Tuesday, June 07, 2005

How Adam Smith (and maybe Joseph too) would deal with the "Beggar" Question: Thoughts on Working Toward Zion, Pt. I

I'm reading Working Toward ZIon: Principles of the United Order for the Modern World by Lucas & Woodworth (forward by Nibley).
Adam Smith said:
"All the members of the human society stand in need of each other's assistance, and are likewise wexposed to mutual injuries. Where the necessary assistance is reciprocally afforded from love, from gratitude, from friendship, and esteem, the society flourishes and is happy. All the different members of it are bound together by the agreeable bonds of love and affection, and are, as it were, drawn to one common centre of mutual good offices."
To paraphrase, "By encouraging free human interaction" service affords "more opportunity for people to develop the spirit of sympathy and other virtues." WTZ, 63.

This is a post re: the proverbial question of what to do with the Beggar. However, it isn't begging the question because I think that an individual who has consecrated their time, talents & efforts to building up the Kingdom of God can come up with a better answer than the four stock answers. I suggest that the principal failure of these four is that they allow for only limited, one shot, non-recurring interaction, with the needy individual(s). The four are:

1. Give them money
2. Give them food
3. Give them nothing cuz they are probably just lazy and/or making more money begging that working; and
4. Direct them to a local shelter or just plain ignore them.

Why are these inadequate responses?

1. Giving the beggar money is great; it avoids pre-judging the individual asking for help and is a charitable act. However, it could be self-defeating, i.e. sometimes in our efforts to help folks in the "worst" way, we do exactly that...helping them in _the worst_ way possible.
2. Giving them food is thus probably a better solution, esp. as they sometimes are just asking for food. Except sometimes they don't need food, but money for bus fare, transportation, rent, a night at the local shelter (many of which do charge a small fee), etc.
3. This option was well condemned by King Benjamin. Ignore a prophet at your own risk. Further, don't think that your (hopefully) "generous" fast offering got you off the hook. Sorry, not enough when there is a direct need in front of your face.
4. Ok, directing them to groups that are qualified and dedicated to this is a solution; but...will they do it? You can say that it is their choice...but you are assuming they just don't know about the local helping agencies. Maybe they already do and/or can't get help there for whatever reason. Obviously ignoring has the same problem as #3.

Also, each of these tends to take a short-run solution to an immediate problem. For example, feeding the hungry is dandy; but it doesn't solve the hunger of tomorrow; hence the teach a person to fish story. What is needed is a more comprehensive, long run answer to the beggar/needy person's explicit/implicit request/need.

Where does this leave us? With the solution that so few of us are willing to take. A recent discussion at T&S focused on whether to pick up hitch-hikers. Many said "no," because it wasn't safe to do so. However, for those that feel this is a valid concern, I have a solution "minor" that won't violate their safety ethic so much.

Do you have a "greater desire to give than to take, a stronger desire to share than to receive"? If so, then I hope this appeals to you:

First, introduce yourself to the beggar (or an individual you know needs economic help; this could be a member of your ward or neighborhood you are only slightly acquainted with, but feel safer helping). Do the BRT, get to know them...for real.
Second, determine how you can help them. Do they need a place to stay? food? a job? substance abuse help?
Third, determine how you can be part of the solution. Don't you have a guest bedroom? Food storage/a full fridge? Some yard work you could let the individual do? Perhaps the beggar/needy person has some talents/job skills? Perhaps you own a business and could employ them?

Many of you will object that it isn't safe to bring a homeless person into your home. Fine. While this reminds me alot of Les Miserables, and I'd hate to think a fictional Priest is more Christlike than a living Latter-day Saint, Fine. However, there are less invasive/secure steps you could take; i.e. yard work, taking your (consecrated) time to take the individual to a shelter where they can get help, helping them apply for a job, helping them to find alternative lodging, transporation, etc. Don't make your (absolute) security the enemy of your consecrated efforts to Build Zion.

Zion have one heart and one mind; with no poor among them. Can we perhaps start with our own and one other individual in need? Rather than fulfilling a short term need, or giving into your pride and doing nothing, why not consider a longer-term solution?

While I won't go into details (this isn't about extolling my efforts), I have employed this model with some success in the city of Philadelphia over the last year plus. I hope ye will consider it also.


Blogger RoastedTomatoes said...

Some nice thoughts about a serious problem.

But I can't even see my way toward beginning to apply the "Values Pundit" approach in many of the areas where I've lived. Let me give two examples.

In the San Francisco area, most public places are FULL of beggars and homeless people. The downtown section of Berkeley, for example, typically has dozens of these poor folks. Which of these folks am I supposed to take a personal interest in? For that matter, which of these folks am I supposed to give my limited alms-giving funds to?

Nowhere I've ever been in my life has the begging problem been more widespread and unmanageable than it is in Lima, Peru. Where Bay Area public places may have dozens of panhandlers and homeless folks at any given time, Lima public places can even have hundreds. Furthermore, it's sometimes difficult to distinguish those in genuine, dire need from those who are simply trying to get a quick handout from a gringo that they just saw. Once again, which one or ones should I get personally involved with?

One of the great things about the attempts at living the Law of Consecration during the Joseph Smith period, and especially about the Brigham Young-era United Order was that they were institutional attempts at solving this problem. Since everyone's efforts went into the common pot for helping the destitute, nobody who worked hard was under condemnation. But there was also a systematic approach by the leaders to evaluating and meeting needs. The needy didn't have to just have the luck of stumbling into someone as forward-thinking on these matters as the Values Pundit himself!

5:30 AM  
Blogger W. Lyle Stamps said...


Thanks for your comments. My suggestion would be to work within your ward. Surely there are individuals that can be helped w/in the ward? While this limits our efforts to work 'in house,' this is perfecting the saints at its best, right?

or perhaps with individuals that you interact or see alot.

I remember one guy in provo...i always saw him sitting on bus stop benches. after seeing him the 15th time...i couldn't just pass him up anymore. To the shock & horror of my roommates, when the weather got cold, I let him sleep on our couch for a few nights. So...I would say that repeated interactions might be a key.

While I agree that institutional efforts will solve the problem in a much grander scale...I don't think that stops each individual from putting for an effort to help, say, 1 person a year? At just 1 person a year...the Saints could have a big impact on many peoples lives.

8:48 AM  

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