cracks of a technologically advancing society. Stopping the general circulation of cash would save the Federal government a lot of trouble, but people with no regular source of income will be hard-pressed for a store of value.

Several alternatives to the "Brother, can you spare a dime" scenario could arise. It is unlikely that beggars will purchase credit card readers so that their daily clients can simply slide through for a $.25 transfer. Even if the technology was easily portable, too many methods of perpetrating electronic fraud exist to make the system trustworthy.

In a different situation, barter could make a comeback among the down-and-out. In communities that had no standard unit of exchange (e.g. prisoner-of-war camps in the World Wars), people commonly substituted consumer goods with universal value for cash. Under this system, we might have "Brother, can I bum a sandwich, cigarette, etc."

The most difficult alternative to evaluate is extinction. Panhandlers could vanish entirely if no means exists for their sustenance. Many social planners would doubtlessly rush to embrace this possibility. Without cash and without a way to easily transfer material goods, beggars would have no good reason to persist in their appeals in the streets. Passers-by could only offer sympathy ("Brother, can you spare a smile...), or perhaps a hot-dog purchased electronically from a nearby vendor. The newspapers sold by homeless people would probably have sufficient capital to sell electronically through some central sidewalk sites, but even that form of charity would be reduced.

The ugly side of the issue encounters the thousands of destitute and jobless Americans who would presumably die out in the absence of government aid. Would politicians make the vital connection and slate some of the billions saved by closing the Federal Mints for the funding of shelters? No one should have to count on that kind of unusually thoughtful legislation.

A close substitute for cash meant especially for the panhandling minority constitutes a better solution. Many municipalities have already constructed systems that encourage people to buy coupons for consumer goods and give these to beggars instead of cash. These plans attempt to prohibit panhandlers from using cash for socially undesirable purposes such as drug abuse and gambling.

Assuming the disappearance of cash, this ultra-paternalistic plan could rid urban areas of some considerable ills. Those who object to the plan's paternalism probably wouldn't have much lunch with a "Brother, can you spare a gambling coupon" program, but then again-as the adage puts it-beggars can't be choosers.

Conservative social architects would challenge (no doubt discreetly) the wisdom of making special dispensations for beggars in favor of passively causing their extinction. Other objections could come from merchants, who would prefer the simplicity of credit transactions to the tedium of processing coupons. Some merchants might protest against honoring the coupons at all; that fancy French restaurant probably doesn't want to serve the poor bum who saved up hundreds of food coupons for one glorious meal. In addition, the federal government would have to print up unforgeable coupons (though in much smaller numbers) just as it had previously printed bills.

The coupon system is far from perfect, but at least it can boast of its purely voluntary nature. After all, no one would have to buy coupons. In fact, the character of day-to-day charity could change dramatically. The decision to give would no longer be so spontaneous. The foresight necessary to have bought a set of coupons would have to precede any charity. This premeditated giving could not possibly become as widespread as giving is today; it simply requires too much planning from people with many other concerns.

The absence of hard cash will impact many other facets of daily life besides begging in public places. Wishing wells won't glisten with scores of pennies, wallets will grow slimmer and no longer will people experience the momentary pleasure of finding a coin on the ground. But panhandling is the facet that deserves the attention of all levels of government before money inevitably becomes a completely electronic entity.

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