Monday, June 18, 2007

Almsgiving or Tipping?

When I go to work and when I go home I always pass at least a half dozen beggars. If I take a cab or park my car I deal with people who are working hard, presumably for little payoff. Given that my wallet is not limitless, should I tip or give alms?

This is a relatively new American dilemma. Growing up I associated begging with Latin America and poor parts of Europe, where beggars were plentiful in the 1950s and 60s.

Today, pauperized Latin American begging in major cities has reached the then-shocking levels of Bogotá in 1958. You can't go anywhere without mewling children and formerly middle class jobless adults jostling for pennies, selling any trinket, even themselves.

Europe, thankfully, is no longer poor; except in the East. The Eastern immigrants are now changing the face of Western Europe; Britain, for example, has become a new majority-Catholic country thanks to Poles. Whatever the national racism-prone Europeans may think, these people are not begging on their streets.

Not so in Washington, D.C., capital of the present empire.

Moreover, having failed to install the vast systems of social insurance of Europe, the United States is economically sliding towards becoming Brazil -- particularly in the distribution of wealth. The 9th or 10th economy in the world, depending on the criteria, Brazil has a still smallish middle class, a concentration of wealth in the hands of the top 2 percent of the population.

The American economy is the largest for any country in the world in terms of gross domestic product, beat just barely only by the 27 nations of the European Union put together. We Americans work substantially more than Europeans do, in terms of average annual hours per worker, but economists argue whether it is that we are overworked or they who are lazy.

Our average wage has been virtually stagnant since 1973. A new book called Richistan describes in almost pornographic detail what Bookings economist Isabel Sawhill told me in a recent interview, "It's no longer a matter of the haves and the have-nots. A group at the very top is pulling away from everyone else. The have-mores are pulling away from the haves."

Seeing that this is the case, I wondering whether the working poor don't deserve preference over the beggars. Isn't an ounce of prevention much more effective than a pound of ultimately ineffective palliatives?

Rampant homelessness has two causes: first, the failure of society to deal with people so mentally ill as to be unemployable; secondly, and here comes the prevention, the failure to pay poor working people a livable wage.

Yes, Congress raised the federal minimum wage from the current $5.15 an hour to $5.85 in July and ultimately to $7.25 by 2009. Even the 2009 figure yields only $15,080 a year, still below the official poverty threshold for a household of two.

People who work should not be poor.

One can quibble over how rich anyone is entitled to be. But the federal poverty line is plenty austere. And the legal helps aren't enough. As a recent article in The Washington Post shows, when members of Congress tried to live on a food stamps budget, it was very hard.

We can all do something very practical to change things. Yes, by all mean join the living wage advocacy movements. But there's something easier and simpler.


Sure, in Cuba it's considered a sign of servile capitalist exploitation and thus forbidden. Even if Cuba were the paradise it quite isn't, shouldn't one have a revolution first?

So while we sit down to wait long and hard for a national socioeconomic change, there's always the humble tip to tide working people over.
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