When is it OK to give money to beggars? Many of us are faced with that question on our daily commute to work. The holiday season seems to be a time when it is especially on our minds.
It was not until I traveled to India in 2005 that I found myself wondering, for the first time, if indulging panhandlers was indeed an act of charity. But the 10 days I spent there also taught me the true meaning of Thanksgiving – unselfish giving.
My best friend, Sujaya, was adopting twins, and my daughter and I were tagging along for support. We stepped off the plane in India to be rushed by barefoot cabbies soliciting passengers. And we soon joined the thick traffic as edgy drivers blasted their horns all around us.
"Reminds me of the mall on Black Friday," my daughter commented about the sidewalks jammed with Indians, their beautiful women bedecked in colorful saris. "Welcome to the next economic superstar," I replied.
I knew that despite recent media accounts of India's "imminent economic superstardom," some 280 million Indians subsist daily on less than $1.
Due to a few well-timed investments, I'd come willing to dole out as many dollars as possible. However, legendary though the street beggars of India may be, their rapacity and ubiquity startled me. Beggars swarmed us with outstretched arms as our cab crawled through traffic. Mile after mile, unkempt, barefoot children commingled with traffic beseeching tourists for money.
During the entire trip, despite the fact that my friend specifically warned that giving to street children encourages them to stay out of school, I gladly doled out dollars to street people. It was just after Thanksgiving in the United States, after all.
At one point we stopped at the Jama-Masjid Mosque in Old Delhi. While some prayed, some hawked. Others begged – mostly school-age children. I reached for my wallet. Our Hindi guide tried to dissuade me. "These Muslims marry many maidens and beget many children whom they then employ as beggars while they sit lazily at home." But I chalked that up to prejudice.
No guide book had adequately prepared us for the edacity of India's street peddlers. Vendors hawked everything imaginable right in the middle of traffic; tormented tourists warded off peddlers and panhandlers; a million mopeds and rickety rickshaws jostled their way through traffic; dogs foraged for food in oozing trash. "How can this chaos be the next economic superpower?" my daughter mused.
As we left a cafe one afternoon, a skinny preteen with dusty feet and aged eyes approached us with outstretched arms. "Please help me," he stammered.
I'd run out of one-dollar bills. Our guide asked the teenager if he had change for a $20. The boy reached under his drawstring pants to retrieve a worn wallet. A stash of foreign currencies fell out. My daughter gasped. "Wow, Mom, this kid has more money than I."
She hit on one of the biggest reasons people have for not giving to panhandlers. With my friend's earlier warning that giving to street children only encourages them ringing in my ears, after seeing that wad of money, I was about to walk away.
Maybe I was just perpetuating a life on the street for these people. Maybe if I didn't contribute, these children would have a greater chance at life by seeking help in a shelter or with an aid organization.
Then Mother Teresa's words popped into my mind and I had a little conversation with myself: "Love means to be willing to give until it hurts." Fine, I riposted inwardly, but this kid has enough. But then again, I thought, so did I! – and yet God kept giving to me – unconditionally.
And then I realized I couldn't be sure how many family members that kid is fending for. If no one were to give to him, I reasoned, it's possible he'd still be hungry. And if he attends school hungry, what can he learn?
Then there was the question of aid organizations and shelters. Who is to say that those are always the best option? So I looked into those aged eyes again and I thought: Enough vain debates about whether obliging panhandlers is pandering. Right then, at that moment, I was in a position where I could help.
Some call it karma yoga: helping others solely in gratitude to God. That, to me, is the true essence of Thanksgiving. We who judge panhandlers as either indolent, or addicts, must continuously decide in each instance when these prejudices are appropriate.
Giving doesn't always have to involve handing out dollars on the street, it can be supporting a trusted organization, inviting a homeless person into a restaurant for a meal and conversation, or donating blankets or clothing. Part of making that decision involves listening to your intuition. That's the lesson I carry.
For me, each time I give, it's an act of gratitude.
May Akabogu-Collins is a professor of economics and a freelance writer.