I live in New York City and am daily confronted--sometimes it feels like hounded--with requests from beggars. Should I give them money, knowing as we all do that that many of them will probably use the money to buy drugs or liquor? Yet, when I just pass beggars by, I feel uncomfortable with myself.
--Guilty in the Big Apple
I know few people who have a consistent policy regarding donations to beggars. Those who believe one should give to beggars rarely wind up handing out coins to every person who asks them. In many parts of New York City, where I, like you, live, such a policy would cause one to be giving to people about once every two minutes, a very time-consuming and expensive proposition. One day years ago, when begging was still common in the city's subways, my wife and I were accosted by so many beggars that I later commented, "It would have been cheaper had we gone by taxi."
On the other hand, I find it hard, if not impossible, to walk past a person who says to me, "I'm hungry. Could you give me money so I could get something to eat?" My mother, Helen Telushkin, likewise gives money to beggars who tell her that they're hungry. She has told me that when she feels hungry, she finds the pangs so painful that she can't imagine not helping a person who is hungry.
But what if the person soliciting the money is lying? He or she just wants your money to buy alcohol or drugs. In such a case, if I give the money, I will have been fooled. The question is, which is preferable: to avoid giving to anyone, including those who truly are hungry, because some beggars are deceivers, or to give to all who claim hunger, knowing that some are liars? To me, the latter course seems morally preferable. As the Protestant theologian C.S. Lewis wrote: "It will not bother me in the hour of death to reflect that I have been 'had for a sucker' by any number of impostors; but it would be a torment to know that one had refused even one person in need."
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