The Evolution of Society in Three Easy Steps

  1. Person looks round and sees Weeping Widow Woman, helps her.
  2. Person thinks, if we all get together and put money in a hat, we can collectively help ALL Weeping Widow Women, possibly through a dedicated service providing organisation, then I can get back to hunting mammoth.
  3. Society Invents the Welfare State (and Charities)

My nephew, Mr Sweet-Muscles, doesn’t give to charities. He says he’d rather look into someone’s eyes, listen to their story and then make up his own mind if he wants to hand over his cash or not.

Mr F thinks similarly. Why can’t those of us who want to help Weeping Widow Women contribute to a fund for them, while those of us who don’t, can spend it on a swimming pool instead?

It’s true that the modern method of giving (through The Government or A Charity) separates the giver from the receiver in a way that’s convenient (you don’t have to smell that needy hobo, or talk to him, or evaluate the credibility of his claims) and even-handed.

But have you ever passed a homeless person on the street with a cardboard sign and thought ‘Doesn’t The Government cover this sort of thing? So why is he asking ME? He’s probably not homeless at all – he just wants money for drugs!’ And you kept on walking. What if we were wrong though? Maybe The Government isn’t as all-encompassing as we’d like it to be.

Another drawback of this system is that you don’t know who you’re helping, and so you have no real sense of giving, and they have no real sense of receiving. Which means that you can characterise their problems ‘Bloody abos spend it all on drink’, ‘hopeless bogan moron!’ and THEY can dismiss any obligation ‘I have a RIGHT to this handout, whaddya mean you want me to work for it!’.

A senior manager I used to know – an indigenous guy with a long, impressive cloud-grey beard, who worked in a mega-Department of the Australian public service – used to go out back to the alley behind our 6 storey office.  He’d sit down and chat with the bums and street kids, then go back into his office and use whatever he’d learned (I hope he did, anyway).  Similarly, we used to have a prime minister – way before my time – who lived in a hostel and shaved in a shared bathroom.  That kind of speaks to me.

Ben Chifley – my hero, and not half bad looking either!


No wonder people in our society walk past beggars.  We’re not callous, it’s just that we’ve outsourced Caring to organisations who are supposed to know how to do it – but don’t, always.  Mr Muscles and Mr F have a point – the personal angle matters.

Last time I saw a homeless person, I stopped and had a chat, and bought him a pie.  Maybe he didn’t ‘deserve’ it, and I can’t say I came away ‘understanding’ his situation – but neither of us lost anything by it.



  1. Rose, too true, I try and give money to people on the street if I can, because relying on indirect giving is so impersonal (via Govt and taxes). I’ve recently followed your example and started to give to homeless kids education via monthly donations. I think it is so easy today to become detached from reality because so much of reality is now percieved via television, the internet, radio, teleconference etc. Its part of the overall drop in human interactions that we are all experiencing. I can remember going to the corner shop to buy the papers, pickup fresh bread and milk. You’d talk to you neighbours or people in the shop, they’d be the people you grew up with, went to school with. Now lots of people don’t even know their neighbours at all.

    But I think your picture of Ben Chifley may be a little inaccurate. Ben was from Bathurst and he was actually a very naughty boy as he had a wife in Bathurst and a mistress in Canberra, Phyllis Donnelly who was also his secretary. But maybe I’m being a bit unfair, both women were happy so I suppose was he really that naughty?

    So I’m with you, toss a few coins to the homeless.


  2. Brilliant post. I love your concept that we now ‘out source care’. Maybe that’s why society seems to have such a hard time validating those who do not out source ‘care’ but rather live it 24/7.

  3. Where I live, near the U.S. Capitol, most of the homeless you meet on the street – the few who ask for help – are indeed alcohol or substance abusers. I tend to “help them” – if asked – by pointing out where the shelters are that offer help. I then donate to those shelters. I don’t give them cash, however.

    There are truly those in need. Out in the suburbs, I see people standing on corners with signs. Then I notice their clothes are clean, their shoes not worn, their faces not dirty. I compare them to the “normal people” I observed in Africa who had less. I give them little more than a nasty stare, and I send money to Africa.

    Not fair, but I’ve also seen people ride up to the “needy homeless,” surreptitiously, and drop off packets of snacks and water. It’s a job, like many other. There is one man, partly disabled, who I’ve seen everywhere. He stands, doesn’t demand money, and thanks you graciously when given it. Him, I give money to. The rest can go find help. I’ll always choose to help the helpers, not the needy. I don’t have the empathy that requires.

    1. Yeah, you hear a lot about the beggars in Washington. I don’t give cash much either – mostly I offer to buy food. I sometimes have stopped to have a chat and ask them why they’re in this situation, but I’m not in a position to evaluate the answer. In Australia I’ve always thought the welfare system was pretty good, the only reason to fall between the cracks is either drug/alcohol abuse or by choice – but I think perhaps I’m wrong in that assumption, sometimes a kid leaves home, or someone loses their house, and the welfare places are just full, and they go for a payout and perhaps are told ‘the cheque will arrive in 3 weeks’ or ‘what’s your address then?’. I really don’t know. LIke you, I choose to help the helpers, assuming that THEY know (and knowing that sometimes they give to the undeserving too). But I’m actually uncomfortable not knowing, it makes me feel like I live in a rosy bubble. I AM empathetic – but I’m also pretty shy and that (and a sort of respect, like, ‘who am I to go up forcing my company on people whose only crime was sitting on the pavement with a cardboard sign’) so that stops me enquiring too closely. I’m not a natural warm befriender of odd people. Then again, I’m curious – I need to find stuff out, to grow my brain!

  4. Another insightful point, and what an interesting way to look at the situation. But I think you’re on to something. When we write a check for an organization, it feels good. But when we drive our stuff to the mission ourselves and watch as they inventory our belongings and widen their eyes at the things they’ve been needing “for a while,” it feels much better. Years ago, it was difficult to part with all of our kids’ baby stuff, but when the mission told us how desperate they were for cribs, bassinets, changing tables, etc., it made it suddenly easy. 🙂

    1. That was very kind of you. I’ve never done that – direct helping – really (other than visiting old people and giving food to the odd homeless person). That must have felt really good. Of course some people say that’s being a ‘do-gooder’ and imply there’s something wrong with the good feeling the more-privileged get from helping the not-so-privileged, but I don’t see it, myself. As long as you treat each person as of equal value to you, and with respect, it’s good.

      1. I just can’t see selling my stuff for a fraction of the price we paid, when we can give it to a charity that will make great use of it. Is really a practical decision as well. 🙂

  5. After describing your interaction with a street person, you say, “Maybe he didn’t deserve it” and “Maybe I didn’t come away with any greater understanding.” Maybe none of that matters. What matters is the human interaction, the good feeling you get from helping, and the good feeling he gets from being seen and heard and helped in a small way.

    1. Yeah, thanks for that, that was exactly the point I meant to make, but didn’t perhaps. My sister told me she once gave $100 to somebody sobbing cause they couldn’t pay a parking fine, and then she said she felt bad because the woman was probably playing her and would do it again. But I was thinking, she WAS generous – and the woman perhaps appreciated that, and both went away with something good.

  6. Wow. What kind of pie?

    Actually, i agree … that is exactly what i think when i walk by the guys who sell Streetwise, the magazine. They’re homeless (as far as WE KNOW 😉 … but i assume they work their shift and buy cheap wine (probably and incorrect assumption). I don’t know. I think the personal touch is a good plan, however, if we didn’t have welfare and charities (as mismanaged as they may be, and i assume they ARE mismanaged to a certain extent — as we are all humans) … there would be no assistance for the weepy widows and widowers who can’t hold themselves together.

    My gripe is mismanagement, however not enough to stop the tax system, and government interventions for those who cannot make it on there own.

    There are welfare recipients who should be slapped, i’m afraid. They have babies to get more money … ADMITTING THIS. Yes, i’m not making this up.

    However, in the long run, i think those people are not the majority … and as far as human “evil” and mismanagement and un-deservingness go … who of us could throw the first stone?

    1. Nothing’s perfect. Sometimes I wish we lived in some sort of (‘idyllic’) African community where everyone knew everyone and some people were just told to pull their socks up. But there’s always a ‘but’. We have ‘The Big Issue’ and the people who sell that seem really genuine – they have their stories in the mag and often they’re really sad, without being told that way. I’m so incredibly privileged, in my background, I really almost might as well be junior Gates (not from the money side of it, more the stability and love and comfortableness). I don’t like to talk about things without knowing about them, and ‘disadvantaged’ people, well I really don’t know a lot, we’re so far apart in circumstances. And yeah, I know there are people who have babies to get money (and people who have no money but have babies anyway and shouldn’t).

  7. Here in Vancouver we have VANDU, or the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users. They get tonnes of government money just stir up trouble. I believe in giving directly, I’m afraid, in most cases. Otherwise there are too many people ‘advocating’ for the less fortunate and making good money at it.

    1. Yeah, I think I know what you mean. It’s a living, advocating for people (I should know, I’m now part of it). I get both sides of it – on the one hand, if giving is direct, many people just don’t give, or they demand blood and sweat for it, think Dickens’ poor houses. If it’s too indirect, it sort of ceases to be giving, and the undeserving are bound to get some too (I have a sort of relative who’s often a beneficiary of this kind of giving).

  8. you have a beautiful soul, i share your views on helping those who stretch out their hands for help, i only refuse those who ask for a coke and then a cigarette after the pie.

    there are people who are most probably poor, thus they take up the habit of begging and quite often ask too much. if i had the power i would have helped them in becoming self dependent, as i dont have money or that power i have to refuse them if they ask too much

  9. I agree with Sally and your reply to her, I sometimes give cash, sometimes food. But the one thing I do have to admit…. I am kinda embarrassed this… I sometimes I try to avoid them, not because they bother me but because my heart aches for them. No matter what brought them to that street corner, addiction, poverty, using people…. It must be have been painful at some point.

    Love this post.

    1. Yeah I know what you mean. Also I feel awkward – should I help? (and possibly contribute to a drug habit) or not (and feel mean). Sometimes I think, sitting on the hard ground in the cold for hour after hour isn’t an easy way to earn money!

  10. I feel so awkward and embarrassed when I walk past a homeless person. Sometimes i almost feel guilty I have so much compared to them. But I never know how I could really make a difference.

    I started lending money on Kiva, a micro-finance platform though. There you get to help small businesses in third world countries. It’s a tiny contribution but I guess it’s better than nothing.

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