meanness and panning, or the economics of charity

A while ago, NPR published an article on the 10 Meanest Cities In America, which I've thought a lot about since reading it.  San Francisco (where I work) comes out number seven and my beloved Berkeley is number ten. Why?

All of the cities mentioned, except Kalamazoo, Michigan, are in relatively warm climates. Florida, for example, gets a pretty good representation, taking four of the ten. My reason for mentioning this is not as an excuse for the meanness, but as an attempted explanation. Back to the point: warm weather means it's easier for those without homes to survive. I mean, there's a reason why Chicago's not on the list. A couple of reasons actually: one being that I'd imagine people are more charitable to those who are freezing to death. Another being that at some point the homeless there are faced with the choice: leave or freeze to death. Either choice decreases the homeless population in the area.

The bay area in particular also has a rep for being hippie-tastic, which is often coupled with generosity, love, and all that jazz. That plus warm weather? I'd totally head over here if I were homeless. Everyone else seems to have the same idea, though. Both San Francisco and Berkeley are crawling with panhandlers.

And having a huge population of needy people then backfires on those in need--it's a lot easier to be hard-hearted when you'd stop twelve times on your way from point A to point B if you weren't. I know that when I see over a dozen panhandlers a day, I'm a lot less likely to hand over my cash. If I was approached twelve times a day and gave a dollar to everyone that approached me, I'd give out more money than I spend on my groceries and gas combined. And a dollar is stingy by today's standard.

Please note that I'm not passing judgment on what is right or wrong to do, or even declaring what I do for that matter. I'm just trying to explain the situation. Lots of demand decreases supply. It's the economics of charity.

But the meanness rating was not just about giving to people on the streets, it was also about laws being enacted or considered, but the same rules apply. If there a lot of people living on the streets, it can eventually become a problem, and then legislation comes into play.

But then again, a bit ago, I saw a cop jump out of his car (partner driving) and cut across my path (inches away) to handcuff a bloodshot-eyed vagrant who was sucking on some ice a few feet away. The policeman said something like, "All right, that's it..." and then a sentence with a conditional and something about the ice-man's actions. The friend I was walking with thought he was joking, and I thought he was being unnecessarily harsh, but then again, I didn't know if the man had done anything prior or had gestured to the police in any way.

I find myself constantly asking the question, "what is the best we can do within the confines of our society?" And is that good enough?  The same aforementioned friend told me once that what to do is an impossible question.  There are no easy answers that apply to all situations.

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