The intersection of Hammond and Main streets in Worcester is a popular spot for beggars. Traffic is often heavy and slow, giving the poor time to appeal to motorists.
Whether the beggars of Worcester (I forgo the term panhandler for reasons explained below) are truly needy, and whether we can trust the misfortunes related on their cardboard signs, is unclear. Some surely are.
Others duck behind bridge abutments to use smartphones.
In any case, provided they are patient and evoke more sympathy than alarm, they do well enough to keep at it. Nothing – including city ordinances, court rulings or social service agencies – has resulted in any appreciable change in their numbers over the years.
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When the word panhandler first appeared in the 1850s, it carried the notion that the money changing hands was a loan. And in Dust Bowl days, the word sometimes connoted impoverished Oklahomans heading for a better future in California.
Today, when you give money on the street, it’s not a loan. And those asking you for your change aren’t looking to move out of Massachusetts, where the welfare state is both generous enough and porous enough to not only keep the poor here, but to attract them from elsewhere.
So I’ll stick with beggars, and for the small percentage who resort to aggressive and dangerous tactics, we have the phrase “sturdy beggar,” which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “an able-bodied man begging without cause, and often with violence.”
I got to thinking about the city’s beggars because of the recent talk about bringing a $15 per hour minimum wage to Worcester, a move advocates say would give the working poor a fighting chance.
If you believe that, you are also likely among those who favoring putting clauses in tax-increment financing agreements to require private employers to pay higher wages or forfeit the tax advantages they have negotiated.
You probably advocate higher taxes on the wealthy, raising tax rates on capital gains, making college “free,” imposing carbon taxes, and many similar ideas to manipulate markets.
Those who hold such views have either forgotten or never understood the principles enunciated by Adam Smith in his 1776 work “The Wealth of Nations.” You can open that work to nearly any one of its 1,000-odd pages and find wisdom.
This passage, from Chapter 5, sums up the truth about work and wealth creation:
“It was not by gold or by silver, but by labour, that all the wealth of the world was originally purchased; and its value, to those who possess it, and who want to exchange it for some new productions, is precisely equal to the quantity of labour which it can enable them to purchase or command.”
Yes, economics has advanced in the last 240 years, and Smith wasn’t right about everything. But he got the basics right: Gain skills and knowledge, work hard, become more productive, and over time your abilities will command a higher wage and thus purchase more goods and services.
The political left prefers to believe in the economic fantasy that prosperity can be achieved through diktats that redistribute existing resources. But any minimum wage that exceeds what Smith described as the real price of labor will deprive some workers of jobs. A minimum wage of $15 per hour means that anyone whose labor is worth less than $15 per hour is likely to be unemployed and in need of relief.
The left’s other prescriptions for wealth redistribution would have similarly harmful effects: aiding a few while depriving many others of incentives to work harder, get smarter and acquire and invest capital. That, not magic wands, is how economies grow and create jobs for all, including the poor.
Moreover, communities that handicap themselves with quotas and rules are less competitive and attract fewer businesses. As a result, residents pay higher taxes while enjoying fewer opportunities for employment.
After eight years of indecision from President Obama and inability to compromise by a Republican-controlled Congress, the nation’s economic recovery remains in low gear. And the prospects for 2017 are grim, with the leading contenders for the White House all guilty of embracing economic fallacies.
At the very least, Worcester should not make the situation any worse. Let business flourish here free of interference with the price of labor and by letting business and government work out deals that jumpstart the economy.
Worcester will always have a few beggars. The question now is whether bad economic policies will force more of the working poor to join their ranks.
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