Summer Panhandling Strategies

Image by Ed Yourdon. Click on image for license and information.

Image by Ed Yourdon. Click on image for license and information.

My office moved a few blocks south earlier this year, which puts me in the Flower District and means that I have a fifteen minute walk from Penn Station. As the summer months wane, the obstacle course of tourists and panhandlers grows more complicated. In this regard, New York City is like any summer town: an influx of visitors during the warmer months means an increase in profitable opportunities in many contexts. It's a pattern that you can readily observe in some of the smaller towns on the eastern tip of Long Island and in other small town vacation destinations. In a metropolis like New York City (and this applies throughout the boroughs), it might be harder to catch because the hustle and bustle never quite slows to sleepiness as it does in "proper" summer towns, but the ebb and flow is there: as the number of tourists and vacationers increase, so too does the number of panhandlers.

Panhandling (begging) is as old activity. There have always been people who have had less than others and had little means to get more to survive. The ancient Greeks referred to this group as the "ptochos," from the root meaning to crouch or cower—essentially placing this group on their knees. This position of submission serves as a sign of their inability to offer repayment. Reciprocity is an important mechanism in relationships, and is a foundational element in communities. It also plays an important role in establishing an individual's legitimacy as a member of society, so an an inability to offer repayment renders him socially invisible.

This wasn't always the case. In medieval England, beggars were a normal part of society, and paying alms to support these individuals was a Christian duty. However, following the Black Plague and the rise of the Industrial Revolution, this view began to shift. In both of these instances, the available work didn't match the pool of able workers, either requiring additional fitness or skills that the population didn't possess. The result was a labor shortage that increased the number of abject poor. As these numbers grew, so too did the belief that these people were a threat to social order and social prosperity. As a result, the English passed a number of laws to limit and control begging, with punishments ranging from removal and resettlement, to imprisonment and forced labor, to branding, whipping, and even death.

These types of laws made their way to the American colonies and were generally upheld until the 1960s when activists began to criticize them as vague and unconstitutional. In 1980 the Supreme Court ruled that solicitation to contribute money is protected speech, but it upheld restrictions on where direct solicitations could be made. This meant that local governments could regulate the time and/or place of begging—so for example, panhandling in a park after sunset could be a misdemeanor.

Officials have looked to regulate panhandling because of the perception it generates. For example, a 1988 survey by the New York Transit Authority found that one of the reasons the public viewed the subway as a dangerous place was due to the prevalence of begging. This became a key point in Giuliani's campaign to clean up New York. One outcome from that initiative was the passage of regulatory measures to curb aggressive panhandling (e.g., begging near a restroom or ATM, physically obstructing someone to make a request, following someone with the intent to intimidate, using foul language if refused.) However, in the early nineties, these types of laws in New York were overturned by the federal government for being discriminatory based on the rationale that there were different groups throughout the country were presently engaged in very public means of fundraising (and presumably were using similar tactics).

Because the regulation of panhandling varies greatly, panhandlers have had to become more strategic. A successful panhandler is someone who isn't perceived as threatening, and presents a need as a part of a larger story. Three basic types of panhandlers have emerged: the hard-luck storyteller, the sign-carrier, and the cup-shaker. Each method offers a degree of agency to the actor and touches upon differing degrees of required engagement for both the individual and passersby.

For example, on the Long Island Rail Road, it's not uncommon for storytellers to board the trains a few minutes before they leave and ask for a specific, small amount of money:

Excuse me, folks. Can anyone help? I need $2.80 more to get a ticket to xxx. Just $2.80. Can anyone help?

If there is no answer, the story progresses:

I've just been released from the hospital. I was hospitalized because I had an asthma attack. I'm trying to get home. Can you help?

In these instances, the panhandler has to move quickly. If he doesn't succeed in one car, he has to pass to the next and has to be sure he is off the train before it leaves the station. The strategy is artful. It's more believable because he needs a specific amount. The backstory adds a human element—asthma, trying to get home: these are relatable points. This strategy demands that the audience recognize his personhood and include him as a member of society.

However, it's a strategy that has a relatively short lifespan because regular commuters will be able to readily identify repeat occurrences. There's a general uptick in this method during the summer months, closer to the end of the week, when there is a chance the panhandler might encounter someone who has not seen him before. While these trains carry everyday commuters, they also carry weekend vacationers to the Hamptons, so there is an assumption that the people in these cars may not necessarily be local and may be willing to believe this story. This method is more likely to lead to harassment from local officials, however, because it makes the panhandler more visible.

Aboveground, signs are still important and they're popular because they're the least obtrusive means of panhandling. They should be readable from a distance and at a glance because people aren't going to stop. In general, people are encouraged not to see poverty because it infringes on the equanimity of the social state. In fact, this is a main social combatant for panhandling: telling people to ignore panhandlers, and to not feel guilty for doing so because these pleas aren’t genuine. Proponents of this messaging maintain that there are services available for people in need, but overlook the challenges in getting that assistance.

These less vocal actions also mean that the panhandler might get less than someone who is more assertive, as in the case of the storyteller. They also tend to take up spaces in less trafficked places, which can contribute to a lower intake, but means that they might be able to occupy a space with relative stability. Signage makes a surge during the summer months because it can be an outdoor activity. Signage indoors will attract unwanted attention from officials and likely get the panhandler ejected from the space they're looking to occupy. In fact, any kind of indoor occupation during the summer months may get you ejected. It's not uncommon to see police officers rousting sleepers along the back corridor of Penn Station during the summer months (though they may be more likely to overlook those individuals during the colder periods of the year.

And of course, there is the tried and true method of simply shaking a cup with change—presuming you have some change to shake. This method requires nothing from the panhandler in terms of an explanation and nothing from the passerby in terms of assessing a need. The call to action is clear: put your change in my cup. But it may make people uncomfortable because it forces a closer degree of contact. Where the hard-luck story tries to justify the ask, and the sign-carrier asks for no interaction, you come close to the cup-shaker for the exchange, and you have to acknowledge that they are begging.

New Yorkers, are there other types of panhandlers that you're encountering? What strategies are they employing?

And if you're not a New Yorker, how is panhandling viewed/managed in your hometown?

Welcome (back) to the Urban Ethnographer! At least once a week, we'll take an ethnographic look at life in New York City and the surrounding areas. My hiatus was rather extended, but I'm glad to back here on Scientopia, and I hope to see you on the block!

Want more?
Patricia K. Smith, Patricia K. "The Economics of Anti-Begging Regulations." The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Vol. 64, No. 2 (Apr., 2005), pp. 549-577

6 responses so far

  • DJMH says:

    Where do you place the artists (violin players, accordion players, drum players) in this pantheon?

  • There's also the species of panhandler who purposely chooses a supposedly illegitimate backstory, like a sign that says, "Need money for beer".

    • kdcosta says:

      Or the "Need money for pot" gimmick. I didn't distinguish between the classes of sign carriers, but it's true that some have more fanciful stories than others. I think location has a huge role to play in that particular tactic--and a willingness to participate in selfies with tourists.

  • JustaTech says:

    What about the people who sell the "Real Change" newspaper? They're not exactly sales people (since it's a 'suggested donation'), but there is an exchange of a good for money. I remember a guy a Harvard Square who sold Real Change for at least 10 years.

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