A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

How much money do beggars make?

June 27, 2006

Dear Straight Dope:

How much do tramps or, as Americans call them, bums make from begging? I say this because I'm not doing particularly well at school and I want to find out about my future career prospects. I couldn't seem to find out much about this career path and so naturally I came to you.

In the Sherlock Holmes story, "The Man with the Twisted Lip," first published in the December 1891 issue of The Strand Magazine, Holmes encounters a man who gives up his career as a journalist to become a beggar because he can make more money that way. He says:

I painted my face, and to make myself as pitiable as possible I made a good scar and fixed one side of my lip in a twist by the aid of a small slip of flesh-coloured plaster. Then with a red head of hair, and an appropriate dress, I took my station in the business part of the city, ostensibly as a match-seller but really as a beggar. For seven hours I plied my trade, and when I returned home in the evening I found to my surprise that I had received no less than 26s. 4d.

Later he indicates that he averaged more than two pounds a day, or seven hundred pounds a year. Leslie Klinger, in The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes (2004), says that's above average but plausible.

In this column we don't settle for plausibility, however. We wants the facts: Is it possible to survive on begging income alone? While it's probably possible, few seem to do it. Studies show that few homeless beggars subsist on panhandling income. What's more, say Corey Fugman and two other authors, "those that do ask for change are often looked down upon by others in the transient community."

But let's assume you were willing to bear the scorn of your local transient community. How much could you make?

I bet this won't surprise you, but estimates vary. As Michael S. Scott, the director of the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing, says in his online article "Panhandling":

Estimates vary from a couple of dollars (U.S.) a day on the low end, to $20 to $50 a day in the mid-range, to about $300 a day on the high end. Women, especially those who have children with them, and panhandlers who appear to be disabled tend to receive more money. For this reason, some panhandlers pretend to be disabled and/or war veterans. Others use pets as a means of evoking sympathy from passersby. Panhandlers' regular donors can account for up to half their receipts.

In a study of Toronto panhandlers conducted by Robit Bose and Stephen Hwang, panhandlers reported a median monthly income equivalent to US $190-$200. The authors note that

a journalist who briefly lived on the street in Toronto working as a panhandler . . . reported that panhandlers can earn more than $200 per day . . . These differences may be partly explained by the fact that high-earning panhandlers were presumably less likely to participate in our survey, and these individuals may have formed the basis for Stackhouse's observations. Our results may be more representative of the majority of panhandlers who earn lesser amounts.

This raises an important issue. Most of the data out there is based on the homeless population. Can we generalize from information about homeless panhandlers to conclude anything about the panhandling income of other people? Louise Stark published a detailed analysis of homeless panhandlers in Phoenix, Arizona in "From Lemons to Lemonade: An Ethnographic Sketch of Late Twentieth-Century Panhandling" (1992). In that article she writes that "the modern panhandler often considers begging a job, in many ways an entrepreneurial enterprise. He is out to make money in the most efficient manner possible." But she also notes that panhandling income tends to be self-limiting:

In a 1986 study of homelessness in Chicago, the average income reported from panhandling is generally was $7.00 per month. This may be partially explained by the fact that panhandling is generally not a daily occurrence . . . Panhandling is generally engaged in when other economic resources . . . have been exhausted. Earnings are rarely saved. They are spent on short-term purchases, generally alcohol or drugs, occasionally food.

According to Stark, panhandlers don't make enough to save for housing, and carrying money around "can only lead to being robbed, and possibly beaten up in the process." She writes:

[T]he average Phoenix panhandler works the streets only until he or she has enough money to purchase a bottle of beer or fortified wine, a vial of crack, or, rarely, a meal at a fast food restaurant.

As with more conventional occupations, alcohol and drugs put a crimp in a beggar's earnings potential. Stark notes that the alcoholic panhandler drinks until drunk, and often passes out. For long-term alcoholics, that doesn't take much liquor. "A couple of swallows of fortified wine often suffice. Since the alcoholic doesn't require a whole bottle, the remains of which would be stolen once he became intoxicated, he often joins an impromptu 'bottle gang' of like individuals with whom he combines his earnings to purchase alcohol."

These people aren't trying to maximize income. They're trying to get wasted. So it's hard to extrapolate from their earnings.

Anecdotal accounts suggest a few panhandlers do quite well. For instance, a recent news story tells of Jason Pancoast and Elizabeth Johnson, self-described "affluent beggars" from Ashland, Oregon. The couple estimates they can make $30-40,000 per year from panhandling. They boast earnings as high as $300 per day, and assert they once made $800 in one day. Similarly, a former Denver City Council president claimed to know panhandlers who made hundreds of dollars per week, or even per day. City Councilwoman Elbra Wedgeworth said, "I know some people are making $150 to $300 or $400 a day. There are some people who are in desperate situations but many who are panhandling for a living." One hesitates to generalize from such stories, though.

In short, it's pretty hard to get good data on the issue. Michael Scott summarized matters as well as anyone: "Most evidence confirms that panhandling is not lucrative, although some panhandlers clearly are able to subsist on a combination of panhandling money, government benefits, private charity, and money from odd jobs such as selling scavenged materials or plasma." If I were you, I'd keep my day job.

References

The 2005 Mendocino County Homeless Census and Survey, Applied Survey Research: http://www.appliedsurveyresearch.org/products/2005_Mendocino_Homeless_Report.pdf

The 2004 Santa Clara County Homeless Census and Survey, Applied Survey Research: http://www.appliedsurveyresearch.org/products/2004_Santa_Clara_County_Homeless_Report.pdf 

The 2005 Santa Cruz County Homeless Census and Survey, Applied Survey Research: http://www.appliedsurveyresearch.org/products/2005_Santa_Cruz_Homeless_Report.pdf

Bose, Robert, and Hwang, Stephen, Research Letter: "Income and spending patterns among panhandlers," Canadian Medical Association Journal 167 (5):477 (2002): http://www.cmaj.ca/cgi/content/full/167/5/477

Community Action Board of Santa Cruz County, Inc., "Impact of the City of Santa Cruz Downtown Ordinances on People Who Get Their Daily Living Money From Panhandling": http://www.cabinc.org/Research/downtownordinance.htm

Dealing with the Homeless, Civic Strategies, Inc.: http://www.civic-strategies.com/resources/issues/homeless.htm

Diamant, Aaron, "Panhandlers Might Have More Cash on Hand than You Do," 5WMCTV.com: http://www.wmctv.com/Global/story.asp?S=1522655

Doyle, Arthur, The Man with the Twisted Lip, Classic Literature Library: http://sherlock-holmes.classic-literature.co.uk/the-man-with-the-twisted-lip/

Fugman, et al., "Panhandling Unpopular for Homeless," Palo Alto online: http://www.paloaltoonline.com/weekly/morgue/news/1997_May_28.HOMELES6.html  

Manning, Nigel, The Make-It-Count Scheme: A Partnership Response to Begging in Stroke-on-Trent City Centre, Problem Solving Quarterly, Fall 2000: http://www.popcenter.org/Library/PSQ/2000/Fall%202000%20Vol%2013_No.3.pdf

Report on the Spring 2004 Census of Homeless Individuals in Kelowna, Kelowna Drop Inn and Information Center (September 2004): http://www.kelownahomeless.com/pdf/CensusReport_Spring04.pdf

Santa Cruz County Homeless 2000 Census and Needs Assessment, Applied Survey Research: http://www.appliedsurveyresearch.org/homeless-sc.htm

Scott, Michael, "Panhanding," Center for Problem-Oriented Policing (2003): http://www.popcenter.org/Problems/problem-panhandling.htm

Stark, Louise, "From Lemons to Lemonade: An Ethnographic Sketch of Late Twentieth-Century Panhandling." N. Engl. J. Public Policy. 8:341-52 (1992)

"Understanding Family Homelessness in New York City," Vera Institute of Justice, September 2005: http://www.nyc.gov/html/dhs/downloads/pdf/VERA%20Study.pdf

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