Lies You Believe About Poverty: Everyone Panhandling Is a Scammer

When you grow up in poverty, you hear everything people say about people who are homeless, poor and down on their luck. you tend to take it to heart because if they believe it about other people, they lively believe it about you too, right?

And when you are older and maybe not living in poverty anymore, it’s pretty hard not to still notice what people say and how they treat others.

This morning, on my neighborhood Facebook page, a woman was posting asking about how to help someone she had seen panhandling the day before at a local supermarket.

The panhandling woman, appeared to be white, according to the original poster. Why it matters, I don’t know, but a lot of people seemed to want to know. I suspect it’s inherent racism that people would deny, but just because they can’t see their internal biases doesn’t mean they aren’t there.

Anyway, the panhandling person had a sign that said she had no job and had children to feed and asked for donations. She had one of her children with her.

And generally speaking the response from my neighborhood was all the horrible things I used to hear about poor people when I was young and poor.

Tell her everyone is hiring and get a job” was the loudest refrain.

A couple people pointed out that if she had children, she likely would need childcare and might not have access to it.

That merely prompted the heartless to respond that her child should have been in school.

Of course, it was a Sunday when they were panhandling and anyone who had ever worked a minimum wage job knows the chances of them working with your schedule so you can work only while your child(ren) are in school are fairly slim. When you have a child that gets sick or school is canceled for whatever reason, you have no childcare and have to call out for work.

You can quickly get a reputation as unreliable even though the reasons for not being reliable are understandable.

And, minimum wage in Pennsylvania is $7.25 an hour. Even if all she had to pay for with that wage was childcare, she’d owe more than she made. In 2020, the median cost of child care was $290 per week, the exact amount she’d gross at $7.25 an hour working 40 hours a week.

There’s a reason why many women are forced to choose between motherhood and working. They often literally cannot afford to do both.

I will say that some jobs in our area pay more than minimum wage, even for little experience and at start, but not enough to put a roof over their heads, food on the table and pay daycare.

Just getting a job isn’t the simple solution people seem to think it is. And not everyone has transportation to get to a job, work clothes or even bus fare to get there.

“They just use the money for drugs/alcohol.”

The more kind-hearted among the posters would point out that the woman was with her child and the more cold-hearted would claim it didn’t matter. “We see them every day at the transportation center (bus and train station), nodding off,”

Sure, some people living in poverty have substance abuse problems, but those one you see nodding off at the bus stop? Likely exhausted trying to make ends meet.

Assuming everyone who panhandles is an addict is one of the worst things people believe about poverty. No one wants to help out because of how that person might spend the money.

That sort of judgmental nonsense is hard to live with. When I was poor, I was mocked for buying fast food, even if I had worked all day and not eaten anything else. Or, I was mocked for eating the cheapest stuff in the store — boxed pasta or ramen noodles because “poor people don’t eat healthy,” which lead to comments about obesity and laziness, as if the only reason for obesity is lack of movement.

Also, many people who are poor who use alcohol or illegal drugs do it in place of mental health care. Most poor people have limited access to health care in general and even when you have excellent insurance, good mental health care is difficult to find.

We have Blue Cross good insurance with a manageable co-pay and have been ghosted by two mental health “professionals” this year. Some friends have reported worse problems. So until we make mental health care more widely available believing that people are using alcohol or illegal drugs simply “for fun” is definitely a lie about poverty.

“Panhandlers Could Get All the Help The Need Elsewhere”

People are really fast to point to the small amount of social safety nets we have in the United States and claim those charities should be enough to help all the people that resort to panhandling. It’s a nice theory, but isn’t true.

Most charities have a maximum amount they can give to help a person. That may mean they can pay an electric bill or offer some food assistance, but of you also need food again next week and help with the water bill, you’re out of luck.

As a society, we seem to have decided that our castoffs are sufficient for poor people to eat, wear and live-in. We don’t acknowledge how hard it can be to get housing if you are poor and how that grows.

Say you are poor and find a place to live. Chances are a huge portion of your income is going to that house. Then, your kids get sick so you miss work or you have daycare expenses. You suddenly don’t make enough to pay the rent so you get evicted.

Now homeless, you have trouble even finding a job. You find one, but now no one will rent to you because your credit is even worse and you have an eviction on your record.

“People panhandle because it’s easier than getting a job.”

This comment usually goes hand-in-hand with a story about that one guy they knew who was panhandling and drove a Lexus, had a house with a pool or whatever other nonsense they make up.

Of course there are some scammers. There seem to be scammers everywhere.

But the reality of panhandling is that it’s humiliating. No one wants to beg other people for money.

When we were our poorest, wee never resorted to panhandling. We asked friends and family for money, but never strangers. It was horrible. Admitting that you needed help made your gut twist and your head pound. And that was people who loved you.

People who were strangers and generally didn’t care? Asking them for help was not even in my mind as an option. So while I cannot say from personal experience what it feels like, I can imagine and I doubt most people would ever want to feel that way.



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Lucinda Gunnin

Lucinda Gunnin


Lucinda Gunnin is a commercial property manager and author in the suburbs of Philadelphia. She’s a news junky, sushi addict, and geek extraordinaire.