OK, so the title of this story is rather extreme. But read on.
I always say NO to beggars. My reasoning is as follows: if I give them money, I am increasing the demand for begging services. Soon, there will be more beggars because it is worth their effort to do so. If I don’t give them money, I am signalling a lack of demand for their begging services, which should decrease the supply.
And what do begging services do? Let someone who feels guilty “buy off” their guilt by giving money to someone else? I am sure there are better ways to assuage guilty feelings, like a structured charity.
While I don’t encourage or “enable” beggars, this doesn’t mean I think less of them than others. They are, after all, entrepreneurs in a city where most other low-barrier-to-entry tasks are forbidden: they can’t perform services like wipe your windshield or polish your shoes or take you somewhere on a rickshaw or sell stuff, since the city regulates all those things. Barriers to entry are put up for a reason.
I was in one of those “public” places a little while ago. You know, the type with coffee and brewed drinks, comfortable armchairs, big windows. The closest thing we get in Ottawa to a public square or piazza. I was sitting there, reading porn. House porn, that is: a decorator magazine. Two guys came and sat in the adjacent arm chairs. They were neatly dressed, but fit the stereotype of “street people”. Over the next hour and half, I listened to their conversation, and contributed a small bit.
Both guys had low grammar skills, but impressive vocabularies. They talked confidently of schizophrenia meds, their side effects, and alternative prescriptions. They talked about how to “convince” or persuade nurses to give them stuff. One volunteered that the secret was to “present well”. They had enough mastery of medical jargon to persuade me.
They explained banking services for the unaddressed. One used Sally Ann: she gets his mail, cashes the cheques, gives him an allowance on Fridays, cash. Which he spends right off the bat on provincial taxes (ie, the LCBO). Does he ever spend it at a bar? Nope, too expensive. The other guy chimed in that when he goes to a bar, the others all seem to know he has money and ask him for some and the first thing he knows he has none left and he can’t remember who he gave it to so he can’t ask for it back, and he can’t buy no more drink.
Both guys had other room-mates, and both were very cognizant of the other’s failings. The most articulate guy said he makes $60 in two hours begging on a weekday, and $140 on Fridays from 3.30 pm (when they –referring to office workers — get off work) til when he stops for dinner. He begs at a certain busy spot near the Rideau Centre. Gosh, look at the time, gotta get going down to Rideau before someone tries to take my spot.
So where does my crack about city workers come in?
Well, I’ve been bothered for several months by something at a meeting I attended some months ago, hosted by the city. A grad student was reporting on her research into walking in various neighbourhoods. Most of the other attendees in the audience were city staff. The Q&A session following was a veritable orgy of self congratulation as to how their particular fiefdom also recognized the importance of active transportation and what important priority work they were doing on it.
Some elaborated on that work. It all looked rather airy-fairy to me. You know, high level stuff, policy research, very abstract or else very very specialized. Where were all these concerned staffers when the ordinary tax payers are out objecting to anti-walking, anti-active transportation boondoggles like the Bronson reconstruction? All their efforts had a distinct aversion to actually providing a better walking or cycling environment.
So a short while ago I was at yet another walking / active-transportation planning meeting, catered, and well attended by city staff. Holy deja vu all over again, more statements about how much department X or project Y was doing to promote the good cause. More cognitive dissonance on my part.
Then last Saturday I attended the spring bike thingy hosted by CfSC, well attended by politicians (surely a sign of either an election or increasing importance of cycling) and some city staff. There were several presentations by various department reps about how they are promoting cycling. Always prefaced by comments about being short staffed, and starved of resources (hint hint: pay more taxes so I can deliver more services to you …).
But I found myself once again depressed by what they were doing, and how they were doing it. So many of the tasks were “good ideas”, like teaching people how to teach other people to ride bikes, or getting free bikes to poor kids, or outreaching, consulting with the community, educating, promoting, and priorizing. [And since when did setting your annual priorities become a significant accomplishment for the year?]
I felt these guys (and gals) were doing everything peripheral to the real task, beating around the bush, and doing the innocuous at great expense. We KNOW what works to promote cycling, and these folks weren’t doing much of that.
They had an impressive power point of projects and tasks, and were trained in presentation skills, but why were we doing those things at all?
So this brings me to the beggars and city staff, separated at birth hypothesis. You see, both are wanting money for services I don’t want. In the case of the street beggar, s/he has very limited means to get the money, so generally acts nicely. I can decline to contribute to the demand for begging services.
City staff however, employ the monopoly powers of government to the fullest extent to command the field of action, to compel tribute of money from the resident, and then deliver dubious services. * The levers available to me to influence the supply of services is extraordinarily complicated and obtuse, quite deliberately so. So I end up buying “services” I don’t want.
The beggar and the doppelgänger … separated twins.
* I say dubious, because they have to think of the keep-busy good-idea task, and get funding that is always in risk of being removed. We don’t need municipal employees to teach kids to play video games, or how to watch TV, or the joys of driving a car. Somehow those activities are attractive enough that people find a way to do them, even if poor or at other disadvantage. Cycling however, has been made unattractive to residents (by colleagues of those civil servants) so now they have to dream up peripheral activities to look busy while avoiding the real challenge. If riding was attractive, kids would get bikes (yes, even in poorer households) and figure out how to ride them. No civil servant standing over them. Here’s a research topic for some grad student: bike usage of Canadian urban poor youth compared to Dutch urban poor.
Note that I do appreciate what governments do for us that we cannot easily do as individuals or small groups, for eg, building roads or bike paths. Although I see no reason why parking, or even roads themselves, should be offered free. Collective action has its important role central to society. What bugs me is the abundant supply of peripheral offerings at considerable expense when the main tasks are being avoided.