Giving to beggars is bad and exploitative labor is good

Two days before Christmas I spent an hour watching a beggar. Would you like to hazard a guess at how many people gave to her? She was an old woman. She looked ancient but was probably only 50 or 60 years old. She was shriveled and doubled over to the extent that she took up little more than the space of an average TV set on one of La Paz’s busiest pavements. And her spindly wrist stuck out of this buddle desperately imploring passers-by to spare a coin or two. But no, hearts didn’t jump. Even in the peak of their Christmas generosity people were not going to jolted into giving by this pitiful sight and, in the end, out of the hundreds that went past, just six people stopped to drop a coin into her hand.

To many this won’t come as a surprise. We have all heard and read that giving to beggars is not good for them. As was immortalized in the depictions of Indian street children in the movie Slumdog Millionaire, many believe that giving to kids who should be in school only encourages them to stay uneducated or feed their glue sniffing addiction, or that there is a possibility that they are working for a pimp like figure. Meanwhile, the adults are seen as taking an easy option when they should be helping themselves by working, “don’t they know that nothing comes for free” and “isn’t it partly their fault that they are there in the first place?”

To test whether these feelings, and subsequent lack of donations, are indeed widespread, last week I went on a mission to ask people from all parts of the world awkward questions about why they are not more generous to beggars in their own backyard. Most denied that their generosity is not proportional to the gravity of the situation and are reluctant to discuss the matter further. Others started to list their various charitable contributions that aren’t giving money on the street. While others still used one or many of the well-known rationalizations outlined above and a few admitted that beggars don’t emotionally move them.

These widespread opinions and behavior fit into what U.S President Barrack Obama describes as our “empathy deficit”, but a more psychologically scientific name would be dissociation. Rather cleverly, humans in both the developing and developed world have managed to distance themselves almost completely from the extreme suffering that they come into daily contact with, either directly or through media. The result is that, for many, a stranded dog somehow pulls more on the heart strings than a person who can’t afford to feed themselves.

This dissociation does not just apply to beggars, but can rear its head in some form or another in almost all potentially heart-wrenching situations. Currently, it is labor exploitation that is on the tip of every moralist’s tongue and at the very back of every consumer’s mind.

Over the last decade journalists and activist projects, such as “NikeWatch”, have forced consumers and especially female shop-a-holics to come face to face with the exploitative production processes behind the goods that they buy. This has mainly been done by raising awareness about the terrible conditions and poor wages that the often female workers who make consumer goods face.  Occasionally they are now made to really ponder how Walmart can put a pack of three tank tops that have been made in Asia on their shelves for just US$6 and still make a profit. In other words, consumer dissociation has been challenged by asking people things, such as if they are willing to buy cheap clothes if they know that a child’s hand embroidered it or what price they are willing to pay to know that a product is environmentally and socially sound?

Like the excuses that prevent even minimal generosity to beggars, the one that enables shop-a-holics to continue buying $2 t-shirts focuses on a small part of the system and simplifies it. When well-educated adults are asked how they can morally justify publically boasting that their sequined jacket cost them just $15 dollars they use the well practiced argument of “at least it provides employment”. This is true if you stick to the most basic definition of the word ‘employment’. In the same way that people read a story about a rich kid turned drug addict, who has ended up as a beggar, and use this single anecdote to feed their dissociation and make personally advantageous assumptions about how all beggars are really just wasters by choice, people presume that employment is good, full stop. Strangely, we somehow forget to pause and think about the great difference between fair employment and exploitative employment. We forget to consider that if buying a top for $2 creates exploitative employment then buying the same shirt but for twice the amount (a mere $4) could create non-exploitative employment and that this would change lives in developing countries.

This does not apply to everyone. There is a small minority of people, especially middle and upper class Europeans, who try their best only to buy fair trade clothes and food. And the Oxfam’s NikeWatch campaign did manage convince consumers to boycott Nike, and in turn, Nike changed their production practices.

However, research to date shows that increased information concerning exploitative labor practices does little to influence consumer choices. Carrigan et al (2001) concluded from their semi-famous research project “The myth of the ethical consumer – do ethics matter in purchase behavior?” that despite a boost in pro-ethics journalism, ethical consumers still comprise a small minority, and that most consumers continue to consider brand image as more important than ethical behavior.

Not surprisingly, there are some issues that stand out to the consumer over others. Auger and colleagues (2003) found that when buying a sports shoe the issue of child labor was considered more important than guarantees of a minimum wage salary, provision of safe working conditions, and the existence of acceptable living standards. However, rather shockingly, overriding all the above in importance was the fit of the shoe.

Even the relatively successful anti-Nike labor exploitation information that once dominated the media only “provoke[d] some minimal anger and frustration”, which in the end was ”not enough to change consumers’ behaviors” in the long run.

All these studies show a dissociation between our actions and the plight of others. A dissociation which transforms our normally sympathetic natures into unsympathetic ones. They demonstrate that consumers are not really fussed about exploitation in the same way that pedestrians are not really fussed about the existence of extreme poverty.

Such psychological dissociation is a great limitation to human development. If only our hard hearts could be softened and these emotional psychological barriers could be lifted, redistribution would become the norm and extreme poverty would probably disappear by the end of the decade. However, human psychology is strong. Awareness raising is ineffective but it most definitely is not effective enough to make ethical thinking the custom, which in the eyes of many leaves it up to policy makers to make the moral choice the easy choice.

What are your experiences on day-to-day dissociation and do you have any ideas about how to overcome it?

Mieke Dale-Harris is working as an intern at the Institute of Advanced Development Studies (INESAD), La Paz, Bolivia. She is a psychology graduate from Goldsmiths University of London.

Like this article? Be sure to sign up at the top of this page to receive future articles directly to your inbox.



Check Also

Advantages and disadvantages of being disabled in Bolivia

By: Lykke E. Andersen* Today is the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, and I …


  1. Nice post. There has been some good research on affect/emotion and decision making as it relates to charity/engagement, including writings on ‘psychic numbing’ (people become overwhelmed by large seemingly unachievable needs) and strategies used to overcome it.

    This article by Paul Slovic is a good place to start as the theory applies to charity as well as the author’s topic:

    Slovic, Paul. “”If I look at the mass I will never act”: Psychic numbing and genocide.” Judgment and Decision Making, vol. 2, no. 2, April 2007, pp. 79-95.

  2. In the mid-1990s I went back to school and we looked at the Nike labor issue in an international political economy course. Michael Jordan had recently been paid $25 million for doing a Nike commercial. I did some arithmetic and in a seminar talk told the class that given the wages received by the girls making the Nike shoes, if one of those girls worked 10 hours per day 6 days per week making shoes, it would take her 34,000 years to earn what Michael Jordan was paid for a single afternoon’s work doing the commercial.

    One classmate defended this absurdity as a “free market” income distribution, that Jordan’s contribution “added value” equal to his vastly disproportionate compensation for his contribution to making and selling Nike shoes, and this is part of the dissociation problem. Neoclassical/neoliberal economic theory “assumes” that unimpeded markets efficiently allocate resources and optimize income and wealth distributions.

    This surrealistically anti-reality theory has been the dominant paradigm in academic and policy making economics since the late 1700s, originating with the misreaders of Adam Smith who became what Friedrich List called the “popular school” of economics. In his 1776 book, “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations”, Smith invited readers to “imagine” a free market economic system in which household and small business scale producers each specialized in producing what they were best at and traded their surplus outputs with each other in a free market. Via free competition among producers for sales to consumers (and the profits form those sales), wealth production would be maximized via division of labor and specialization and innovation and everybody would be materially better off. It’s a wonderful theory.

    Anyone who has actually “read” Smith’s book knows that he wrote it as an indictment AGAINST the actual political economy of 18th century England, which was corporate mercantilism, the era of the British East Indies Company in revolutionary defiance of whose economic predations the US went to war against the enabler of those predations: the British Empire. Smith’s ideal free market was presented as an ANTIDOTE to corporatism, which is a plutocrat/government collusion where government policy enables enormously rich corporate collectives of wealth to extract and further concentrate ownership and control of the wealth of nations. But “the popular school” carried on as if England’s “actual” imperial corporatized extractive political economy was, or was like, Smith’s ideal free market. And that conflation of an ideal with reality has been promulgated ever since that era, because it justifies the extravagant wealth that rich people have colluded to extract from everybody else.

    In the real world, as Adam Smith knew very well and described in detail in his book, it is not “free markets” that allocate resources and wealth. It is rich and politically powerful “men” exercising the power of their wealth who allocate resources and wealth. Today’s wealth and income distributions have almost nothing to do with a free market distribution system, and almost everything to do with “market power”. Market power, oligopoly and monopoly enabled and sustained by supportive government legislation, is anathema to “free market” theory, which is why neoclassical/neoliberal ideologues so object to “big government interference” in “free markets”. Even market theory acknowledges that the exercise of market power misallocates resources and incomes and destructively distorts economic outcomes.

    But the ideological trick is to claim that vast corporate concentrations of wealth and power are merely “free market businesses” who ‘compete’ and who suffer the regulatory and tax predations of ‘big bad government’. In fact it is big bad corporations preying upon the ignorance, vices and complicity of politicians and bureaucrats who distort markets, not that free markets have ever in fact existed in any actual nation. Today’s free market ideologues are not “lying” to us “dupes” when they preach their fantasies. Almost all free market ideologues actually “believe in” their own bullshit. This makes them highly effective preachers of the false paradigm, in that their firm faith in the fantasy is highly convincing to the masses of people who do not study or understand economics.

    So there’s my take on the source of “dissociation”. People believe that whatever any individual has or doesn’t have is simply the consequence of an automatic mechanism that is baked into the workings of reality, “the invisible hand of the marketplace”. In his 1956 book, “The Power Elite”, C. Wright Mills observes that the invisible hand of economics is simply a secularized version of the Divine Hand of Providence. Protestantism preached, “God helps him who helps himself.” Market ideologues now preach, “The free market giveth to he who helps himself.” (but they forget about the part where the free market taketh away, when failed plutocratic businesses like Wall St banks are bailed out of their death throes and kept alive by governments) It all sounds just and righteous and beyond any human power to alter.

    And almost everybody today believes this bullshit. That’s the source of the dissociation of their beliefs (and their consequent hard-hearted emotional non-responses to poverty and other inhumane consequences of the workings of extractive economic power) from the actual truths of the real world. Who are we to question the superhuman wisdom of God and His Divine Marketplace? That would be sacrilege, heresy, profane violation of the orthodoxies of the true faith. God’s ways are “mysterious, haven’t you heard, and we must simply accept what appears to us to be extreme economic injustice.

    But in fact we are not questioning and criticizing a socio-political-economic world whose structures and workings are created by the invisible hand of God’s marketplace. We are criticizing the structures of the real world whose workings are manipulated by the very visible hands of devious and self-interested men. And seeing reality from the perspective of this path less traveled makes all the difference.

  3. Lykke E. Andersen

    Excellent article, Mieke!
    But did you see Leslie L. Chang’s TED talk on “The voices of China’s workers?

    • I have actually seen that and it raised many questions for me becuase have also read Noami Klein’s “No Logo” and other similar books, which tell the other side of the story. Leslie points out that the other alternative of living in a state of rural poverty is considered worse than the jobs that we see as exploitative, but do we really want to just provide the bare minimum when the profit margins of most of the firms contracting such factories allows for so much more?

  4. I confront the problem of disassociation in five ways
    1. I give to beggars. Not to all but to all those that ask me. The amount I give is small for me but I am certain it has a large marginal value for the beggar. The major benefit a beggar receives is not the 50 cents you may drop in his bucket/hand but the satisfaction that someone cared for him that day. That will renew his hope in his fellowman and help him to reach the next day. I do not care whether he may be fooling me. At the end I believe fools and non-fools giving have a positive effect on both the giver and the receiver and society as a whole.
    2. I pay my taxes
    3. I vote for a party with a proven record of helping the poor.
    4. I engage in non profit organizations that help the poor. A monthly conribution in kind or in money.
    5. I hope that someone may be watching me and follow my example.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox

Join other followers: