My son wants to give money to beggars -- but I give plenty at work!

It's not that I don't believe in helping others. I just don't believe in giving money to people on the street.

Published November 26, 2008 11:20AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

Yesterday, I gave my just-turned-6 son some pocket money. On the way to the swimming pool (he was going to spend his money afterward) we passed a beggar, who was sitting on the ground outside a church with a paper cup. My son asked me if he could give his money to the beggar. I advised him not to.

We live in a country with a generous social welfare system (which I support! I am happy to pay my taxes to help create a caring society). The unemployed actually receive more money here than those working for minimum wage -- and there are people making ends meet on less than that. Just for an example, in this country a single unemployed person receives about $24,000 U.S., all their rent paid and special grants for Christmas, home heating, children's clothes, television license, medical care, etc. While they are not rich, it's possible to do OK on that sort of money. We also have a huge problem with welfare fraud, but that's another issue.

But I do resent working my ass off to pay welfare for the very small percentage of people who NEVER look for work and who then panhandle, sometimes aggressively, all over my city. All working people do. A welfare system like ours isn't cheap, and those of us stuck in the middle feel every bite in the universal recession.

I told my son, "I think you can keep your money, because Daddy and me and everyone else who works pays some money to the government to help people with no money." Of course, he didn't really understand this. Also, he's a truthful kid and it wouldn't occur to him that someone else would say that they needed his pocket money if they didn't.

He said, "But you said it was my money to do what I wanted with and I want to give it to that man. We have loads of money and he has none." He looked horrified by my callous behaviour. I said, "OK." Fair enough -- it was his money and it was his right to do what he wanted with. I thought that maybe this guy (young, able-bodied, wearing brand-new Nikes and fashionable jeans) would be too embarrassed to take a euro coin from a small child. But no.

We walked on in shocked silence. I felt like a right-wing freak (I'm not; I vote centre-left) and a miser (Not! I give money to a registered charity every month by direct debit!). He couldn't believe that I would deny some of our loose change to someone who needed it. He continued to be a pious child from 19th century literature for the rest of the day. He found coins under the sofa and said, "I guess we don't really need these as they are under our sofa, can I give them next time I see a person with no money?"

I suppose I should be pleased that he's growing up to be a generous person (even if it's currently with money that I earn), but I am full of conflicted feelings about this whole thing.


Dear Conflicted,

I think it is fine that you feel conflicted. It is not a personality flaw, or evidence of an insufficiently well-worked-out political philosophy. The conflict you feel resides in the  situation.

As you walk with your son and you see the beggar sitting on the ground outside the church with his paper cup, you feel the conflict between giving your son the freedom to do as he wishes and the desire to instruct him in the ways of the world. You feel the conflict between what you would like him to understand and what he is capable of understanding. You feel the conflict between the actions you take routinely to alleviate poverty and the clear evidence in front of you that poverty persists. You feel the conflict, also, between how you would like to appear to others and how you would like to appear to your son. He runs the danger of innocently embarrassing you. In keeping your word to your son, you may appear to condone an action that politically you do not approve of.

You cannot change what your son feels. He feels simple compassion and the desire to give. You cannot change the fact that this beggar appeared before you. You cannot change the fact that certain policies exist. You may work toward change, but right now, this is the situation.

We live in a complicated economic and social world full of jokes (yes, jokes: cosmic jokes) and paradox and contradiction. An extremist, or a purist, can always criticize us for our failure to adhere to orthodoxy. Our defense must be that the world itself is complex and full of contradiction. Our defense must also be that we are individuals, and we retain the right to make the best choice we can at the time. We retain the right to be wrong on occasion. We claim the right to be who we are. We do not claim to be perfect.

Your son is a charming young boy. He is not an economic theorist and he is not standing for Parliament. He is a 6-year-old who responds to the world in front of him. Seen in that light, a moment of conflict might be transformed into a moment of grace. Your son might give his money to the beggar and that would be that. You would feel all these conflicts but not be compelled to fix them.

Given all that we know of history, given all the failures of grand systems and utopian ideas whether they be religious or political or economic, we try to live in the world as it is and we try to keep our balance. We sometimes give money and sometimes do not. We may give too much or too little or none at all.

We are just people getting through life the best we know how. There are times when that has to be enough. This is one of those times.


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By Cary Tennis

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