Once you start questioning the fabric or your life—as we have had to for the No Impact Man project—the inquiry never ends. You find yourself examining all your living assumptions, in this case, whether or not to give money to homeless people—street charity. For many years, my answer to this question was no. But I've changed.
As it turns out, Stephen Dubner, over on his Freakonomics blog, decided to dig into this whole issue the other day by asking a bunch of thinkers (including my friend Arthur Brooks) their conclusions on the issue. My new thinking on the subject aligns most with what Barbara Ehrenreich had to say:
“…I defer to Jesus on beggar-related matters. He said, if a man asks for your coat, give him your cloak too. (Actually, he said if a man “sue thee at the law” for the coat, but most beggars skip the legal process.) Jesus did not say: First, administer a breathalyzer test to the supplicant, or, first, sit him down for a pep talk on “focus” and “goal-setting.” He said: Give him the damn coat.”
For me, though, the issue settled itself by more self-referential analysis. Since the No Impact project is largely about learning to live a life more in line with my conscience, I decided to listen to what my conscience had to say.
I noticed that if I walked straight past a person who asked me for money, I spent an uncomfortable block—as I had repeatedly for years—rationalizing to myself that I didn’t give it to them “for their own good.” On the other hand, if I gave the street person money, my thoughts left the panhandler behind and my conscience was at peace. Case closed.
PS These are very personal decisions I discuss here on No Impact Man. My goal with the project is to live according to my conscience and to share the very shaky and faulty process I go through to do so. It is not my goal to get my readers to live according to my conscience. Nor, for that matter, is the goal for me to live according the conscience of my readers.