Wednesday, August 21, 2013

a few random things about money.

This afternoon we closed the sale of our apartment. After what seemed like hours upon hours of signing and passing along reams of paper*, we gave the new owners the keys and cracked open some bubbly. (We're not moving til next week, but we trust the owners not to prank us in the middle of the night.)

Which means that we have a little bit more cash on hand that we usually do. The bank teller started in on a speech detailing the options of "premium checking". I interrupted her and said, "we're renovating", and she stopped. That cash is going to be flowing out of our pockets quite quickly, and soon.

The other day, driving the kids to camp, an older man approached me while we were stopped at a red light and asked me through the window for some money. I shook my head and drove on.  Daniel questioned me for days about this. Why didn't you give the man money? Doesn't he need it? Shouldn't we give money to people who need it? 

And I was completely stumped. I tried the "Let me think about it. Ask me again tonight." Which translates to: "I hope you forget to ask me about this again."

I should know my son better.  He will forget to put his pajamas in the hamper every. single. day but he'll never forget to ask me a question related to money. **

Shouldn't we give money to people who need it? 

I tried explaining to Daniel that mommy and daddy give to lots of charities and organizations that help others (which we do). I tried to say something like, "he might use the money for drugs." I tried, "I can't just give money to everyone that asks for it."  None of that makes sense to my Ethiopian 7 year old. He saw me refuse to help an old man.  And he knows that is wrong.

And he's right.

I've been a New Yorker all my life. I've been asked for change/quarters/spare snacks/help thousands of times. I almost always say no. But why? Because that is what everyone else does? Because that is safer? Because the person asking might be a drug addict? Because a quarter won't really help them?

There are 20,000 homeless children in our city. 20,000. That is a mind boggling number for a city so wealthy.

It's hard when our kids ask us tough questions. I've been wrestling with this one for a couple of weeks now and I don't have a good answer yet. For him or for myself.

I could tell him stories. I could tell him about the man who begged for change on our street corner growing up. Day in and day out. We never gave him a dime until one day my dad gave him $20 bucks.

About the tiny child in South Africa who raised her arms up to me (a 19 year old college student). About the time I went into a store in South Africa and bought a bag of apples and a bag of bread and handed it to the woman sitting outside the store with her 5 children.  Because I still felt guilty about not picking up that baby.
About the children who beg in Addis Ababa, in his home country. Who have scars and oozing sores and broken, useless limbs and who know three English words: Help. Mommy. Money. 

Daniel found some Ethiopian money (birr) while we were packing. He excitedly said he's going to keep it and when we go to Addis Ababa next year he's going to give it away.

He doesn't know that if you start giving away money on a street corner in Addis Ababa you will soon be mobbed by beggars. You would drown in the people trying to get help from you.
I once gave a beggar a 1/2 a piece of granola bar and within moments 10 more children appeared, hands outstretched. And I was out of granola bars.

I really don't have any good answers yet.  I just know that I either need to start carrying around a lot more change or a lot more granola bars.

Do you give to beggars? Where? When? Why? Why not?

* You would think that in this day and age we could all just pass an i-pad around for a retinal scan or something, but, reams of paper it was.

** I should start charging him a quarter every time he leaves his dirty clothes on the floor. That should get him motivated!


  1. I had a similar experience yesterday on the N train. A man walking with a hobbled gait came on and gave a very heart-wrenching speech (which, to me, came off more as manipulative and meant to guilt people into giving money). He was begging for change on the trains, which is technically illegal. I give money to well-known organizations, but I still felt weird/slightly uncomfortable not giving him anything. I saw a dad give his son a dollar. I thought the kid probably wondered why so many adults didn't look up from their books/phones, but I've heard a similar speech from so many people, and seen so many fakers, that I don't trust the average person begging on the street. That's a tough thing to explain to an innocent, trusting child!

  2. Also a NYer (way uptown in Washington Heights). I usually ignore people who are begging in NY, but sometimes try to carry granola bars/fruit, etc. to give if someone is asking for food. I have had people asking for money on the train who seem so desperate and say that they are so hungry, but when you offer to get off the train and buy them a meal or to give them fruit or granola bar, they refuse. Sometimes, people are grateful for whatever you can be so hard and doubly hard to explain to your child (mine is 4 so he hasn't asked yet, but I know it is coming). Truthfully, the need in NYC seems much smaller and much more alcohol/drugs/mental instability-based than the need in Addis which was staggering to me.

    We lived in Addis for 3 months between court and embassy in 2011. In Addis, we discovered that logistically the best way to give money to people who you want to help is to:
    1. Put some birr in a bag with food, e.g. your wrapped up food from a restaurant
    2. Fold the birr into a tiny triangle and palm it to someone or toss it to them as you walk by

    Thee two methods resulted in us being able to give money to people who we wanted to "support" but not getting mobbed on the street. Also, your NY street smarts and some basic amharic will help you be able to get people to back-off if necessary.

  3. I try to carry $1.00 or $2 in an easy place to reach because I don't take my wallet out in the street or subway. It's really an easy thing to do and though I don't do it all the time, I do it often enough to not feel guilty when I don't. I think the idea for me is to not make a big deal about it, but give whoever is asking when I can. I don't really care if the money goes to drugs or booze or gambling, a cigarette or a nice hot cup of coffee. None of my business.


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