‘Excuse Me…Can You Help Me Out with Some Change?’

-By Nancy Salvato

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” – Lao Tzu

Every evening on my way to Union Station, the same set of street hustlers are hanging about, soliciting for a handout. Some line the sidewalk, perched on the foldable camping chairs one would expect to see toted by soccer moms en route to children’s’ organized sporting events, not associated with placards that read homeless or jobless. Others play instruments; one man strategically situated on the bridge playing plastic buckets for drums, another accompanies himself with some kind of Karaoke machine. There is also a Saxophone player on occasion and I have sometimes thought to myself that they should all get together and form a band. One fellow simply whines, using the same line every time I pass him, “Please, can you help me buy a meal at McDonalds, please?” Once in awhile, if I have stayed for dinner in the city and need to take a cab to the station, there are hustlers that magically appear to open the passenger door upon my arrival, expecting a tip for their efforts.

The cynical side of me rationalizes away their plight by thinking if these people can spend this much time figuring out ways to relieve me of my spare change, why not just apply for a legitimate job providing some type of service? Is it that they can clear more money working on the streets? Would earning a paycheck cause them to lose their welfare or unemployment? Do they not want to work for someone? What drives this practice? Most don’t appear incompetent. And they are out there regularly, as if they were putting in regular hours on the job. While I can walk past these people, without feeling compelled to give them a contribution, I find it particularly unsettling, when hustlers are accompanied by their children, who must watch their parents, beg for money.

Recently, I experienced a young woman with her young child –perhaps kindergarten age, who was asking commuters, “Excuse me, can you help me out with some change?” I considered reaching into my wallet, I really thought about it, but I kept walking. I did not slow down or change my mind, but I couldn’t get them out of my mind. I wondered about their circumstances. I recognize that I could find myself in similar circumstances. During the Great Depression, many hard working, educated people found themselves jobless and homeless in what seemed like the blink of an eye. Whoever could have imagined that in today’s economy, the value of a home could ever be worth less than a mortgage? Those who lose their jobs and those who default on mortgage payments may lose it all. And real estate is supposed to be a sound investment (thanks, Barney Frank and Chris Dodd). Why was this woman asking for change?

Like many people, I want to give back to society, to do for others. I want to make the world a better place. Sometimes this takes the form of giving to charitable organizations; those trying to find cures for diseases, those helping those who need food, clothing or shelter, and to those helping the soldiers serving our country or the veterans of war. If I had the financial wherewithal, there are many more charitable organizations to which I would donate, especially those that help provide people the skills to make it on their own. Being a teacher, the idea of teaching a person to fish makes complete sense to me. And I know that for some, government funding or funded organizations can make all the difference in the world in helping them to get back on their feet.

As a former Head Start Teacher, I have worked with the children of those who are determined to give their children every advantage, despite working for minimum wage, speaking English as a second language, and needing to rely on government assistance programs so that that they might get ahead. I am fully behind funding programs to train displaced workers in order that they find new sources of income. Who would deny that the government could play a role in helping those who care for the disabled and the elderly, or mentally challenged? Those who have served their country should take advantage of money made available to their families for education.

As I walked beyond the woman and her daughter, I started to obsess on the word change. There are so many meanings. How could the citizens of this great country vote a man into office on the promise of change? What change? What could those who voted him into office possibly have thought he meant by it? Perhaps those who cast their vote for the President took him literally; they really did believe that he would give them enough money from the federal government coffers that they would want for nothing. But where do they think that federal money comes from?

I thought about the fact that one third of my income that goes to the government will likely grow to be one half my wages. How else will the country pay down the deficit? I’m not seeing any benefit from the money taken from me. I wondered who is really benefitting from government bailouts paid for out of the pockets of hard working people like me, the privileged to hold jobs.

I remembered some statistic that street hustlers could clear more annually than I do. Once, I gave my son a coffee can full of spare change that I’d been collecting, for a Christmas present. I knew he’d love it and I figured it was good for him to do the math. The can ended up containing just shy of $100.00. Spare change really does add up. So there is money to be made begging on the streets. But should it be a career choice? Shouldn’t these folks on the street, the ones doing nothing but asking for a handout, be trying to better their lot in life? Why do they do this day after day? Once I tried to give some Kudo Bars to a street person begging for money, to be told he didn’t want them, he wanted money. I guess I was under the misimpression that beggars can’t be choosers.

I am left with many questions. Can a person who is utterly dependent on what another gives to them understand freedom? When did the line blur from the government maintaining opportunity and providing a temporary handout (called welfare or unemployment), using money collected from taxpayers to put into a system into which we all contribute for that purpose, to the expectation that the government take care of us? I do not know of anywhere in our system of government that the practice of Tithing be established.

Let’s take the expectation of the government taking care of us to its logical conclusion. By definition, a dependent does not call the shots. If we are all going to work to give the money to government to decide how it should be spent on us, we are no longer living under the system of government established by the founders, we are no longer free; we’ve abdicated our liberty. Instead, we are living under a system closer to Communism or Socialism, depending on who owns the businesses in which we work. And if we no longer have a say about what happens in our government and those elected to office have formed an elite group that makes all the decisions, we’ve already transformed into an Oligarchy.

I do believe we have a responsibility to those who cannot help themselves. And though I can’t help everyone, I can help to make the world a better place. It begins with doing what I can. I’ve decided that every year, we should take all the spare change we’ve dumped into our coffee can and donate it to a good cause, one we can be sure will benefit those in need. Meanwhile, it is my greatest hope that people will consider making a donation to BasicsProject.org so that our non-profit can continue to educate people in the principles, ideology, history and meaning behind our founding documents – the Charters of Freedom – so to understand their value and, therefore, advance our American Heritage to the next generation and beyond.

As an aside, and as Christmas approaches, I would like to extend my best wishes during this holiday season to all those military families and all those in harm’s way, for a safe a joyous homecoming.
Nancy Salvato is the President of The Basics Project, (www.Basicsproject.org) a non-profit, non-partisan 501 (C) (3) research and educational project whose mission is to promote the education of the American public on the basic elements of relevant political, legal and social issues important to our country. She is also a Staff Writer, for the New Media Alliance, Inc., a non-profit (501c3) coalition of writers and grass-roots media outlets, where she contributes on matters of education policy.

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