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.


Geneviève said...
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Joan said...

I second what Genevieve says, but do not think that tipping is the answer; it is only those workers with direct contact, generally in a service capacity, who may receive tips, and those who perform best are those already paid best! A good hairdresser will receive about 10% of whatever s/he has charged, while being paid by the salon; the better hairdressers will charge more and work at better establishments, so gain both on pay *and* on tips, while hard-working people in eg the distribution industry, will have no contact and hence no tips! Our nurses are seriously underpayed, but it would give offence to offer a tip to a nurse or other professional!

Julie Pippert said...

Good question. I'm not sure.

I'm glad to see someone else promote the information that the wages have not kept pace with costs. I'm also glad to see someone promote the information that the have-mores are pulling away from the haves.

Yes, we'd have to define what "acceptable level of living" meant but at a start, I'd say it should contain enough to provide health care (including optical and dental in addition to medical) in addition to healthy and varied food as well as adequate and safe housing.

I had no idea about that experiment. Thanks for the link.

Julie Pippert said...

I referred another blogger to this post. Also, tomorrow is my Hump Day Hmm. Believe it or not, this post fits in.

Do you mind if I link to this post in my Host Post?

Lawyer Mama said...

Ooh, Julie sent me over here! I have a post up that touches on this issue too, the haves and have nots.

Great post. I read the WP article about the attempt to live on $21 a day too. But they really need to do it for more than a week to really get it.

thailandchani said...

I kind of like the idea of a living wage. That's much better than tipping... which does, in essence, make beggars of hard working people.



Anne said...

Funny, lately I've often thought of my home state (& referred so to others) as the new Brazil.

By choice I work at a minimum wage job and there is an elderly woman I help who tries to tip me. I've put the money in the garbage (in anger) (she could see me doing it), a couple weeks ago I was able to leave fast before she could, yesterday I conned a man (he freely offered to assist her) into helping her & _he_ tried to refuse the tip. She doesn't get it. On the other hand I recognize that she just doesn't want to take advantage, so I realize it's no use butting my head.

(Actually, most elderly are like that.)

Usually I end up giving the tip away in the course of the day, one way or another.

Cecilieaux, I have no idea whether my comments support or undermine your idea.

Cecilieaux said...

Anne, I didn't see your comment until after I posted again.

Tipping is not supposed to be insulting. I can't imagine anyone who has an insult in mind when they give money to someone who performs work for them. It's not charity, it's a bonus.

I may be treading on thin ice, but I think you may want to think better of an old lady who, it seems to me, is only trying to say "thank you."

Geneviève said...
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jen said...

one of the things that frustrate me the most about my profession is that we are unable to help the working poor until they become homeless.

prevention is always the first to be cut...and the feds have prioritized chronically homeless, which while being important completely excludes the working poor and families.

tipping is what we as individuals can do. but our local and federal leadership MUST do their part in five children live in poverty in the US. they are our future. and there is not a city in the US who's minimum wage is enough to afford a market rate apartment. that alone, is staggering.

anne said...

Hi, Cecilieaux, I do see this woman frequently and we have an amicable relationship. Early on I changed my attitude ...because I do not like being grouchy, and to give her the benefit of the doubt.

Sometimes I do reassess my attitudes.

On the other hand, people can listen to the "no thank you" and not insist every time to tip. There is a time and a place.

Andy said...

Hi Cecilieaux,

I know I'm very late in this discussion but - 'It's not charity, it's a bonus' sums up the thing exactly.

If it is a 'bonus' then it should be in addition to a fair wage (and by fair I mean something that can, properly, sustain the person). If, however, it is to supplement the wage to make it a living wage, then, surely, that IS charity?

Cecilieaux said...

Andy, thanks for your comment. I like your term "bonus" for a tip. And, yes, just wages would be nice. Maybe the new administration will see things our way.