Should I Give Money to Child Beggars?
Ask Rolf: Vagabonding traveler Rolf Potts answers your questions about travel and the world
02.20.09 | 9:01 AM ET
The movie “Slumdog Millionaire” seems to suggest that the child beggars of India are connected to organized crime rings—and I’ve heard this is sometimes the case in other countries as well. As a traveler, what should I do when a kid asks me for money?
—Randy H., Friendswood, TX
Children who beg are always a tough call for travelers, since it’s natural to feel sympathy for them. Still, it’s best not to give money to child beggars, for a number of reasons. For starters, a child asking for money is almost never working independently. Even if the kid isn’t the tool of some organized-crime racket (though in many cases this is indeed the case, especially in the tourist areas of developing countries), he or she is probably doing the dirty work for adults—often family members who don’t always have the child’s best interests at heart.
Sadly, children are exploited as beggars for simple reasons of what could be called “marketing”: We are instinctively concerned about the welfare of children, and we are more likely to give them money out of a reflexive sense of sorrow or guilt. That’s why drug-addled mothers beg with sickly babies in-hand, and tourist zones invariably attract hordes of under-aged panhandlers: Kids simply have more earning potential than adults.
Even if by chance a given kid is begging independently of opportunistic adults, I find it best not to reinforce this behavior at such a young age. Some travelers suggest giving pens or other educational supplies to child beggars, but I find this strategy a tad credulous. Better to give school supplies (or money) to an actual school or aid agency in a developing country than to presume these items will go to good use at random.
Beggars of all ages are a common sight for travelers, and in general it’s best to spend some time in a given community before you start handing out money. Not only will a few days of immersion in the local culture give you a better sense for which beggars are and are not truly needy, it will also give you a sense for the spending power of the local currency. Moreover, a little cultural familiarity will allow you to see how locals react to beggars: when they give money, and how much they choose to give.
Most of the world’s spiritual traditions have time-honored practices for helping the needy, and following these local religious protocols is often the most culturally appropriate way to give money. In less religious societies, such as those in Western Europe, state funds are often available for the homeless and indigent, theoretically eliminating the need for hunger-based beggary.
In the end, don’t be afraid to say no. This isn’t always easy, but child beggars realize that what they’re doing is a numbers game—and the money you give them is less likely to improve the lives of these children than enrich the people who are exploiting them.