How Panhandlers Spend Money

A reporter for the Canadian newspaper The Star handed out five pre-paid credit cards to panhandlers, asked the panhandlers to return the card when finished, and tracked their purchases. Of the five cards, two were returned, one was stolen and used by the panhandler’s boyfriend, and three were never returned (one remained unused). Purchases included food (McDonald’s was a favorite), cigarettes, cell phone time and LCBO (Liquor Control Board of Ontario) purchases. [%comments]


Wow. Panhandlers buying beer and cigarettes? I'm completely shocked.

Ian Kemmish

Did they ask why they were being asked to return the cards? What were they told? Wouldn't the mere fact of being asked alert them to the existence of the experiment and thereby alter their behaviour?

Eric M. Jones

Gee....! The US government handed out $800 billion dollar cards to Wall street panhandlers who invested it in government securities so we get to pay them twice, except for the bonuses they paid themselves for doing such a fine panhandling job.

Hey mister...Got a dime?


@Tom, LOL. . . I was thinking the same thing. You would think they would buy some clothes, or a jackknife, or some nutritious food . . . but no... empty calories, cell phone minutes, booze and smokes top the charts.


Obviously this was an experiment and not an outreach effort, but I've often thought that if people are so concerned about what panhandlers are doing with their $$, they could do to McDonald's or similar, buy a bunch of gift cards, and hand them out as they see fit. Generally the signs I see here in SoCal say something about being hungry, true or not, and a $5 card can (if you're careful and don't load up on soda) buy enough food for a day.


I work with a welfare based program in a very poor area. During many interviews my claiments state they will be going to fast food restaurants after leaving our meeting. We also notice a lot of the funds are used for gambling. There are many people who make my job worth while. However in our system a lot of the ppl below poverty have the basics needs provided for them: health insurance (medicaid), food (foodstamps), subsidized housing.

Drill-Baby-Drill Drill Team

Another reason to shun street panhandlers and beggars. Give to established charities with a presence and track record of service to the poor.

This type of occassional intermittent reward produces a gambling type conditioned response that makes the behavior more persistent and addicting.

Do you want panhandling behavior to persists for decades and even generations? We must be strong.

NO CHANGE TO BEGGARS. Give them fruit.


Panhandlers spending money on beer and cigarettes? Wow. They sound a lot like everyone else.

It takes a particularly disgusting form of self-righteousness to think that someone with a home and a well-paying job should be able to drink or smoke but someone who is on the street should not have the basic dignity of being able to decide for themselves what to spend money on. If I can drink, why can't they?


I find it amusing how some of us take a paternalistic attitude towards those further down the economic ladder. We think we know what's best for them better than they do. Are we the same ones who resent the government's paternalism toward us?

Matt B

Most days I feel like I need a drink after getting home from my white-collar job. I can only imagine how badly I would need one in these individuals' situation.

Therefore, I'm happy to provide them with some booze money and fail to understand the outrage.

Hardly surprising, though. Just yesterday my girlfriend purchased a meal for someone who appeared homeless, only to have the meal turned down. He had already been fed, and needed cash for "bus fare".


On one hand, its a bit disheartening to give a panhandler money knowing that it is most likely going to be used on fast food, beer or cigarettes.

On the other hand.... If I kept the money, what would I most likely use it for? Fast food, beer or cigarettes. I shouldn't begrudge them a good time. Their lives are tough enough as it is.


Consider that many panhandlers might not have a stove or refrigerator to cook a trip to the grocery store for soup and vegetables doesn't work for some of them.

At the same time, let's keep in mind that while there are certainly rip-off artists, there might be a few who are so desperate that they are not thinking about tomorrow, but simply wanting to get a meal for today.

And who can blame someone who really is homeless or reduced to panhandling for trying to ease the pain by drinking (or doing drugs)?

I used to almost cross-examine such people, trying to ensure they didn't "mis-spend" the $2 I was going to give them. But then I realized that $2 (or $5) isn't going to bankrupt me...and it's almost certainly not going to change their world...except, maybe, for that one day.

If they want to use it for a quick bite to eat, fine. If they want to use it to get high so that, at least for a little while, they don't have to cope with their predicament, fine. People in such a situation are NOT going to beg their way out of their predicament. They are stuck, most likely--and many will probably die in that black hole.

My small contribution won't change my world or their...but maybe for just a few minutes, they can see some goodness in folks, or feel the comforting waves of opioids wash over them and allow them to remember--or believe in--better times.


Rich Wilson

The two times I've lived in communities with lots of panhandlers, I'd often offer them some of whatever groceries I had just bought. Some were very appreciative, some not so much.


Sounds pretty typical - did they double-check to make sure they didn't give the cards to suburanites instead of panhandlers? I guess there were no charges for gasoline, so that probably tipped them off.

Julien Couvreur

On one hand, cash donations are more convenient to the recipient than gifts "in kind", as it gives them flexibility to spend on what they want the most.
On the other hand, some people seem to think that spending on alcohol or cigarettes is a bad use of their gift.

Since charity is voluntary for both parties, it is fine to have conditions. If you accept my gift, you accept the conditions that come with it.
But that's one reason charity is not easy and carries a management and enforcement cost: you want some accountability.
And that's another reason why government welfare programs are wasteful: coerced donation (taxation), problems with incentives and accountability, ...


@12 AaronS

I too am often conflicted and used to give change to panhandlers. However, my town has a terrible Meth and Heroin epidemic (Santa Cruz, CA) and evidence from the police suggests that many of the panhandlers are spending the money on those drugs which are sold in our wild-land parks (which causes all manner of environmental destruction and risks of fire). These drugs are supplied by the gangs and we have a gang war happening in our town right now.
While I agree that I cannot understand the difficulty of their plight, and why not help them escape by getting high, I just can't bring myself to enable the behavior because of all of the collateral damage.


Seriously it's a dollar or two to feed these guys at McDonalds.

Once I went through a nearby McDonalds in the AM, and bought the local beggar a combo meal and stuck a few bucks in the bag. He looked at me like a middle class kid at Christmas.

I don't believe withholding $4-5 worth of food and a little cash helps him. I also don't believe that I'll remember to increase my donation to poverty related charities either.

Seriously, the most conservative people seem to forget the principle of the golden rule. If you were reduced to begging, what would you want?

Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?

If you see a guy, and don't do anything to help him, what good is it? James's next question is whether such a man's faith can save him.


Drill-Baby-Drill Drill Team

People can use money for PRODUCTIVE USES or DEGENERATE USES.

We must encourage positive healthy activities.

We should discourage negative, harmful activities.

You do this for your children, your family, your relatives, your co workers....Why not do this for your fellow citizen?

Addictions to alcohol, cigarettes and illicit drugs do NOT help anyone. We all need calories, vitamins and vegetables. We don't need nicotine, cocaine or LSD.

Why not give a piece of fruit?

Eric M. Jones

At Xmas, a guy I knew would load up dozens of bags each with a pack of cigarettes and a bottle of cheap wine. Then he would drive down to skid row and hand them out.

I didn't' think much of his ethics until a friend told me not to judge...the guy handing out the gift used to live on skid row.

....I was enlightened.


Is it me, or does 2+1+3 not equal 5? (I'm assuming the stolen card was not returned and therefore the 1 is part of 3.)