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(America's) Beggars CAN Be Choosers.

Grim as things have sometimes been in the United States, it doesn't seem like we've hit rock bottom. The indicator that I am using is decidedly low-end, the beggars that occupy the streets of New York City (and many other towns).

On Christmas Day, I encountered one of these mendicants holding up a sign: "Need 25 cents for food." Now 25-cent pieces don't buy a lot of food, unless you have a lot of them.

Being out of change, I went to a nearby store and bought a banana for 50 cents, receiving 50 cents in change for a dollar. Then I decided to run an experiment by holding the banana in one hand and a quarter in the other, and offering the beggar a choice:  "You can have this banana, or you can have 25 cents in change." To my surprise, he opted for the quarter rather than the banana (which cost two of them).

If he were truly hungry, the beggar would have taken the banana; immediate food, costing more than 25 cents. Apparently he wasn't, and would rather have the "choice" that the money could buy. This goes against the ancient dictum "beggars can't be choosers." In America, apparently they can, and are. (On the other hand, I was glad I got to keep the banana, being hungier than I thought.)

A Financial Times reporter ran this experiment in 1990 (so the monetary amounts are different from today). He tried begging in both London and New York City. In London, his "home" ground, it took him ten hours to garner the equivalent of six dollars, and everyone gave him "dirty looks." In New York City, he gave up the experiment after six hours and twenty-three dollars, with no particular unpleasantness.

The reporter's conclusion: No one would beg in London except as a last resort. On the other hand, begging could be an attractive alternative in New York City, compared to working at McDonald's for minimum wage (then $4 an hour).