The culture of panhandling (bedelen)

Vandaag een bijdrage van SocProf (@SocProf) van de Global Sociology Blog. Ja, u ziet het goed: een Engelstalige bijdrage. Sargasso gaat samenwerken met een aantal interessante internationale blogs met wie we afspraken hierover hebben gemaakt. Het idee is simpel. We linken al vaak naar Engelstalige content. We quoten uit Engelstalige content. U bent snugger genoeg om Engels te lezen.

Will do push-ups for change 20 for 1 dollarIt 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 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.

Met linktip van Cor: How Panhandlers use free creditcards

  1. 6

    Yes well yes, I remember seeing the full documentary a few years ago. No kidding I was totally flabbergasted. An eye opener in many ways, really. Like rats sleeping on heathing tubes underground. Pff, stealing like raves those cheeky little bastards, sniffing glue and shit..

    Well…that’s the EU for ye, right in you’re face baby.

    And how is it at you’re end…in the UK?
    Can you manage it alone or or…? With the looming depression and all I mean?

  2. 7

    ‘it’s rare to see a panhandler outside North America requesting a donation on the basis of homelessness.’

    Beggars in Leiden and the rest of the Randstad almost exclusively ask for money to pay the shelter for the night.
    Inviting international bloggers here is fine, but it would help if they have at least some idea of what the Netherlands is like.