Soapbox day: child beggars

There are plenty of worthwhile charitable organizations that do valuable work with orphaned and abandoned children. Give your money to them, so instead of buying drugs, you are buying school uniforms and nutritious meals.

Being a foreigner also involves hassles. I don’t want to paint too rosy a picture. Auto rickshaws slow down in front of me when I’m trying to cross the street, because obviously I’m trying to signal them. I can’t just be trying to cross the street.

I’m also a beggar magnet.

I haven’t given a rupee to a beggar since 1993, so this is complete a waste of their time unless they’re just practicing their delivery before a live audience in preparation for the next soft touch, which I don’t think they are.

I won’t even share my treats with the dog. It just encourages him.

And this is my treatise on why you shouldn’t either. Give to beggars, I mean. How you deal with your dog is your affair. But I can assure you that if you give in to those big brown eyes, he’ll keep putting on his starving face every time you try to sit down to a nice bag of really fattening potato chips,

To point out the obvious, we live in a capitalist economy. And although I’m not an absolute fan of classical economic theory—I think there are some major holes in it—I do think there is something to be said about supply and demand.

This, however, is up to you.
This, however, is up to you.

If there is no demand for a service, people stop supplying it. Unless it’s something they just enjoy doing for its own sake, like my blog. I like it. You get to read it, more or less for free, because I just like writing it. WordPress might be making a few bucks off of it, but they’re deriving their profit from both of us.

What does this have to do with begging, you ask?

Because beggars are providing a service. You may have presumed all along that this whole business was just about someone being hard up on their luck and your having a generous heart, but that is not so. Beggars here, as in many places, are often engaged in carrying out the family profession. Their parents did it. Their grandparents did it. And now they are doing it. Or they were sold, stolen, or abandoned into it as the only viable means of support. It has now become their profession and will most likely remain theirs throughout their lives, because children who beg have no opportunity or incentive to obtain any other skill that will allow them to transcend the most wretched degree of poverty. As adults, they will be able to dig ditches and not much else.

So what service are beggars providing you with? The salving of your guilty conscience for having so much more than some people have, and the ability to shift your feelings towards a more pleasant feeling of generosity.

If professional begging is not a niche you’d like in your society, then don’t encourage it in someone else’s. It’s very simple.

Except it’s not. It’s worse than that. Most of the beggars I see are small children or women with small children. They do seem to have parents, although the adults they are staying with may not be their parents. There is no way I would know. I have certainly seen orphaned and abandoned children beg as well.

But most child beggars aren’t just supporting themselves through their labor. They are supporting their families or they are supporting a beggarmaster. There are several implications of this. One of them is that a child who begs does not have the opportunity to attend school. They are working all day, and sometimes late into the night as well. The cash a child beggar needs to take in during the day goes well beyond the few rupees he might need for his own sustenance. There is no time for studies.

What might be difficult to understand is that begging is a form of labour, and it is every bit as dangerous and limiting for children to work all day at it as it is for them to make carpets.

I also suspect that this means there is a lucrative market for beggar children, just as there is one for children in the sex industry. But I am hoping this practice has died down somewhat, given the glut of unattended children in most major cities.

On the other hand, when this isn’t the case, and the children are working for themselves, begging leaves them flush with cash at the end of their 16-hour work days. And, as you might guess, children aren’t the best financial managers for themselves. They aren’t investing all of this cash in 401ks, nor are they hiding it under their mattresses. They are spending it. And you probably won’t like what they spend it on.

The infant may or may not be a relative. She may be nothing more than a borrowed prop.
The infant may or may not be a relative. She may be nothing more than a borrowed prop.

Street life here, as elsewhere, involves far more serious temptations than junk food and too many toys. Orphaned and abandoned children who live by begging spend their nights drunk or stoned out of their minds. I don’t want you to imagine wild adolescent parties. I want you to imagine five and six year olds doing this, because they are.

Further, because of the low status of begging in any society, child beggars develop a sense of themselves as people who live outside of the normal bounds of society, who can never fit in or contribute in a meaningful way, and this life is the only one available to them. So this destroys their hope for themselves and the future as well.

Don’t do it.

There are plenty of quality charitable organizations working to help children and destitute adults. Give to them


2 thoughts on “Soapbox day: child beggars

  1. Mados November 3, 2013 / 2:51 pm

    I agree with you in principle. Begging is labour.

    I always give coins to people who play good music in the street… because I want them to keep playing music (here I am referring to in Sydney or in Denmark, I haven’t been to India). Not everybody has a chance to fit into societies in traditional ways, and while playing music on the street is not a solid occupation most would aim for, I definitely find the service worthwhile supporting.

    I don’t give money to people who try to make me feel sorry for them… because I don’t want to be manipulated into feeling sorry by give-people-bad-conscience-professionals (same with charities by the way). It is not because I think they don’t need help, but I don’t think street begging will get them what they need anyway, just prolong a not-worthwhile pointless “career” until it is with 100% guaranteed certainty too late to try to get out of it.

    • Ashana M November 4, 2013 / 9:35 am

      I do the same thing. I see public performance of music as a valuable service I’d like to continue to have–sort of like radio. But not sob stories. Actually, in the US I see the same people begging on the train every day and they usually have a different story every time. But I do give to charities that are doing good work to the extent that I can afford. I do think someone needs to do and I can’t.

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