The panhandler

When I was a kid there was this credit card commercial.  Two buddies out on the highway with their ten speed bikes.  They spend the day riding around and then ride into an inn or bed and breakfast where one of them takes out his credit card and books a couple of rooms.  No wallet, no fuzz , no muzz.  This was back in the late 80’s and to me it seemed that the only people who could live like this were rich people.  The rest of us carried grubby piles of paper money and coins in our wallets.  The idea of a cashless society was just a pipe dream.

So fast forward a few decades and there I am in traffic headed back from the gym.  I’m headed to a supermarket to get some fruit juice or something to drink.  All I have in my wallet is my ID and my debit card. I’m stopped at a left turn signal waiting for the light to change.

Just to the left on the median is a guy with a handwritten sign on a torn scrap of cardboard.


All I could offer was a smile.  The light changed and I drove on.

Typically I do give to panhandlers.  I know the arguments against it and I do give to shelters as well.  I always advocate that people who can give should give.  But when you’re face to face with someone so obviously in need it’s a little hard to say no and comfort yourself with the logic of giving to a homeless shelter for the ‘greater good’.

I don’t give every time of course or I’d be broke.  By some estimates the U.S. is up over 1.5 million homeless people and I just can’t get to everyone.

1.5 million people who need food, water, shelter, and some sort of basic sanitation.  Just because you lose your job doesn’t mean that you stop living.  You still have to somehow provide for your own needs an often adults have to provide for the needs of their children.

Now, not everyone that is homeless begs or panhandles.  Most people try to tap their personal resources of friends and families or reach out for government assistance.  They keep on trying till they’re able to normalize their situation and get back on their feet.

But some people do have to panhandle to survive and feed themselves.  Some abuse the panhandling situation.  They don’t have a desperate need but have normalized this as a way of life.  Lastly, some panhandle to get drunk or stoned and to try to escape the miserable reality of their lives for just a little while.

I wondered what kind of money was involved in all of this?  How much do these people make in a day?  Easy enough to research on the web.  Somewhere between ten and a hundred dollars per day depending on circumstance with an average of about twenty-five dollars a day.

How many people?  That’s tougher.  Not a very stable population to track.  But for argument sake let’s say a fifth of the total homeless population.

How many days a year?  Again this probably varies wildly.  Some days they work, some they don’t.  Some days they make nothing.  Let’s say about 300 days a year.

Plug in some numbers….  This can’t be right. 2.25 billion dollars a year.  Averaged out to about $7500 per year per panhandler.  Most of that money going to basic needs or vices.

Of course that figure assumes that all of us still carry round paper and metal money to give out to panhandlers and that we don’t all carry just debit cards or credit cards.  Tying back to the beginning of this post a lot of economists want us to do away with physical money permanently and switch to a digital system.  Once that happens might we see the end of the panhandling era?

Not necessarily so.  Now I go back to a couple of years ago.  I’m at an art gallery wandering round looking at paintings and sculptures and whatnot.  Someone has set up a credit card reader on a pedestal with a sign urging patrons to support the arts.  Each swipe would donate 5 dollars.  The reader is hooked up to an Ethernet cable and seamlessly debits the donated account from the patrons account.  Several patrons are enthusiastically swiping.  Why shouldn’t they?  It’s been shown that people tend to spend more using credit and debit cards when they don’t have to dig out physical money or write out a check.

So now we go back to my panhandler on the median.  What if this panhandler had been equipped with some sort of card reader.  Not a sophisticated device like those hooked up to a smartphone or to the internet but a standalone device.  Something that needs to be downloaded at a centralized base station like at say a homeless shelter.  A place where the homeless would have to go to cash their earnings.

A place where he would be registered, where homeless volunteers and workers would get a chance to help this person with additional services.  A place that they could keep tabs on this person and suggest housing, food, or medical help for this person.  A place that we could begin to better quantify the problem of homelessness.

The challenges?  The technology I don’t believe is a challenge.  Card readers are fairly robust and reliable systems.  Coding the applications needed should not be a problem.

The banking aspect would be trickier.  Would bankers go for something like this?  Certainly they would want to charge service fees which might make things difficult for the average homeless person.  But perhaps the answer lies in the volume of business.  I mentioned up above that this could turn out to be a multi billion dollar concern.  Even if the bank made cents on the dollar this could add up to be serious money.

Of course abuse could come on the other end.  Card readers being stolen or hacked to extract the funds.  But I think safeguards can be put in place.

The main benefit that I see is that this is a way to get people back into the system.  This allows the system to sit up and take notice of just how big a problem homelessness really is and to allocate the appropriate funds to address the problem.

I believe that we need to address this problem in a modern fashion.  If we expect to go into the future and reap the benefits of a technological wonderland we must be prepared to make sure that these benefits are enjoyed by all parts of society from the richest to the poorest.

If we choose to ignore or marginalize this population then I don’t think that we can ever really move forward into the future.


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