Utah Stories

Brother, Can you Spare a Twenty?

Is panhandling a way to earn a living? One journalist goes undercover to find out.


Utah Stories’ Al Sachrov Experiments with Panhandling

I was curious. It seems that at every intersection and interstate ramp in Salt Lake there are panhandlers. Mention that to a person and the urban myths abound – “They make thirty dollars an hour.” “They drive their Cadillacs to the job.” Et cetera. Et cetera.

I wanted to know what this job entails. So I did it. One cold morning I stood on a corner and depended upon the kindness of strangers. Nervously, I held out my sign – a generic “Anything Can Help. God Bless.” Drivers instantly averted their eyes. My smiling or waving did not matter. The only person who noted my presence was a little girl in an SUV. She waved back to me. However, I did see a lot of questionable driving behavior, including finishing breakfast, reading reports, applying make-up and one dog attempting to drive.

Then the cold set to work. My feet and back started to ache. After an hour it became painful. I decided to change my strategy. I held up a second sign that read, “Amateur brain surgeon seeks work or donations.” I thought that if people chuckled they might be more inclined to contribute.

I did get chuckles… and one donation. A driver smiled, shook his head, rolled down his window and handed me four quarters and a penny. Whereas before I felt as if I were a telephone pole, now I had a job. Granted, I was making less than a third-world textile worker, but at least somebody recognized my existence. I didn’t know if this was a good thing or not.

utah pandhandling

The one dollar could not buy much, but it did allow me to experience a fleeting moment of dignity. I could at least hope my fortunes would improve. If I had not been recognized, I would have probably gone off to a more productive endeavor such as collecting cans.

After two hours, I brought my experiment to a close. I draw no conclusions as to the reason people panhandle. I only observe that it is a hard and painful way to make a buck and a penny.

Utah Stories will be making a donation of $51.01 to the Utah Food Bank

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