Editorial: Panhandling is a symptom that calls for a remedy

A person with a sign asking for money sits outside the Brattleboro Food Co-op on Dec. 5, 2023, in Brattleboro, Vt. (VtDigger - Kevin O’Connor)

A person with a sign asking for money sits outside the Brattleboro Food Co-op on Dec. 5, 2023, in Brattleboro, Vt. (VtDigger - Kevin O’Connor)

Published: 12-16-2023 10:15 PM

Brattleboro civic officials are perplexed over what can, or should be, done about panhandling, which is rife in their downtown. In this they are hardly alone. Communities elsewhere in Vermont and New Hampshire are struggling with the same issue; solutions remain elusive.

The Brattleboro Selectboard, spurred by a petition signed by more than 1,000 people, spent nearly an hour and a half earlier this month discussing what could be done, and as VtDigger reported, came up empty. “I think we are all stuck on what to do,” said board member Daniel Quipp.

Legal options are pretty much off the table. Courts have ruled consistently that panhandling is a constitutionally protected exercise of First Amendment rights that cannot be banned, and Town Manager John Potter warned the Selectboard that even limited restrictions on solicitation of money are legally problematic. This sounds right to us: The First Amendment protects many more offensive behaviors than merely asking strangers on the street for spare change.

That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s not a problem. The Change.org petition presented to the Selectboard declared that, “The sight of individuals begging on street corners can create negative perceptions about Brattleboro’s overall livability, potentially deterring potential residents or investors from choosing our town as their home or place of business.”

Not only that, but the people being asked for money can feel threatened or harassed or uncomfortable, even when the solicitation is not aggressive. One reason may be a nagging suspicion that any one of us could experience a series of personal disasters that would leave us down-and-out like those now asking for our help.

Another reason may be that many of us who are better off don’t otherwise come face-to-face with a moral failing of society to which we have contributed, even if unconsciously. That unfortunate people should be so destitute in this land of plenty that they are reduced to begging is testament to the shocking inequality of wealth the United States is now experiencing, a level greater in the opinion of some researchers than before the onset of the Great Depression of the 1930s. The situation is unconscionable, and a guilty conscience is an entirely appropriate response when confronted with the human wreckage.

In a memo to the Selectboard about the issue, Potter observed that, “It is good to reflect on the likelihood that panhandlers are not down-and-out by choice; that asking people for money is probably a last resort for them; and it can negatively impact their sense of dignity and contribute to depression. Despite a wide range of social services available in Brattleboro, there are clearly unmet needs for cash that can be satisfied through direct donations requested by panhandling.”

The latter insight could point a way forward for the Selectboard. Dozens of communities across the country — 100 by some counts — have launched pilot projects to provide selected groups of people with what’s called a guaranteed basic income. The idea is simple, and may ring a bell from the 2020 presidential campaign of Andrew Yang, who advocated a much more expansive version. It did not originate with him: Thomas Paine promoted something along the same lines as early as 1797.

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In short, the idea is to supplement the social safety net by providing people with a set amount of money each month, no strings attached, to be spent at their discretion. In the cities where this has been tried, news reports suggest that the results have been overwhelmingly positive. Poverty has been sharply reduced in many cases. Research indicates that participants mostly spent the cash for the basics: car repairs, food, medical bills and new shoes for their children.

In 2020, Jack Dorsey, CEO of what was then called Twitter, pledged $15 million to an advocacy group called Mayors for a Guaranteed Income to help select cities and towns across the country to jump-start such programs. Other communities have paid for their own pilot programs with government funds, and philanthropies have also contributed seed money.

Of course, the idea of giving away cash will strike many taxpayers and business leaders as an outrageous and unsustainable misuse of public funds, not least on the assumption that recipients would simply use the money for drugs or alcohol. It would take a considerable exercise of political will to make even a demonstration project happen. But it’s worth considering whether a well-designed and narrowly targeted trial program of guaranteed basic income might not only decrease begging but also save some troubled souls, not to mention providing a template for the future.