"I never give money to people on the street," said the gentleman seated across from me at a dinner party.
The comment had come in response to that perennial conversation opener, "What do you do for a living?" When I replied that I work for a food bank that distributes food for the hungry, he countered: "That's great. There's such a need for what you do. I'd much rather give to an organization like yours."
Actually, since coming to work for the L.I.F.E. organization, I told him, I've found myself being more generous to panhandlers.
"But won't they just buy booze?" he asked.
If only it were that simple. The social "safety net" has many holes--and a minefield of obstacles for anyone who tries to use it. There are a lot of people who are simply so outside the mainstream they don't possess the basic tools to access the public assistance available. Some simply refuse it out of a sense of dignity or denial.
Once, when I offered a young man washing car windows a referral to the local food pantry, he angrily shot back, "I don't want no handouts from anybody. That's why I do this, to get money for food. I don't need anyone to give me anything."
A noble philosophy, perhaps, but not a practical one. There ought to be no shame in accepting help from others who freely offer it.
But the up-by-your-bootstraps mentality is deeply etched in the American psyche. Consequently, there's a suspicion that anyone who applies for public assistance probably doesn't really deserve it. Ask anyone what it's like to be on food stamps. Most will say it's a degrading experience.
I can't begin to imagine the tragic circumstances that would necessitate having to beg for handouts on the street. Is it right--or necessary--to judge whether any one person "deserves" a handout?
I can't give money to everyone I see begging on the street, nor do I feel I have to help every time. But when I reach into my pocket, I don't judge the worthiness of the receiver. And I know that those few cents will have a much greater impact on this stranger's day than on mine.