Panhandling and the Pope: A Better Strategy to Help the Poor

By Gary Smith Published on March 9, 2017

Have you ever struggled with what to do when you encounter a person on the sidewalk of a major city or standing at a busy traffic intersection with a cup in hand? Have you given such individuals money or been deterred by the prospects of what your cash or coins might be used to purchase? Have you ever felt guilty if you did nothing to help?

In a recent interview in the Italian magazine Scarp de’ Tenis, Pope Francis argued that giving money to someone begging on the street is “always right.” What if the recipient of your gift decides to uses the money to buy a glass of wine instead of food? If “a glass of wine is the only happiness he has in life,” the pope replied, “that’s OK. Instead, ask yourself, what do you do on the sly? What ‘happiness’ do you seek in secret?”

The pope also urges us “to stop, look the person in the eyes, and touch his or her hands.” Doing this enables us to preserve the other person’s dignity and see him or her as “not as a pathology or a social condition, but as a human,” who has the same value we do.

Compassion is always the right response, but we can express it in better ways than simply giving money to strangers on the sidewalk who ask for handouts.

Responding to Pope Francis’ advice, the New York Times editorialized, “America is in the middle of a raging argument over poor outcasts,” which includes “building walls and repelling foreigners. That toxic mind-set can be … confronted on the sidewalk. You don’t know what that guy will do with your dollar. Maybe you’d disapprove of what he does. Maybe compassion is the right call.”

Compassion is Always the Right Response, But …

Compassion is always the right response, but we can express it in better ways than simply giving money to strangers on the sidewalk who ask for handouts. As my wife and I discuss in our book Suffer the Children: What We Can Do to Help the World’s Impoverished Children, some evidence indicates that the poor use monetary gifts they receive more effectively than many of us imagine. Most people who have received unconditional cash transfers as part of programs in Kenya, Vietnam, and Mexico have not squandered them on tobacco, booze, or brothels or used them to improve their creature comforts. Instead they have spent the cash to buy food and livestock, educate their children, or start businesses. Nevertheless, many aid organizations, like a local one with which we volunteered, only pay the bills of clients and never give them money, a policy many professionals, business people, and church leaders in our town supported.

We recognize that many, if not most, panhandlers have had extremely difficult lives. As we correctly fear, however, some are able-bodied and some will use the money to support their addiction to alcohol or drugs.

Therefore, if you want to help a person who is begging for money, why not instead carry nonperishable food in your car or gift cards for grocery stores or restaurants in case you encounter such a person? Or you could buy some food at a grocery store and bring it to her, or offer to take her to a restaurant to eat. If you do, you will know how your money was used and you can talk with the person and learn about his life story and particular problems.

Moreover, you can also become knowledgeable about nearby organizations, especially shelters and rescue missions, to refer or even take these people. Near me, for example, in Pittsburgh, you could direct a person asking for money to the Light of Life Rescue Mission, which since 1952 has been working to help the homeless and indigent by providing a variety of programs for men, women and children. Every city has similar organizations whose staff can establish relationships with these individuals, get to know them well, and furnish counseling, training, spiritual nurturing and aid to overcome addictions. You can also volunteer at one of these organizations to prepare and serve meals, talk with those who reside and/or eat there, and assist in outreach programs the mission operates in the community.

Finally, we can and should give more generously and wisely to organizations that are working to help the homeless and indigent. Various surveys indicate that only 3 to 8 percent of Americans donate 10 percent or more of their income to charitable causes of any kind. One survey found that 86 percent of Americans give less than 2 percent of their income to churches or charities.

Giving Money Away Intelligently

As Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn argue in their book A Path Appears, “people rarely give money away as intelligently as they make it” and, as a result, “much charitable giving isn’t very effective.” Rather than simply dispensing charity, we should enable the poor to help themselves. We should offer a hand up rather than a handout by supporting programs that equip people to be self-sustaining by providing them with education, vocational training, business loans, or jobs.

Scripture teaches that God has designed the world so that giving provides many blessings. Proverbs 11:24-25 declares, “A generous person will prosper; whoever refreshes others will be refreshed.” The Psalms proclaim, “Good will come to those who are generous and lend freely, who conduct their affairs with justice” (112:5). Research indicates that those who practice generosity enjoy more happiness, better health, and a greater sense of satisfaction and purpose in life.

So, let’s heed Pope Francis’ counsel to help the homeless, destitute, and vulnerable, but let’s assist them in the ways that will benefit them the most.


Dr. Gary Scott Smith chairs the history department at Grove City College and is a fellow for faith and politics with The Center for Vision & Values. He is the author of Suffer the Children (2017), Religion in the Oval Office (Oxford University Press, 2015), Faith and the Presidency From George Washington to George W. Bush (Oxford University Press, 2009), Religion in the Oval Office and Heaven in the American Imagination (Oxford University Press, 2011).

The article originally appeared on on March 9, 2017 and is reprinted with permission. 

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