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Begging the question of our moral richness

Publication Date : 22-05-2012


"Money, money - pizza!"

She stretched out her only arm at me. It took me a few seconds to register, but I bent down and gave the box of leftover pizza to her. With no legs and only one arm, she had been begging on the streets of Shanghai since she was in her teens.

Like other migrants, she came to the city from a rural village in Hubei province, to find a better life.

That her condition restricted her to begging was a plain fact to her. Most days, she would take in 40 to 60 yuan (US$6-9), sitting on the pavement for hours, through scorching heat or wind and rain. People would give coins, occasionally, a 5-yuan note. In the mornings, a friend would help her get to the spot in front of the office tower and would take her home at night. I gave her some money and said good-bye.

Earlier this year in Shanghai, the city authorities initiated a system to take homeless children off the streets and return them to their homes.

Whether they're organised by adults or working alone, their rising numbers have goaded the authorities to solve the problem by not only returning the child to their original home but also increasing the social and economic support in their villages to prevent a return to their old lives. Even so, success stories are few and far between.

Like most big cities, beggars are as common as a corner Starbucks. In fact, most of them can be found there, getting the spare change from your mocha latte. In the United States, they sometimes take on a threatening air when you're held hostage at a traffic light while a small army of squeegee men clean your car windshield with a muddy wiper blade and bang on the window for money.

A version of that can be found here - only it's little kids running after you spritzing mottled white paint on your hundred-dollar sneakers then demanding to be paid.

Then, there are the beggars who try to tug at your heartstrings - the wizened grandma and her rag-covered baby and the physically disabled beggar, who's blind, mute or limbless.

In most industrialised countries, finding a job that pays a living wage for a disabled person would be a challenge. But in China, it's almost a miracle.

Physical obstacles, discrimination, ignorance and social stigma result in a heavy life sentence where many find the only means of work open to them is begging.

Being approached by beggars stirs up emotional, philosophical and judgemental thoughts: "Is this a scam? Am I helping to exploit this poor child? Why can't they find a real job? I donate enough to other charities."

Few things provoke more flash feelings of guilt, sympathy, insecurity or resentment. For beggars, hardened by years of indifference or scorn by bystanders, an unfortunate tried-and-true begging method is the rattling of a cup of coins in your face.

An irritation, yes, but effective when you're surrounded by a dozen strangers all waiting for the traffic light to change.

Although, most people are blithe to whether we give or not, at times, our insecurities at what others may think about us, move us to dig into our pockets for cash.

Our natural instincts are to help when asked. Some can ignore those pricks of conscious better than others.

China's welfare system has a long way to go before it can provide sufficient support to those most vulnerable. Many fall through the cracks.

A life of begging almost always stems from a catastrophic event. Most of those begging wish for a different life. Most of us should be grateful the tables aren't turned.

Few of us will be bankrupt if we pass on a few coins or cash. When next you're approached by beggar - no matter his or her circumstances - it would be well for you to remember, "There but for the grace of God, go I."


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