Should you give money to beggars?

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Tom Rowlands urges you to think instead of the others that are far more deserving of our charity than the beggars of Oxford

It’s hard not to feel at least a small prick of conscience when, sporting a smart 3-piece suit and subfusc, you walk past one of Oxford’s all-too-numerous beggars and they ask for a bit of spare change. You’ve got 50p in your pocket that you’re going to spend on a third of a coffee or, a seventh of a pint of lager or, say, a twentieth of a poster for your new room; you should give it to the beggar, right? Wrong.

Even though you’re a poor student, given the binary choice between spending some of your student loan on another vodka red bull at Camera and giving some to a homeless person, who (though they might also spend it on fags and booze) probably needs it more than you do, you’d most likely be correct in thinking there’s a strong case for the latter. But the problem with emotive situations, such as when we walk past a beggar with a hungry-looking dog, is that it forces us into charity Manichaeism, where giving is good and not giving bad – especially if we’re walking along with a saint-like friend who’s given them £2 and patted the dog on the head.

When we give away money, just as when we spend it on ourselves, we should consider value. And by that measure, giving an Oxford beggar your money is like buying a rolex: a luxury we can’t yet afford. Just a few seconds googling will show you that some charities can be thousands of times more effective than others, yet we donate vast sums of money to the most wasteful of causes. The BBC estimates that around £300,000 will be raised by the Swansea Valley Miners Appeal. Sophie Dahl wants £500,000 to save her granddad’s garden shed. Do we really care that much more about our own country/town/social group/family that we wouldn’t rather cure thousands of Africans of preventable diseases for the same money?

Next time you walk past a beggar in Oxford, keep walking. If you want to do some good with your money, consider where it’s going to do the most good. A child in a far off country probably won’t thank you for it. But that’s really not the point.

Andrew Rhodes argues that, to the contrary, ignoring the homeless is plain wrong: Tom’s attitude is one of selfishness

­­I have one lasting memory of freshers’ week at Oxford. After matriculation, when everyone was going off to “Spoons” to get “matriculashed”, I saw a single homeless man and his dog, holding a sign which read “please spare some change”. Oxford is one of the UK’s greatest bastions of privilege, yet it has one of the worst homelessness problems in the country. This in itself should shame the dreaming spires.

Thomas’s argument boils down to this: There are people in developing countries with greater need than homeless people, therefore it’s wrong of us to give to the homeless. The flaw is, this is an argument against spending money on anything other than aid to sub-Saharan Africa. This includes your night out on the Park End cheese floor, your university degree and anything you might buy with your entire future earnings. While we’re at it, why not dismantle the welfare state entirely and give it all in foreign aid? The reason we don’t is because we recognise that there are lots of different groups in need, and the existence of one needy group doesn’t make it wrong to give to another.

The average life expectancy of a homeless person in the UK is forty two; lower the national average of every country in the world except one. Any country where a particular social group has a life expectancy thirty years below the national average has a serious problem. The fact that this group also suffers disproportionately from drug, alcohol and mental health problems, as well as sexual abuse, should be a reason to help, not write them off. Lacking a fixed address, the homeless are often cut off from healthcare and social services which could otherwise help them. As a result, people giving them money can help them survive, as the rest of society has forgotten them.

There may be greater need in other areas, but just as you wouldn’t ignore a sick child you saw because of the existence of children with cholera in Africa, you shouldn’t ignore the homeless. In reality it’s not a choice between money for Africa or the homeless, but money for yourself or money for someone in need.

Follow Andrew and Tom on Twitter – @A_Rhodes and @tomrowlands

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