August 8, 2006

What percentage of bums are telling the truth?

I've been incredibly busy as of late hunting for an apartment (conveniently, it's the worst time in history to be in the market in New York), but, feeling an urge to post something, I dug this out of my abandoned-posts archive and added a poll to the end (which you should skip to, if you don't like reading gratuitous preamble):


One of the wonderful things about the interweb is the ability it gives you to find and contact almost anyone. Ever since I was made (more excruciatingly) aware of my own naivety many years ago by a friend after giving a homeless man in Durham a buck ("he's just going to spend it on booze"), I've been more conscious of the "but what if they're telling the truth?" mentality that typically garners a beggar wages.

After a week of riding the subway from Connecticut to NYC every morning and night (about an hour and a half each way, not counting mass-transportation snafus, such as my train on Thursday catching fire and requiring an evacuation), I began wondering if there was an "answer" to the question I've been forced to consider on a daily basis now. Despite issuing a few minor complaints about their first book, Freakonomics, the only people I know of who'd be willing to consider my question from an academic and journalistic standpoint are Stephen J. Dubner and Steven Levitt. A quick stop at their website (and excellent blog) garnered a contact email address, to which I sent the following:

Last week I moved to New York City from North Carolina. Homelessness is certainly prevalent in my own hometown of Durham, but it's not constantly in your face like it is in NYC. While sitting on a subway listening to a man regale the car with a tale of being a Vietnam vet with three hungry children, I began to wonder:

What percentage of bums are telling the truth?

And, consequently, what are the actual odds that any money you give them would end up going to food or other necessities, instead of alcohol/drugs?

I wouldn't think that too many people would want to take a stab at "answering" these questions, because of the borderline-offensive generalizations that would result -- except perhaps the two of you. That said, I have no idea how you'd go about researching this; nevertheless, it's certainly a worthwhile (and obvious) topic.

Stephen J. Dubner actually replied the same day--on a Saturday, no less (one drawback of today's connectivity it that it turns all of us into 7-day-a-week part-timers). He responded,

The most visible hustlers are, while probably in need of quite a lot of things, pretty inevitably lying. I'm sure there's been research done on this but I'm guessing it's of the sociological variety, without great data. Would be a good project, for sure. Maybe you're the man for the job?


Maybe not. However, because I was still writing for DVguru at the time, and was kicking around the idea of delving deeper into "real" journalism, I briefly considered doing some cursory research and submitting an unsolicited article exploring the topic to Slate (despite my lack of statistics/economics/numbers-in-general background). But then I went on hiatus from DVguru soon thereafter, started pursuing actual doings instead of merely writing-about-doings, and the question died there.

Or did it?

One of the books I'm currently reading--and yes, I'd be better off finishing a book and only then starting another, instead of A.D.D.-ingly reading whichever one on my bookshelf strikes my fancy at the moment--is James Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds. Here's an applicable example from it: if you have lots of people guess how many jelly beans there are in a jar, the mean of all their guesses will actually be fairly accurate. However, each person's guess, individually, is more than likely off by a lot.

So let's open up the question at hand to the wisdom of the (albeit very small) crowd that reads this blog. Here:

Where "bum" offensively refers to a homeless person or panhandler in general; where "the truth" refers to their story being mostly true; and where "telling" refers to a bum asking for money with a sympathetic story, rather than playing an instrument or performing otherwise...

What percentage of bums are telling the truth?
Less than 5%
More than 50%

UPDATE: After receiving a whopping 54 votes, the leading category is 5-15%, although <5% and 15-30% each received an almost equal (to each other, and only a few less than 5-15%) share. If you were to weigh the categories based on their size (with <5% being smaller than the others), then the <5% category would in fact come out on top, I suppose. But, long story short: who knows? The only conclusion we can draw from this is that the vast majority of a tiny sample size of respondents on a random blog think that less than 30% of beggars are telling the truth. Maybe one day (if I stick with this whole navel-gazing thing... correction: if I stick with this whole blogging-about-navel-gazing thing) I'll actually have a readership that I can pose interesting questions to. That'll be the day.

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