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How to build better beggars

Written By: - Date published: 9:00 am, March 1st, 2014 - 35 comments
Categories: class, economy, Economy, election 2014, employment, poverty - Tags:

In the United States, the street beggars have great patter.

Despite what South Park would have us believe, when you walk down the main street of a major city, you don’t get hordes of people shiftlessly shaking cups at you, asking for “change?”

There are a few.  But far more often, there’s a story.  I did two tours of Iraq and I just need to get my clothes dry at the laundromat.  I need 20c for the bus, or $5 to get the train to where my kids live. My girlfriend’s out in the parking lot, I just want to get us some chicken.  They are practiced, and polite, and very aware that they’re approaching a young white woman on the street and need to ensure they’re utterly unthreatening, because the lives of poor men and especially poor black men probably aren’t worth crap if a pretty white girl complains to the cops around the corner.

When a country has the kind of inequality the US does, people get really, really good at begging for money.

On the same rainy day I meet the Iraq veteran – and I have no reason to doubt that he’s served his country, and been tossed aside for his trouble – John Kerry, the secretary of state, is on MSNBC talking to Andrea Mitchell about what’s been happening in Ukraine.  He speaks in admiring tones about how the people of Ukraine have risen up against their oppressor, how they’ve had enough of a leader who sleeps in mansions and lives a life of luxury.  And to an outsider, it sounds so disingenuous.  Does Kerry not see the parallels with his own country?  Where a presidential candidate can forget how many homes he owns,  while the people who are fortunate enough to have employment waiting tables are entitled to just $2.13 an hour?

The United States is a nation thoroughly captured by the idea that we can all pull ourselves up with our own bootstraps.  That a government safety net, universal healthcare, even the right to vote is something some people just don’t deserve.

New Zealand has inequality, too.  But we still have some of the basics in place – our current government’s efforts notwithstanding – and I have faith we can turn things around with a strong progressive government, starting in 2014.

35 comments on “How to build better beggars”

  1. Bill 1

    Something I noticed a long time back in NZ is an aversion to patter or banter. It’s not just on the begging front, but also when people are collecting for some cause or other – there’s just no…life.

  2. Clemgeopin 2

    Good article. The last two paragraphs were excellent and thought provoking.

    The present cunning and hypocritical pro-rich government does copy the intelligent ideas and caring programmes of Labour and the left for political expediency and makes sympathetic noises especially in an election year, but has slowly and steadily chipped away at many social, economic and environmental enlightened just measures. I will predict that this government will unleash a severe social and economic scourge for the ordinary masses if re-elected a third time. I am hoping that the majority of people this time will think things through and not continue to be fooled by Key and his spin machine.

    • Bill 2.1

      Thinking that it’s not quite so straight forward as that. Recent Labour led governments only paid lip service to their socially orientated legacy while hammering the shit out of those taking up their social welfare entitlements. The exclusion of non-earning parents from WFF and the introduction of TAS are just two obvious examples of the above.

      I’m guessing Labour took the unemployed and the otherwise struggling for granted and reckoned they had nowhere else to go. Didn’t reckon on them just not voting, did they?

      I’m hopeful that the current Labour Party picks up the baton again and plays the role of state protector for the poorer and struggling in the face of market forces. My concern at this stage is that they appear to be targeting the least struggling first with, presumably, with the idea of catching the rest up later. I’d far rather they had approached this the other way around and lifted up the most struggling first and allowed that improvement in circumstance to be used as leverage by the next cohort who wanted to preserve some notion of disparity/advantage, while, of course, introducing a notion that stood in contrast to arbitrary disparities.

      But yes, in the case of National – may your god help you if they get back in.

    • Stephanie Rodgers 2.2

      Thanks, Clemgeopin. Like Bill, I don’t know that the line between National and Labour over the past couple of governments has been that stark in terms of how they treat those at the bottom of the pile. Certainly things like designing WFF to exclude beneficiary parents showed that Labour’s capable of buying into the idea of “deserving” versus “non-deserving” poor.

      But you’re right, the ideas and language are often co-opted by the right – using phrases like “a hand up, not a hand out” or “helping people off benefits” have been designed to sound good but inevitably are covering up a programme of removing basic, effective support for people.

      • Clemgeopin 2.2.1

        I am intrigued by your stance, “Certainly things like designing WFF to exclude beneficiary parents showed that Labour’s capable of buying into the idea of “deserving” versus “non-deserving” poor”

        I agree that those at the ‘bottom of the heap’ should be given all the basic support for living and for improving their condition.

        Surely, you are not suggesting that those who are in work and those who are not, should both be treated equally? Are you?

        • Stephanie Rodgers

          I’m not sure if you’re being facetious, but we do have human rights law in New Zealand which protects people from discrimination on the basis of employment status. That discrimination, as part of the WFF structure, has been ‘justified’ on the premise that it provides an ‘incentive’ for people to get into work. I don’t agree with that, both because I find the idea repugnant (people don’t need ‘incentives’ to work, especially when benefits are so low) and because it doesn’t work. Even if the logic held, you can’t force people into jobs when there aren’t any jobs!

          • Clemgeopin

            Isn’t working for families like a tax credit?

            Can you explain in simple dollar terms how you would like to see economic/social justice and monetary equivalence between (a) a family (of 2 adults and 2 young children), say earning gross working income of $60,000 per year, paying the usual tax on gross income and (b) a family on welfare (with 2 non working parents and 2 small children)?

            I am asking this not to be facetious, but to understand what exactly you mean and how it can work in a just, meaningful, fair, wise and practical way?

            • Stephanie Rodgers

              It’s not about monetary equivalence, but first off, all benefits are taxed just like working income, so it’s not mechanically different. In the second, if there are mechanical problems extending a tax credit to benefit income, that’s because WFF was deliberately designed to exclude beneficiary families.

              I don’t have “simple dollar terms” for this. I have a firm conviction that Labour, in designing WFF the way they did, deliberately excluded beneficiary families in a way that is unjust, especially given how benefit levels have not kept up with real increases in the cost of living. And that goes back to Bill’s comment – “Recent Labour led governments only paid lip service to their socially orientated legacy while hammering the shit out of those taking up their social welfare entitlements.”

          • Psycho Milt

            I’m not sure if you’re being facetious, but we do have human rights law in New Zealand which protects people from discrimination on the basis of employment status.

            Likewise, we have human rights law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of age, but if you demand to receive National Superannuation you’ll be told to come back when you’re 65. It’s a generally-accepted principle that the government has the right to target social welfare assistance.

            • Draco T Bastard

              It’s a generally-accepted principle that the government has the right to target social welfare assistance.

              It just happens to be a rather poor principle, one without any moral foundation.

            • Stephanie Rodgers

              I didn’t say such discrimination never occurs, however, it’s still there in our human rights law.

              Let’s look at the difference between the discrimination applied in the cases of superannuation and WFF. Superannuation is provided only to older people, and this is justified by the idea that when you’re older, it’s often hard to keep working, and you deserve to be supported to live a decent life. But WFF is denied to beneficiary parents and this is justified by the idea that beneficiaries need to be pushed into work by denying them support to feed and clothe their children.

              One of those is about helping people who need it, and one’s about punishing people we don’t like. One of those works (although there are a lot of arguments about whether super kicking in at 65 is actually inequitable for some people) and one of those simply doesn’t, especially when there are no jobs for people to be forced into.

              • The reason for the targeting is irrelevant – the NZ legal system recognises targeting as legitimate regardless of what it says in the BoR.

                Of course, if successive governments hadn’t been happy to work with employers to destroy unions and reduce pay and conditions, the last Labour one wouldn’t have found itself needing to apply a targeted social welfare payout to maintain some financial benefit from working for a living. That’s the real idiocy here, not that we don’t pay something called an “In-Work Tax Credit” to people not in work.

                • Clemgeopin

                  Exactly. I agree.

                  The fact is that it is IMPOSSIBLE to achieve 100% equity in income between those that work (receiving WFF payments) and those that are not working.

                  This is because…

                  (a) There would be less incentive for non working people to work.
                  (b) There would be more incentive for working people to get off work.
                  (c) The government can only provide reasonable basic financial and other assistance to those not in work, but can not do so excessively.
                  (d) Humans are fallible. They can be greedy, manipulative, cunning and opportunists. Social welfare needs to guard itself against this,
                  (e) Money does not grow on trees in NZ. (except may be in some illegal plants)

                  • Stephanie Rodgers

                    There’s your problem: you believe that people on benefits need to be ‘incentivised’ (I prefer the word ‘bullied’) to get work.

                    I don’t believe that. I think the vast majority of people want to work, especially if there are jobs available, and – we can see right now in NZ – even when those jobs don’t actually pay enough to raise their families on. Even when those jobs involve hard work and terrible hours and insecure conditions. If people didn’t genuinely want to work, you’d have no one to clean your toilets.

                    If we’re going to guard our fragile government from the greedy, manipulative, cunning opportunists out there, why don’t we do so on an evidence-based basis and start with tax dodgers (who cost our economy far more than benefit frauds) and bad employers (whose low wages are subsidised by WFF, and whose unsafe conditions are assuaged by ACC)?

                    • Clemgeopin

                      You do make powerful arguments but I am, while an idealist, also a pragmatist. The art and science of what is possible, sensible, fair, how and why.

                      But I do agree that laws should be clear that wealthy tax dodgers and crooked corporate bastards should expect their wealth and property to be consfiscated and expect to be jailed for life.

                    • I think the vast majority of people want to work, especially if there are jobs available…

                      Sure. The question is whether that would continue if the financial difference between employee and beneficiary disappeared – ie, if not-working paid as much as unskilled work, how many unskilled people would continue wanting to work? Can’t say I’d find it very attractive if I was them. The government has to maintain a financial incentive to employment one way or another – they seem to have chosen a stupid way, but not choosing isn’t an option.

                    • Stephanie Rodgers

                      Clemgeopin and Psycho Milt, you both keep saying there ‘needs’ to be an incentive. Yet we have no evidence that this incentive works. At the same time as our Labour-led government was staunchly defending WFF, the UK was dismantling the same kind of tax credits because there was no evidence that they provided any such incentive!

                      I also have to strongly reject the idea that providing a comfortable level of state support to people would be a drain on our society. Why, they might end up doing things like raising happy, healthy children, going to university to gain more skills, volunteering at local charities (which currently provide a lot of social services the government also refuses to fund – maybe they need incentives too?) or any other number of valuable social activities which benefit the entire population.

                    • Yet we have no evidence that this incentive works.

                      What would constitute evidence that it works? The basis for it is an easily-inferred one: if the government is offering me $100 to do whatever I feel like doing today, and an employer is offering me $100 to spend all day working for them, I’m not going to spend a lot of time pondering such a difficult choice, am I? It’s threfore reasonable to conclude that working has to pay more than not-working, or large numbers of people will not work.

                      I suppose we could gather evidence for it by offering unemployment benefit that pays the same as a full-time minimum wage job and see what happens to the unemployment figures, but the problem with that is the government doesn’t consist of the clinically insane, so it’s never been tried.

                      Another evidential possibility would be to look at the DPB. It’s possible for young women to bring in more than they would from unskilled labour, as long as they don’t mind looking after a baby. So, if the lack of a financial incentive to work results in fewer people working, we’d expect to see an increase in young, single mothers since the DPB was introduced. That correlation exists – I wouldn’t call it conclusive evidence, but it’s not ‘no’ evidence.

                      I also have to strongly reject the idea that providing a comfortable level of state support to people would be a drain on our society. Why, they might end up doing things like… etc.

                      No doubt some would. My own experience of it was that we ended up doing stuff like annoying people, vandalising things, having a lot of afternoon sex, drinking, smoking and generally not doing anything that anyone in their right mind would have described as useful. It beat working hands down there for a while.

                    • KJT

                      The funny thing is PM, as I have noted, people will still go to work even if the cost of the car and petrol to get to work, means they are much better off, on welfare, even now.

                      You went to work after you had had enough of being a layabout, didn’t you.

                      Most of the young people I know that are not working, actually gave up after several years of either trying to find non-existent jobs, or being shuffled between WINZ and extremely dodgy and exploitative employers.

                    • Stephanie Rodgers

                      Psycho Milt, you’ve got it around the wrong way. The evidence that the ‘incentive’ works would be, say, a significant change in the number of people on the DPB or unemployment benefit, above normal seasonal or economic trends. We don’t have that, and like I said, similar tax credit ‘incentives’ have been dismantled because they didn’t work (and punished people’s children!)

                      On the other hand, as KJT has noted, we do have evidence that people will go to work even when it would be easier and probably more ‘profitable’ to stay on a benefit – because people are, right now, working in jobs which don’t pay well enough for them to pay all their bills.

                      And there’s another great big problem with your incentive: it doesn’t work when there are no jobs for people to go into!

                    • KJT

                      As I have said before, in the 70’s the unemployment benefit was much more generous than now, it was enough to go surfing and boozing on. and easier to get.

                      If PM was right then you would have expected a huge number of unemployed.

                      In fact it used to be said, that the Prime Minister knew all the unemployed by name.

                  • karol

                    If people getting adequate benefits choose not to do low paid crap jobs, then the employers would be incentivised to provide better paid jobs with better working conditions.

                    • Clemgeopin

                      @Psycho Milt, You write so well and make such good points.
                      I could not directly reply to you as the ‘Reply’ button below your post is missing!

  3. Rodel 3

    One of the best was the ACT member/or was he a potential candidate? a few years ago, selling $20 pens, ostensibly to aid disabled kids but keeping $18 for himself….sitting on a chair in the street , even covering his legs with a blanket to give the impression that he was disabled himself.

    He got exposed by the media and moved on but reappeared some time later..haven’t seen him for a while.

  4. Aww 4

    As an advocate for people dealing with Work and Income for the entire time there I got the same story…”I’m not like those other beneficiaries, I want to work! You can see I’m trying…. ”

    Eventually I figured out that they had just brought into the story of beneficiaries not wanting to work, just like I had.

    Stories are powerful which is why the most successful beggars and sitting governments use them. The story that you believe will ultimately determine who you vote for, if you vote at all.

  5. Last time I was in San Francisco I couldn’t go a block without either having, or refusing to enter into, negotiations with a beggar. After a couple of days of dishing out US currency every 30 meters I had to start making like a local and pretending the beggars were invisible, because otherwise I’d have had no money left. And found that pretending they don’t exist doesn’t do your own sense of self-worth any more good than it does the beggars.

    What’s annoying is the number of people I’ve mentioned this to who’ve blamed the beggars, as though they were just another annoying species of tourist tout. Wouldn’t you stop to think about the beggar production process that’s driving the increase?

    • RedLogix 5.1

      And found that pretending they don’t exist doesn’t do your own sense of self-worth any more good than it does the beggars.

      Yes. My experience has been exactly the same. You express the conundrum well.

      In the final analysis you have to draw a bright line under it and say no to all beggars. There are almost no scenarios where it plays out as a good thing.

      But at the same time you have to then accept a personal responsibility to pay your proper tax and vote for a welfare system which assures that no-one has a genuine reason to be begging.

      • Stephanie Rodgers 5.1.1

        This is how I’ve come to think about it, and it makes me really sad because I don’t really see that the US is going to move towards becoming a more equal country any time soon. The ongoing arguments and vitriol you see just around the idea of giving everyone access to health insurance – not actual universal healthcare, even!

        It feels like the best hope for 2016 is that the Republicans put forward another extremist tea partier so either Biden or Clinton can carry on the slow process of pulling the country a tiny step leftwards.

  6. greywarbler 6

    The United States is a nation thoroughly captured by the idea that we can all pull ourselves up with our own bootstrap

    The further down you go, the less you are likely to have bootstraps, or ones that aren’t frayed and tattered. The homily, the cliche doesn’t work. Change it then to ‘bootleg’. The boom time of bootleg liquor made money for a few. But it is an example of brief good times that bloom in the USA and then fall away as gaming the system eventually kills off the profit centre.

    Hollywood used to employ lots of musicians, in the silent film days. Then talkies came, the jobs were lost, some of the men suicided. Now Hollywood is going to VFX and squeezing the artists there out of their jobs. You have to create gated communities, as the Amish have, to protect yourselves against the depredations of these packs of amoral financials who will do whatever to pursue their goals.

    And they are training their minion accountants, bank officers, lawyers to believe their way is the best way of accumulating dosh since the times of counting on your fingers. Parents can see their children change and lose their humanity and understanding of society as they receive instruction at the learning institutions in this country, as to the right and practical way to view everything. Of course it’s practical, it’s the only game in town and all in it are ‘players’, it’s all that is visible. If you’re not in, then you’re out. And everyone who questions this loudly and critically will soon be classed as a terrorist. Dissenting view=terrorist. Different ideology=terrorist.

  7. aerobubble 7

    Ten kids climb into the tree house. They declare capitalism for all,
    and so print a quantity of money. The kids start buying and selling
    between themselves and the exchange value of the money stabilizes.

    Now one kid declares that value is a consequence of the market,
    that more jobs will be produced when the kids take less wages,
    and that the wealthiest surely know how to run the tree house
    so have a right to the profits from the lower wages.

    Now turn it round. The rich kid gets richer by taking an income
    stream (lower wages) from the market by misrepresenting how the
    market works. Nice days work if you can find plebs to believe it.

  8. captain hook 8

    its easy. just elect another national act government.

  9. Ad 9

    Dunedinites were genuinely disturbed when it appeared for the first time in decades, as noted in the OTD a week or so ago.

    I tie myself up in all kinds of ethical quandaries before and after providing whatever change I have (Too much? Too little? Why? How can I help them more? Should I displace feelings of deservedness? Where are the public agencies? Drugs? Shelter/ etc all in a few compressed seconds of bourgeoise embarassment). Quite a few around Queen Street have clear narrations crayonned onto cardboard about what they want the money for.

    The beggars around Stephensdom Bridge in Prague are pretty sophisticated.

    There’s a slippery slope between begging and hawking which you can encounter in most of the major global tourist sites – one doesn’t need too much reminding about what one is budgeting to live on per day on a European holiday, compared to what they are seeking. Check out Somalians and postcards in front of Versailles Palace for ironies of reasonable richness.

    Guilt does help keep me human.

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