Canard Watch: Panhandlers Make a Lot of Money

by Mark Wilson

There’s an old saw out there that panhandlers actually make a lot of money.  It’s a beautiful bit of storytelling that first lures the audience in through a counterintuitive conclusion and allows the audience to feel fine about both not giving panhandlers money but also passing moral judgments on them. After all, they’re making a lot of money! So I don’t have to feel about them or whatever their circumstances are.

Here’s just a taste of “panhandlers make a lot of money” stories:

  • “Affluent Beggars” Draw Scrutiny for Their Lifestyle [Seattle Times]
  • Police: Panhandlers Raking in the Green [KOMO Oregon]
  • Panhandler Shane Warren Speegle Says He Made $60,000 A Year Begging On Street [Huffington Post]

Cecil Adams of The Straight Dope suggests that the legend of the beggar-who-really-makes-lots-of-money begging comes from the Sherlock Holmes story “The Man with the Twisted Lip,” in which Holmes is enlisted by a woman to figure out where her husband goes every day. He’s a journalist, but he’s not journalisting. Holmes discovers that the husband dons a costume (hence the man with the twisted lip) and begs for money. Why? Because he makes more money begging than he does being a journalist.

As they say, “anecdote” is not the singular of “data.” So, putting individual stories aside, how much do panhandlers make?

The Union Square Business Improvement District in San Francisco found out. San Francisco’s Union Square is a mecca for tourists who want to go to Macy’s, Neiman Marcus, and The Cheesecake Factory. For that reason, there are a lot of panhandlers. Here’s what they discovered:

In San Francisco’s Union Square, the typical panhandler is a disabled middle-aged single male who is a racial minority and makes less than $25 per day despite panhandling seven days a week for more than five years. Though Stossel was insistent that panhandlers just use the money for beer and pot, the majority of those surveyed did not. In fact, 94 percent used the meager funds they raised for food.

In addition, some justify doing little to fight homelessness because, in their view, many homeless people don’t want help and prefer living on the streets. However, researchers discovered that, on the contrary, just 3 percent of panhandlers don’t want housing.

Wow! Those guys have great jobs! They don’t need our help at all!

How could it be that all those anecdotes are wrong? Well, they may not be wrong, but they may also not be typical cases. A blogger named Urban Camper, a self-described “homeless guy,” explains:

When you are panhandling you can’t expect to make a certain amount of money. You will get disappointed. You can’t expect people to give you money because once you do you get letdown. When the average person goes to work they pretty much know how much money they are going to make by the end of the day. With panhandling this is impossible to figure.

Just because I make about $15/hr standing in a desirable location in Seattle doesn’t mean you will make $15 in Boise, ID. Location is everything. Ideally, you want to be in a high-traffic location where cars are going to have to stop if you’re flying a sign. Off-ramps are ideal but are patrolled by cops often. Most states have laws banning panhandling within 500 feet of a freeway. If you are willing to risk the citation you can make decent money off a highway. I don’t recommend it unless you are really desperate and you have a lookout.

It seems that figures generated for “panhandlers make a lot of money” stories are extrapolated from a limited data set. For example, Urban Camper can make $15 an hour in a desirable location. Multiply this by 2000 (the number of work hours in a year, taking into account two weeks of unpaid vacation) and you get $30,000. So now you can publish a story about how Urban Camper makes $30,000 a year. Except he doesn’t really make that. He could, theoretically, make that. And that assumes a 40-hour workweek. But Urban Camper is not going to work eight hours a day, five days a week:

You also have to remember, most panhandlers don’t panhandle for 8 hours a day. Most just panhandle to get what they need, whether that’s a drink, a fix, food, or bus fare. Some panhandlers will panhandle until they have $5 or $10 and call it a day. Most won’t panhandle all day. It’s nearly impossible to panhandle for 8 hours straight. You have to deal with the elements, the cops, other panhandlers harassing you, and exhaustion. It’s not as easy as it looks.

So, to create your own “panhandlers make a lot of money” story, you just need some moral outrage and a very limited data set that will allow you to assume mathematically that panhandlers (1) make a lot of money, (2) don’t want to work in a “real” job because they make so much money, and (3) consequently, you don’t have to feel bad for them. As a bonus corollary, that also means you don’t have to care about providing any kind of services for them, like housing or mental health counseling. Because they can afford that, right?