Charity is for suckers

Apparently you can use a pen, can't you? Fill out a job application with one.


Can you stomach a first-person story? We try not to do these, but here’s one with a greater purpose. After reading it, your disposable income should increase (or at least not decrease.)

20 years ago your blogger was a recent college graduate with dreams of being on the radio*, living in downtown Toronto – a central business district so dense that it can’t help but be pedestrian-friendly. To get to work every morning (at the office of a crooked penny stock promoter, now mercifully out of business), I’d walk a mile or so from my condo to a high-rise office on Bay Street (Wall Street’s smaller, colder, less influential, eternally apologetic sister with an inferiority complex.) En route I’d pass by College Park, a vintage shopping mall whose wide sidewalks served as a depository for dozens of the city’s beggars, buskers, and Deadheads looking to make a better world by receiving money in exchange for things made of hemp (or not.)

Some of the street musicians were fairly talented, if Indigo Girls covers with tambourine accompaniment happened to be your thing. But as the Napster defendants argued, music was meant to be free. Thus I’d never give my serenaders money. The soundtrack in my head was entertainment enough.

Among the beggars and their slightly more motivated brethren, one person stuck out. He was a quadruple amputee with what remains one of the sunniest dispositions I’ve ever witnessed. Shirtless, bearded, wearing nothing but a pair of jeans, he’d say hi to everyone who walked by. His arms stopped somewhere around the elbow, his legs were a mystery. Sometimes he was there with a handler, sometimes he wasn’t, or maybe during those absences the handler was getting food. Or cigarettes. The beggar would somehow manage to smoke by holding the cigarette between his stumps and placing the butt on his wheelchair whenever he got tired, which I’m guessing was often. Normally I’d argue that smoking cigarettes is for idiots, but I’ll reserve judgment on someone whose smoke-filled lungs were among the most functional parts of his body.

I never learned the beggar’s name, but the black humor hemisphere of my brain christened him “One”, after the Metallica song.

Some days I’d hope to get there before he’d set up shop for the day, because there’s another part of my brain that would refuse to not give him money. Every time, whatever was in my wallet was his. Occasionally that meant a $50 bill, which I could ill afford. Yet it was all I could do to restrain myself from stopping passersby and insisting that they follow suit. “Look, I don’t give money to beggars either. But this guy’s different.”

One day, One disappeared. Which isn’t noteworthy: beggars aren’t renowned for their permanence. Without having any details about his departure, I could imagine my own happy ending: his biological family had misplaced him after birth (stubby kids are easy to lose), spent decades searching for him and finally found him. A visiting European princess took him under her wing (or her arm.) Something good, because God knows he deserved it.

A few months later the stock promoter put me out of my misery. I applied for a job at CFRB 1010 – Canada’s biggest, most powerful radio station. Wore my best** suit and tie, met with the program director, laughed at his jokes and tried to make my laughter sound authentic. He shook my hand, I said I’d find my own way out.

Down the hallway, I passed a semi-open door and heard an unmistakable high-pitched voice.

One. All by himself, conducting phone surveys. With a headset attached to his head and a pen in his mouth.

Fortunately his back was turned, so I didn’t bother disturbing him. He wouldn’t have recognized me anyway.

At that moment, an epiphany: I vowed I would never give money to anyone, either via an institution or hand-to-hand, if that person had at least one functioning limb.

No example you give can trump this. The teenage mother with multiple kids, the illegal alien, the woman who ate herself into superobesity, the meth addict whose parents didn’t hug him enough: they can all go to the Fifth Ring and share a skewer when a man who’s completely helpless can find gainful employment.

Some ambulatory people like to self-tithe, or to convince themselves that their residency on this planet requires them to care for “the less fortunate” for some reason. Taken to its logical extension, that would mean we’d never do anything productive, creating any wealth. We’d each be spending our time endlessly transferring our money: from the most fortunate (Kobe Bryant, Angelina Jolie) through the slightly less fortunate (me, probably you) all the way down to crack babies.

You want to help someone who doesn’t have “enough” money? Offer them a job. If you can’t, the next best thing you can do is nothing. Seriously. That’ll help avail them of the inevitable truth – that giving people money out of guilt not only doesn’t do any good, it makes things worse. It lets whatever marketable talents those people have wither and weaken – and whatever contributions to society they could have made to society, will go unmade.

I’d always thought “if he can do it, anyone can” was a fluffy piece of motivational-poster nonsense. It took the most disadvantaged man I’d ever met to make a believer out of me.

*This was a completely legitimate aspiration to have back then. Thank God I didn’t achieve it in any meaningful sense.


**This post is an editor’s pick at the Carnival of Money Stories**

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