The High Cost of Giving Nothing

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Even the MTA has an opinion on reacting to panhandling pleas The MTA cannot usually be counted on to raise deep philosophical and moral questions. But it happened last month during a ride on the 1 train. The voice came through loud and clear. You know the voice-it's the one that has replaced an actual person to provide announcements on the train. "We ask you not to give," the voice told passengers, who, being New Yorkers, were not listening anyway. "Please help us maintain an orderly subway." The message is simple enough, but I question whether the MTA really needs to take a stand on whether its passengers should give cash handouts to panhandlers. Especially given that the MTA itself is so good at taking our money-without asking. Don't get me wrong: I'm not walking around with a lot of cash. And I tend not to part with it. I'm generally in the Don't Give camp on the panhandling question, but that's mostly because I think it's unwise to flash money around belowground. Or aboveground. Or at a family dinner. I wonder, though, if there are not costs to not giving. When I do hand over a little cash, I usually feel better than when I do not. Yes, I've heard all the arguments against giving, mostly when they were coming out of my mouth. Like how the money is just going to be spent on booze or drugs; the money would better be spent in a donation to a social service agency; the money is not as important as stopping and speaking to the person in need and then going and buying them a sandwich or even a bottle of water. The last piece of advice seems most valuable to me. I was moved a few months ago when I saw someone on West 78th Street, a customer of La Caridad, heading out the door to deliver a special order to a homeless man on the street. Realizing I cannot remember the last time I did something like that makes me feel ashamed. So does the act of not giving, of passing someone in need-even just a human being who is asking for something, whether he or she is really in need. For about a decade I have lived here full-time. Somehow, this question of giving or not giving never really goes away. Neither does the larger subset of questions on the best ways to give. These issues resonate even more after surviving-sorta-the Great Recession. After a lost job and unemployment checks a while back, I have a lot less trouble imagining myself as the person doing the asking. Still, I hesitate to give, partly because by not giving, I get to opt out of what feels like a bad reality show. Responding to pleas at some times and not at others may seem like a reasonable response, but it winds up requiring a constant series of judgments. I don't like the idea of trying to size up whether someone is telling the truth, or the hugeness of his or her horrible circumstance, after listening to a brief diatribe. I feel like I'm the panelist on a bad game show, one called Are Your Troubles Bad Enough For Me to Care? Instead, I choose to try to ignore the plea and finish a Gail Collins column. I guess I'm fairly good at shutting myself off into my own little world. Sometimes I'm proud of that; other times I think it's a necessity in the bustling big city. But when the MTA voice told me not to give and I realized that I've been mostly following that advice, it gave me a start. When the MTA and I are on the same page, something's gone wrong. Christopher Moore is a writer living in Manhattan. He can be reached by email at and is also on Twitter (@cmoorenyc).

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