He had been stranded in the Kroger parking lot for five hours when I arrived with a gas can at midnight. My friend, whom I’ll call Jayden, had coasted into the lot, landing in a parking space right next to the gas station. Without money, he resorted to begging shoppers for two or three dollars, just a few bucks to get him the little bit of gas that he would need to get home. His two children, a toddler and an infant, waited in their car seats in his old Explorer.
He figured that he asked about fifty people to spare a few bucks, but the answer was always the same: sorry, I can’t help you. Perhaps, eyeing the holes in his pants and his disheveled hair and noting the panicked tone of his pleas, they figured he was just another drug addict looking for a fix. Meanwhile, his infant daughter began to fuss; she needed formula.
When Jayden texted me that night, I was putting the finishing touches on an essay about how economic insecurity and relationship insecurity go hand-in-hand for many economically fragile families. He was panicking: he would now be late for work at his new job, his wife had walked an hour and a half from their home to the parking lot, and the gas station had closed. He really didn’t want to bother me late on a Sunday night, but what else could he do?
As we filled up his gas tank, I reflected how his ordeal made me think twice about automatically assuming that a person in Jayden’s condition was a con man. That’s when he told me a story that will stay with me.
A few months prior, at this same Kroger, Jayden had encountered a homeless man. Jayden had been homeless before, and at the time he and his wife and two children were living with relatives in their unfinished basement, trying to save up enough money to rent their own place. So he had compassion for the homeless man. And having just received his weekly paycheck of about $300, he told the homeless man to grab a cart, that he could have whatever he wanted from the grocery store.
Despite my friend’s generous invitation, the homeless man stocked up only about $40 worth of groceries: basics like bread and peanut butter and jelly. He explained that he could make a loaf of bread last for a month. Jayden shook his head at the memory, marveling at the thriftiness of the impoverished man.
Meanwhile, I marveled at the paradox of it all: my impoverished friend, who that day had been refused even a few dollars at a grocery store that attracted fairly affluent shoppers, was quick to lavish generosity on a homeless stranger, who in turn received his generosity with exemplary thrift.
While poor people are less likely to give money to charities and individuals than rich people, when they do give, they give away more of their income.
Jayden’s example of generosity is not an aberration. Arthur Brooks noted in Who Really Cares that while poor people are less likely to give money to charities and individuals than rich people, when they do give, they give away more of their income: whereas the rich give away between 3 and 4 percent of their incomes, poor people tend to give away between 4 and 5 percent. (Both groups give away significantly higher proportions of their income than middle-class families.) Poor people are also more likely to give a homeless person food or money than rich people are.
Brooks does find that poor people who receive cash assistance (like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families for poor families, or Supplemental Security Income for disabled people) are less charitable and less likely to volunteer than poor people who don’t receive those forms of welfare. However, most low-income Americans receive no cash assistance; they only receive non-money aid, like food stamps or Medicaid. Recent figures show that nearly 72.5 million individuals are enrolled in Medicaid and CHIP and 45 million receive food stamps, while only 8.3 million people receive SSI and 1.7 million families are enrolled in TANF.
So why are many poor people willing to help others when they are struggling just to support themselves?
Compassion may account for some of the difference. Psychologist Paul Piff performed a lab experiment in which participants played a game in which they were given ten credits, which would later be converted into cash, and invited to consider giving away some of their credits to strangers. People of low socio-economic status were inclined to give away 44 percent more of their points than those with higher socio-economic status. Piff explained to NPR that “the main variable that we find that consistently explains this differential pattern of giving and helping and generosity among the upper and lower class is feelings of sensitivity and care for the welfare of other people and, essentially, the emotion that we call compassion.”
In other words, poor people were more compassionate, and therefore more generous, than rich people. Perhaps this is part of what Pope Francis means when, speaking of the Church, he says that “We need to let ourselves be evangelized by [the poor].”
The extravagant generosity and hospitality of already-strained poor and working-class people is something my wife and I also noticed in our dozens of interviews with them.
Kayla, for example, was in college when she took custody of her 15-year-old niece, who had been found sleeping on the porch while her mother was in bed with a drug dealer. After no one else in the family volunteered to take custody of the girl, Kayla did. And when she had to choose between taking care of her troubled niece and allowing her grades to suffer, Kayla took the latter path, eventually dropping out of college because of the responsibilities of caring for her niece.
Having just graduated high school, Pam was planning to go to college when friends from church unexpectedly dropped their one-year-old son off at her house and told her that they’d be back in a week. “That week never ended until four and a half years later,” Pam said. “I loved that kid to death.” (She still didn’t understand why his parents suddenly left, except to say that “they’re kind of out there.”)
Zachary and Megan were newlyweds and new parents when a mutual friend needed a place to stay. They told him he could stay with them for a few months while he tried to get back on his feet, only charging him $200 a month in rent. And when he needed help with his truck payments, they helped him out with that, too; their friend promised that he’d pay them back. Then he left without warning, having failed to pay rent or repay the money they lent him. He owed them about $1,700 in all. The stress that attended the whole ordeal was part of the reason why Zachary and Megan found themselves in a pastor’s office seeking help for their new marriage.
My friend Lance (whose stories of economic hardship I recounted here and here) described in an interview with me how every Christmas, he and his wife ask their children to donate the majority of their toys to other kids who are in need. “It is more blessed to give than to receive,” he said. He added that “We are trying to teach [our kids] that greed and gluttony is bad. That’s the way I was raised—I would give you my last five dollars.” Lance emphasized that it’s important to him and his wife, who over the years have invited struggling friends and relatives to live with them, that their children understand the importance of living simply. “We don’t want them to think that life is all about having a giant house and a nice car.”
We should remember stories like these the next time we’re tempted to issue blanket denunciations of the poor as “welfare queens” and “entitled” bums. For all the faults that some people in poverty may have, many also possess admirable simplicity and compassion—the very values that could help heal the great Coming Apart between social classes, as well as reinstate into communities people who have suffered. So the next time I see a person begging for a few bucks, I’ll try to remember this: he who begs today may give tomorrow.