NZ Herald Column Kyle MacDonald

The real reason people get so angry about beggars

This is my column this week in the New Zealand Herald, which is published in the digital edition every Thursday…

Calls to once more “ban begging“, this time in Christchurch, have hit headlines. It’s sadly one of those stories that flares up from time to time, with the predictable outrage on both sides ensuring the debate gets aired but never resolved.

It’s got me wondering: why do some people get so enraged by the presence of people sitting on public streets asking for money? And, bizarrely, why do some people get furious about the fact that someone can actually make enough money to live on from the activity. I mean, isn’t that kind of the point?

At what point is it universally unacceptable to beg: how much money is too much?

We are all encouraged to construct a story of our own (relative) success that leans heavily on our own individual effort and hard work. That is the founding myth of capitalism, work hard and you too can be a success.

The reality is that we all rely on luck, good fortune and being born to the right parents. And there’s also simply the absence of bad luck: illness, an accident or other random events that prevent or limit our economic independence.

The even more painful truth is people begging on the streets are the inevitable outcome of a system that allows for success. Because (relative) success relies on inequality but begging, along with living rough, is what happens when some people fall off the wrong end of that inequality.

To hate those less fortunate is ultimately a way to avoid feeling anxiety. It’s what therapists call projection: we deny our fear, and project it on to those less fortunate, then destroy it by annihilating them. We want to ban begging to ban our own fear of falling off the edge too.

We want to turn a blind eye because the truth is too hard to see.

However, the solutions to these supposedly “complex” problems are much more straightforward.

If people don’t have somewhere to live perhaps it would be good to provide them with a home, and provide support so they can adjust, learn to start and maintain a new life.

If people don’t have enough money, generally giving them more money solves that problem too, strangely.

So, by all means, work to get rid of beggars. But let’s hide them all in warm, dry, safe accommodation. And let’s wish that all of us, young or old, have enough money to be able to live a decent life.

And please remember, your hate is fuelled by your own fear: the reality is you aren’t as brilliant, clever and talented as you think you are. A few tweaks to your life story and that could be you sitting there on the sidewalk.

It could be any of us.

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