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A panhandler, or beggar, is someone who approaches a stranger and asks for food or money. There are two general types of panhandlers: persons who are truly needy—those who are disabled or cannot work—and “professional” beggars who panhandle for profit, not because of need. This distinction parallels attitudes about the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor; conservatives often portray all panhandlers as wily good-for-nothings who seek to trick hardworking Americans into giving them money for drugs and alcohol. Despite such stereotypes, however, the majority of panhandlers live in extreme poverty, and many are homeless. Some scholars distinguish panhandlers from other beggars, distinguishing a panhandler as a person who solicits from strangers without offering anything in return. By this definition, a street musician or person performing odd tasks—such as cleaning car windows at an intersection—does not qualify as a panhandler.
Panhandling is also one of the primary ways that affluent Americans come in contact with the very poor. In contemporary American cities, panhandlers often stand near busy intersections, such as near malls or off highway exits, and ask passersby for money, work, or food. Many contemporary panhandlers use signs explaining their needs. This method of “advertising” need is a result of sprawling urban development. In contrast to the compact cities of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, where the rich lived near the poor, in contemporary American cities the very poor often live apart from the affluent, limiting everyday contact between the classes. For example, middle-class professionals who work in the city but live in the suburbs may drive on a highway through a poor area, but they have little contact with the poor themselves; before the invention of the automobile, however, suburb dwellers would not have been able to ignore the poor areas they traveled through. Consequently, successful panhandlers place themselves in a prominent or confrontational position to arouse sufficient pity from passersby in a very short time.
Panhandlers attempt to obtain money or goods by emphasizing their pitiable condition—disability, hunger, deformity, or homelessness—in order to disgust or shame passersby into giving support. The more successful panhandlers emphasize their inability to adapt into mainstream society and thus their need for support; panhandlers who blatantly advertise the effects of extreme poverty upset the complacency of affluent Americans. As such, panhandlers have a connection with the underbelly of society, the “underclass,” as concerned critics in the 1980s termed it. The many stereotypes about professional panhandlers also connect to panhandlers’ conscious attempt to arouse pity: affluent Americans often feel uncomfortable around panhandlers—who are a highly visible reminder of poverty—but they are unable to distinguish between those that are truly in need (the deserving poor) and professional beggars (the undeserving poor) who seek merely to obtain easy money. Consequently, attitudes about panhandlers tend to parallel general attitudes about poverty: most Americans agree that the able-bodied poor should obtain work, but the disabled and truly needy—the group that most panhandlers either mimic or belong to—deserve some sort of relief.
- Axinn, June, and Mark J. Stern, Social Welfare: A History of the American Response to Need, 5th ed. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2001);
- Bremner, Robert H., Gary W. Reichard, and Richard Hopkins, ed., American Choices: Social Dilemma and Public Policy since I960 (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1986);
- Bose, Rohit, and Stephen W. Hwang, “Income and Spending Patterns among Panhandlers,” Canadian Medical Association Journal, Vol. 167, No. 5 (September 3, 2002);
- Patterson, James T., America’s Struggle against Poverty in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000).
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