The Sociology of Everything – Panhandling

It is an obvious thing to say that economic exchange do not exist in a vacuum. They are embedded into the social structure and cultural norms and scripts. Examples of this abound…

Over at the always excellent, but not updated often enough for my taste!, Economic Sociology, Brooke Harrington discusses panhandling variations depending on the national context. That is, what kind of script do panhandlers invoke to get the most donations? Harrington argues that it is a matter of culture:

“So it’s sociologically interesting that within the North American context, the concept of “home” has such resonance that the claim of “homelessness” is considered a compelling and sufficient motive for giving money to strangers. But while the need for shelter would seem universal, it’s rare to see a panhandler outside North America requesting a donation on the basis of homelessness.

In Germany, for example, one often finds people begging for “trinkgeld”—”drinking money.” And they’re not playing for laughs, as one sometimes finds in the US, when panhandlers give a wink and a nod to the stereotype that money given to beggars is only ever used to buy alcohol (or drugs). When a panhandler asks for “drinking money” in the US, it’s sort of an in-joke, or an attempt to appear disarmingly honest; based on the limited examples I’ve seen, this seems to jolly people up and get good results (i.e., quantities of cash).”

I would argue that, in the American case, one has to prove that one is a “deserving” poor. Americans tolerate those they define as deserving poor: the sick, the disabled, the Veteran, as opposed to the undeserving poor, the lazy, shiftless, and the drug addicts and perpetrators of other moral turpitude who have nothing but themselves to blame. Those deserve no help. So, in drafting one’s panhandling sign, one has to use a vocabulary of motive that places one squarely in the deserving poor category.

In France, especially in areas populated with old people, getting a dog is the ticket to higher donations. Old ladies, especially on the French Riviera (populated with a lot of still resentful “pieds noirs”, French kicked out of Algeria at the time of the independence), a panhandler can rot, but a dog should not suffer. Cats work as well. Kittens and puppies are even better.

So, panhandlers have to choose: get a dog means some security but losing access to shelters that usually do not accept animals; but getting a dog will bring in more money from the old ladies.

In Paris, one witnesses a lot of panhandling on the subway. For subway dwellers, it always starts with someone loudly starting “Messieurs, Dames, I am sorry to bother you but…” (“ladies and gentlemen, I am sorry to bother you but… [then follows the pit which often invokes children and families to support]) then the panhandler walks up and down the subway car to collect.

Harrington provides further examples:

“Yet another vocabulary of motive can be found on the streets of Istanbul, where panhandlers often approach passers-by with a request for “etmek parası”—Turkish for “bread money.” In perhaps 10 visits to Turkey in the last 3 years, I’ve never seen anyone on the street claiming to be homeless. Nor have I seen a cardboard sign of the kind so common in North America.”

I don’t think bread money would work well in affluent Western societies anymore as bread no longer is the heart of Western nutrition, the basic minimum that everyone should get even the most stigmatized (“au pain et à l’eau!”), the cheapest food item. Going to shop for bread at Whole Foods but all the multi-grain varieties shows that bread can be treated as refined food.

Anyway, back to my subway panhandling interactions, one strategy that I have seen people use is to do something annoying, like bad singing. The panhandler sing one song, collects and if he has received enough (what “enough” is, of course, is relative), he moves on to the next car, to the relief of the passengers. If the collection is meager, the passengers get another round of bad singing. It is a tight rope to walk though. Similarly, looking and acting crazy does not help, considering how much mental help is an issue with homeless people, that is another fine line to toe.

And, of course, I could not read on this issue without being reminded of the strategies the Romanian kids of Children Underground (full documentary here) used to get as much money as possible:

The other parts are posted on Youtube as well. Children Underground is an important documentary that everyone should watch. If I wanted to be snarky, I’d say that it should be mandatory viewing for anyone opposed to abortion and birth control.

As the cool kids say, go read the whole post over at Economic Sociology.

2 thoughts on “The Sociology of Everything – Panhandling

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention The Sociology of Everything – Panhandling | The Global Sociology Blog --

  2. I share your view that the Economic Sociology blog is “not updated often enough for my taste!” and wish I could post more often. But the combination of new baby, new country (Denmark), and new job has made it so that I barely have time to take a shower. These conditions are maddening, and I do hope they’ll be short-lived so I can post more than once or twice a month. Thanks for reading!

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