Family kidnapped by ninjas, need $4 for Karate lesson. 

“He asked you for five dollars? It might as well have been a million!”

That was the scene last night. We were on our way to dinner when a panhandler requested $5 from a friend of ours. I don’t remember what reason he gave for requesting the money; it wasn’t very creative; I tend to reward creativity.

e.g. “My wife was kidnapped. I’m short of the required ransom by $1”

That request fits several of my criteria for shelling out cash to a beggar:
1. It’s pretty funny. Anyone who can make me laugh will instantly have my attention.
2. It’s a little crazy. You wonder, “does he really think his wife was kidnapped? Maybe I should give him money so he’ll get away from me.”
3. It’s specific and reasonable. $1 will not deeply impact what I purchase for lunch on any given day.

Anyways, after Seth said, “it might as well have been a million…” my wheels started turning.

How sensitive are people to the price of a good deed? What factors determine the amount that a panhandler asks for? And consequently receives?

They have the opportunity to be the ultimate price discriminators. Why settle for some pocket change when you can score $5? And why ask someone for $5 and receive nothing when that person might have been willing to part with a quarter?

The most successful panhandlers must be quite adept at this kind of market research. Who fits the bill for the most prototypical do-gooder? Where do they congregate? What time of day is one more likely to display generosity? Is it a man, or is it a woman who passes more cash?

My intuition tells me that do-gooders are extremely price sensitive to beggars, which is why we reacted the way we did when Shopping Cart Guy asked for $5.

However, my reaction is markedly different when a well dressed person asks for $5 so he can “get his car out of the parking garage” (that’s the shtick of a local 20-something beggar).

I think I’ll start a kind of beggar university. Armed with market research of metropolitan areas, I will teach the most effective strategies to obtain maximum alms. I’d only require 15% of the take. They could put up their tin foil hats as collateral.

Yes. I like this idea very much.


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