Article 25

Whose Money is it?

In Uncategorized on 09/24/2012 at 2:25 pm

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Representatives of street papers from around the world met in Bergen, Norway, in 2009.

Street papers and expectations

By Jesse Call

Working with several street newspapers has led to many conversations and feedback from friends and readers. Many of them praise the programs that allow people to invest in their own success and to earn money instead of just asking for money. But even as they do that, they start complaining.

Some saw a vendor smoking cigarettes.

“If they can afford cigarettes, then why do they need me to buy their paper?”

Some saw street-paper vendors quit working and go buy beer.

“I don’t want to support their habit.”

Some saw vendors text-messaging on their cell phones.

“I didn’t even get a cell phone until last year.”

For some reason, many people have the expectation that, if they purchase a copy of their favorite street newspaper from their vendor, there is an implied promise that this money will be spent only on food, housing, or getting a “real job.” (We’ll ignore the fact that a cell phone is needed to secure a job.)

From where do these expectations come? We certainly do not demand such standards from anyone else – except maybe a panhandler or a charity. But almost all people handing a dollar over for a street newspaper would agree that this person is not a panhandler or a charity case. They would agree she is an independent entrepreneur and praise her for trying to earn money instead of begging for it. All the while, they’re repulsed by the idea that they are supporting that person’s “bad habits.”

Put aside the fact that most newspaper vendors use their earnings for positive purposes that would bring these complainers great delight. Even in cases where that is not true, why would anyone expect a street-newspaper vendor not to enjoy the same comforts and luxuries of any hardworking person that you’ve given money to either through a tip or tax dollars?

A city firefighter smoking cigarettes before she begins her shift does not face the same scrutiny – even though her bad habit might not only impact her endurance during a rescue but might even start a fire of its own.

The waiter with three struggling kids at whom you gave a huge tip – because he kept the rounds coming and made you laugh – might very well use that tip to pay for lottery tickets, binge drinking, pornography or an abortion for his new girlfriend – all things you might oppose.

But what these two do with their money after they earn it is up to them.

What causes an emotional attachment to the money you hand over to street-newspaper vendors? They worked hard, carrying and securing stacks of papers, standing in the freezing cold, sweltering heat or downpour, and offered you a product. Their profits and tips are earned and are now theirs. They did not receive a conditional grant or loan.

“They’re just like any other small businessperson,” we say about our vendors. “You shouldn’t treat them any differently.”

But, of course we want you to treat them differently. How many times do you buy multiple copies of the same daily newspaper from the newsstand you pass on your way to work? How often do you give that small businessperson a 400 percent tip? How often do you make donations to their corporate financiers to keep their small businesses operating? Yet, in many cases, people offer this to street-newspaper vendors – precisely for the reason that they are different. They have announced to the world that they are in a battle for their lives and are struggling to find or secure a safe place to stay, and the buyer wants to help.

But what these vendors appreciate is your business, not your charity. That’s why they offer you a street newspaper instead of just extending their hands. They work hard. They don’t need to worry that their break at the end of the day will cost them business because a buyer expected them to kick all their addictive habits and build a house with the $2.75 handed over to them that month.

So, here’s a suggestion: Either decide to demand accounting of all money you provide to every person – street newspaper vendor, bartender, teenage lawn mower, Girl Scout, police officer, valet, bus driver, drycleaner, yard saler, Craigslister, street performer, and the birthday boy – or keep no record on any of them and let them spend the money they’ve earned

But remember, when you are passing blessings around, that street-newspaper vendors are battling for their lives. Consider moving them and the organizations that provide them with that opportunity to the top of your list.

Jesse Call, a staff writer for The Contributor, a street paper in Nashville, Tenn., is also a contributing writer for Article 25 and Streetvibes in Cincinnati.

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