To Give or Not To Give to Subway Panhandlers, That Is the Question

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(Photo by Cindy Rodriguez)

New Yorkers are confronted with all manner of subway solicitations, from ad campaigns (like Dr. Zizmor's decades-long rainbow-fueled quest for perfect skin) to world-class musicians. But it's the daily decision to spare some change or ignore the pleas that presents the biggest ethical challenge.

WNYC's Cindy Rodriguez took to the trains to find out how many New Yorkers deal with this ethical puzzle.

Several social service providers say whether to give to panhandlers is a personal decision, and there is no right or wrong.  Joel Berg, who runs the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, said it’s probably the question he gets asked the most.

“I would say definitely if it’s a supposed organization asking for money, that is illegal and that is almost always a scam,” Berg said. “But individual people asking for money, it’s really up to your conscience in each situation.”

The MTA said it frequently receives complaints about panhandling from customers. And while times are trying, the MTA notes there are other ways to help. “Poverty and hunger are vexing, stubborn problems and we urge our customers to give generously to their favorite and most trusted social service charity,” MTA spokesman Aaron Donovan said in a written statement.

Follow Rodriguez on a few rides to see what the other side of the tin can is like for those who beg for a living. One man she meets earns $100 in two hours--then stops so as not to wear out his welcome. He says he begs only when his disability runs out. Another panhandler reports earning just $60 in a day and living off that.

There's a boisterous set of comments at the WNYC website already, so head on over there and listen to the radio story -- then join the conversation.