I don’t throw around the term “hero” lightly, but it takes a special kind of person to look at a homeless man on the street — with no home to stay warm in, little access to a shower or clean clothes, and few possessions — and decide that he’s got it too good. But Fox Business host John Stossel bravely took up that mantle Thursday morning during a guest appearance on Fox & Friends, warning viewers about the perniciousness of giving money to the poor.
Donning a fake beard, Stossel sat on a New York City sidewalk with a cardboard sign asking people for help. “I just begged for an hour but I did well,” he said. “If I did this for an eight-hour day I would’ve made 90 bucks. Twenty-three thou for a year. Tax-free.”
Elizabeth Hasselbeck, who recently purchased a $4 million home in Greenwich, gasped in horror at the prospect of poor people earning $23,000 a year. Some people asking for money “are actually scammers,” Hasselbeck warned, seemingly unaware of the irony that the only panhandling “scammer” Fox News identified was Stossel.
Because he was able to successfully convince good-hearted pedestrians that he was poor, Stossel went on to chastise people who gave the homeless money because, in his view, “most are not…for real.”
He implored viewers to stop giving money to poor people because if you do, “you’re an enabler.”
There are a multitude of incorrect claims and assumptions in this short segment:
$23,000 per year: Stossel spent a single hour on the streets and was given approximately $11 by people who wanted to help out someone in need. Therefore, Stossel assumes he would make $23,000 per year. (That figure is actually a steep drop from Stossel’s claims in the past, that he knew of beggars who made $80,000 per year panhandling.) There are a multitude of false assumptions here. First, one of the only scientific surveys of panhandlers found that the vast majority made $25 per day or less, annualized at just over $9,000. Second, $9,000 — or even $23,000 — is difficult to survive on, especially in a city like New York where the median apartment rents for more than $3,000 in Manhattan and more than $2,500 in Brooklyn. Third, spending 8 hours a day asking for money is time that can’t be spent going to classes, gaining skills, picking up diapers for a crying child, or interviewing for a job.
Homeless people “are actually scammers”: Hasselbeck noted that “scammers” were rife among beggars, implying that panhandling is some get-rich-quick scheme engaged in by hucksters. Stossel agreed, saying that most beggars were not “for real.” Their only evidence for this claim? The fact that Stossel spent an hour undercover as a homeless person and was able to fool people into believing he was needy. An actual study of beggars, on the other hand, found that 82 percent were homeless, two in three were disabled, most earned less than $25 per day, and nearly all used the money for food. If Stossel and Hasselbeck truly do believe there is a scourge of well-off people acting as though they’re impoverished so they can successfully panhandle — nobody’s idea of a fun time — what would Stossel have people do? Ask beggars for a tax return before giving them a buck?
Drugs and alcohol: Stossel cautions that well-intentioned people are actually enabling bad behavior because poor people will just use the money for drugs and alcohol. But that’s not what the data shows. While some do use the money for drugs and alcohol, most don’t. What did a survey find 94 percent of panhandlers used the money for? Food.
Chastising beggars is an annual tradition for Stossel: Pretending to be poor and homeless is becoming an annual tradition for Stossel. Here’s his 2011 segment, his 2012 segment, and now his 2013 segment. Some journalists use their perch to give voice to the voiceless. Stossel’s hobby horse, on the other hand, is apparently to convince Fox viewers that poor people are too well off.
Privilege: “I felt foolish and uncomfortable,” Stossel said of the experience, right after imploring viewers not to give poor people the dignity of believing they are actually poor instead of drunks, addicts, or scammers. Watching four wealthy white people sit in a New York television studio and banter about the evils of giving money to homeless people is like waking up the day after your 21st birthday: it’s not surprising, but still painful.
Only Stossel would be capable of benefiting from people’s generosity, and then deciding that they were rubes with too much holiday spirit and we should really all be grinches who are suspicious of one another. War on Christmas, indeed.