“You got two bucks man?”

I hold my Advanced Comparative Economics course (scheduled at 8 am) at Hyperion Espresso.  I had not really planned ahead for this occasion.  How was I going to legitimately use some of their scarce tables and chairs for class without buying a cup of coffee?  With only $2.75 left over, I decided that I would only bring 75 cents with me.  This course of action would commit me to my strategy which was to tell them about the Two Dollar Challenge and see if they would donate a cup of coffee.  If that did not work then I would bargain to pay for half of a cup of coffee (hence the 75 cents).  However, yesterday morning as I was walking from campus to meet my class, a homeless man stopped me and asked “You got two bucks man? It was cold last night and I want a cup of coffee.”  The first thoughts that raced through my mind were “I know what you mean.  It was cold last night” (I was still walking off the chill from staying in the shanty-town) and “Dude, I am living on $2 a day, and I cannot afford to give you any money.”  Then that uncomfortable feeling came back.  A feeling that can be summarized as follows: “Man, you are such a jackass.  Give him the 75 cents in your pocket.  You are playing poverty and have an exit.  He more than likely does not.”  Yet, I have friends who have worked with the homeless and they suggest that the best way to help the homeless is by donating directly to shelters.  Then I start thinking how often I have used the line of reasoning to justify not giving handouts.  But, have I ever donated directly to a homeless shelter?  No.  This battle is raging in my head in a matter of seconds.  I gave him the 75 cents – more than likely because I was in the middle of the Two Dollar Challenge.  On any other occasion, I would have said “Sorry, I only have credit cards”.  Maybe that is the overall purpose – to engender commiseration.  However, as an economist I do not want my actions to be guided by emotions.

All week I have been trying to understand the font of that uncomfortable feeling.  Indeed, as I am writing this I hear a voice of that little kid who came home so many times to the electricity, water and/or the phone turned off.  I hear the kid whose bedroom window overlooked the driveway and witnessed the repo-man take off with the family car in the middle of the night.  I hear the kid who used to peer out of the backseat window of a beat-up Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme and watch surrounding cars warn us about the smoke billowing out from under the hood.  Smoke we were already well aware of and accustomed to.  This kid is screaming “You have no right! You have no right!”  This kid has been screaming this at me all week.

We are privileged.  We can afford to take the Two Dollar Challenge.  Maybe more importantly, we have an exit.  That little kid believed he did not.   Even if we can afford to take the challenge do we have the right to do so?  

Part of Sam Oliver’s Reply to the blog entry above is below:

“This afternoon I went into the Presbyterian Church office to follow-up on a potential donation, and there was a sign that read “Are you a woman who could use a fresh change of clothes? A shower? A hot meal served-family style?” and then gave information on a women’s support group. For once, I could answer “Yes” to all of these questions.

I think we have a right to create/participate in social experiments like this because it allows us to better address economic issues such as poverty. I think we can all say now that we have a better understanding of what it means to be poor, and what a poor person truly needs (in terms of actual goods in addition to resources) to improve their standard of living. This is one of the few ways we can gain perspective on their lifestyle.”

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Thanks. – shawn

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