Can we really say that giving money to people begging makes their problems worse?

A council in England was recently reprimanded for running an advertising campaign against begging. In a series of posters displayed throughout Nottingham, the city council claimed that “beggars aren’t what they seem”, that begging “funds the misuse of drugs” and that money given to beggars would go “down the drain” or “up in smoke”.

The UK Advertising Standard Authority (ASA) upheld complaints about Nottingham City Council’s campaign, saying that it reinforced negative stereotypes against vulnerable people, and portrayed all beggars as “disingenuous and undeserving” people who would use direct donations irresponsibly. The council was ordered not to display the ads in their current form again, and to avoid using potentially offensive material in the future.

But the council defended the campaign, arguing that the “hard-hitting” posters were necessary to “discourage members of the public from giving money to people who beg” on the basis that doing so would likely fund “life-threatening drug or alcohol addictions”. The posters encouraged people to donate money to local charities instead, using the hashtag #givesmart.

Similar appeals have been made by other charities and councils across the UK: the borough of Kensington and Chelsea attracted controversy over its own anti-begging messages, and Nottingham City Council was ordered to withdraw a similar campaign once before, in 2004, because it wasn’t backed up by evidence.

Although the council cited a blog post from a local charity in support of its claims, it’s clear that both the advertising watchdog and members of the public need to see more evidence that such campaigns prevent harm, rather than cause it.

So, how could local authorities avoid such a misstep in the future?

Doctor’s orders

For one thing, if the aim is to prevent the harms of drug and alcohol addiction, the council could follow existing health recommendations. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) – the body providing advice on best-practice for health and social care in England – makes a range of recommendations for helping people with alcohol addiction, for example. This includes following an evidence-based treatment manual and charting each person’s progress to review the effectiveness of different treatments. For homeless people, it recommends residential care for up to three months – it says nothing about trying to limit the amount of money that people receive.

But perhaps the council is keen to curb begging for other reasons: because it wants to satisfy members of the general public who find it a nuisance – if this were the reason it would be deeply troubling. Or perhaps it has a rationale for how cutting money to people begging might somehow treat those who have drug and alcohol problems and not cause anyone harm.

In any case, the council needs to be transparent about its aims and the evidence it has about the potential impacts of such campaigns so that an informed debate is possible.

Evaluating the evidence

There are many factors to take into account when evaluating the benefits and detriments of an ad campaign like this one. For instance, it would be useful to know how much money is given to people begging, how many of those people have alcohol or drug problems and how many seek out, or are given, support by local charities.

We would also need some hypotheses; for example, that the campaign will cause donations to local charities to rise, or drug and alcohol difficulties to fall among people who beg. These could be tested by tracking donations, or conducting surveys with people who beg both before and after the intervention, while taking account of any other factors that might have led to change.

Of course, the outcomes of such research can vary greatly, depending on whose perspectives you include. For example, Camden and Islington councils once asked locals their views on diverted giving (donating to charity, rather than directly to people in need). While 36% were positive, only 2% of people who were actually begging thought it was a good idea.

Whose views?

Deciding who to include in studies is a perennial problem in social research, especially when evaluation reports present rich details of people’s lives. Nottingham Council included three brief case summaries in their reply to the ASA’s judgment. Here’s one of them:

A man and a woman, who had previously been the subject of a Criminal Anti-Social Behaviour Order (CRASBO), were not homeless but travelled in to the city centre to beg for cash to fund their drug and alcohol addictions. The man would act as a look-out for his partner while she begged in shop doorways.

It is unclear what criteria the council used to choose their examples, but other research offers a different perspective on what it’s like to beg. One study, conducted in Scotland in the late 1990s, reported on a range of difficult decisions that people had to make, for instance choosing between begging and crime:

My bru [social security] money ran out and I had nae money. I have got a criminal record, so the choice was go back tae being a criminal and dae crookin’ and that or dae beggin’ and no get the jail. I am sick of the jail and that, so I decided tae dae beggin’.

They also reported what it felt like to beg – it seems plausible that people begging in Nottingham will have similar experiences:

They just look down on you like you’re dirt … like there was one time this guy says ‘you’re homeless, you’re dirt, you don’t have to be there, get a job’

Mapping complexities

Complex social and behavioural questions such as this can easily result in a complicated web of causes and effects. But mathematical tools such as causal networks may help: these can be designed and analysed using special software, which enables researchers to visualise the relationships between different factors in a diagram.

Example network of causal relationships.

Each of the circles and arrows has a mathematical meaning: researchers can constrain the networks using data collected from studies, or try out invented scenarios to explore the consequences of different policies before any is implemented. All evaluations of complex interventions will make assumptions and have limitations; these diagrams can be used to make those assumptions explicit, and sound out where more research is needed.

Of course, all this is just a brief sketch of the complexities involved. Given the information released so far, it is unclear how deeply the council considered the potential harms or benefits of this campaign. Perhaps using causal networks to explain how they thought it would work, and what adverse effects had been accounted for, would help to reassure the public. It’s vital that local authorities make use of research to understand the unintended impacts of policy – especially when it affects the most vulnerable people in society.

The Conversation

Andy Fugard, Lecturer, UCL

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Dimensions of psychosocial cure and support

Over the past few decades there has been a shift away from discrete categories to more dimensional ways of thinking about identity, experiences, beliefs, feelings, and activities. The Kinsey scale for sexual orientation, various political compasses, dimensional approaches to mental health difficulties and neurodiversity are some examples. So the idea is that you are neither straight nor gay, left or right, healthy or ill. There are dimensions and features which cut across the categories and vary in intensity. Psychological therapies are often discussed in terms of categories, e.g., CBT versus psychodynamic versus ACT. It has been recognised that there is much overlap in techniques used across the various brands, and taxonomies have been developed to try to dismantle brands. However, an enduring categorical distinction is between professional and non-professional. I’m curious to know what happens if you blur the distinctions further and think instead in terms of how people converse with each other, listen, empathise, and offer practical help. The professional dimension is orthogonal to the various ways of helping, focussed more on how reliable and accountable someone is.

An open non-resignation letter from Andy Fugard

Dear Jeremy,

Stick to your principles. You’re doing the right thing. Seek support wherever you can get it – SNP and Greens; parties from my birthplace, Northern Ireland (thought I suspect not DUP!); organisations fighting for oppressed groups such as DPAC.

There is absolutely no way – no way – you can be held responsible for the EU referendum result. There is simply no argument for that. There is, on the other hand, pervasive evidence that Leave campaigners lied to voters. I don’t know what’s going on with the PLP, but I’m willing to wager once Chilcot’s findings are unleashed that it will be easier to fight much of it off.

Vague complaints about your leadership style are nonsense. The problem is a clash of values. Any complaints I have heard about Labour have been in relation to internal fighting leaking into the press (not your fault) or by people who want a sound-bite spewing authoritarian to order them around and (pretend to) magic everything better (not socialism).

Your message about the need for investment in deprived areas is key; we need to find out more about the reality of people who are struggling and plan ways to help. Show that people are listening. Show that action will be taken.

Free market capitalism drives down wages, not free movement of people. Racism and xenophobia can never be pandered to – there are core values which need to be repeated loud and proud. We are a creative, warm, welcoming, diverse society.

This is a struggle for a socialist Labour Party. The SNP victories show that socialism can win: people want an equal society where everyone does their bit, however small, to help one another. To fight against the greedy minority who use exploitation and an ever widening market to gain profit. Where everyone pays their fair share of taxes.

Keep going. Encourage people to spread the vision of a Labour Party focused passionately on social justice.

Best wishes,

Andy Fugard

Labour and UCU member

Two hundred words two years later

I’d just been to a talk and was trying to decide whether to stay for drinks. I noticed a missed call from a withheld number. Tried ringing the likely caller, but no answer. I decided to go home and wait for them to call again. Later the call came: my dad had died; it was peaceful. I booked a flight and sent emails into work. Next morning, I bought a black tie. I clearly remember arriving at the funeral, walking down the aisle, smiling at cousins and others I hadn’t seen in some time. They looked back with concern, uncertainty. I remembered that this was a funeral. The closed coffin was sitting a little in front me. There’s dad. He’s gone. I could feel the sadness slowly build. The minister described conversations he’d had with dad in the weeks leading up to his death. Dad had requested that we sing his favourite hymn. I felt my face twitching. Floods of tears came in waves. An auntie I hadn’t seen for ages came over to me; we hugged and cried and then said simultaneously, word-for-word, “It’s really good to see you again.” Those few minutes of silence and empathy comforted most.

Mental health and brains, etc. (200 words)

We each differ in terms of how much stress or trauma we can endure before we fall to pieces. If you are fortunate enough to have close friends you trust or you are wealthy, then you can endure more. Even though individuals cope to varying degrees, it does not follow that research should focus on individual characteristics. Too many studies investigate genes, brain chemicals, and personality traits and too few examine social stressors and support. Although twin studies model how much variance is “explained” by the environment, they typically do not uncover exactly what it is in the environment that matters. The very word “environment” obscures what is going on; your family are in there as well as how close you are to a park. There could be more brain imaging studies investigating the neural correlates of, say, solidarity, or receiving adequate welfare support, rather than obsessing over mindfulness training and psychoactive pills. However, it is unclear how brain studies would help improve people’s lives. Allowing that brains and genes play an important role in distress does not imply an individualistic approach. Nor does it imply that psychiatry – or indeed professional psychology – supply the most effective ways to help people.

(Thanks to the wonderful user-led group for mental health survivors and supporters, Recovery in the Bin, for inspiring this post.)

Scrap of writing: Sustainable minds and relationships

I’ve just rediscovered a scrap of a note, which sort of still makes sense – throwing it out here in case it makes sense to someone else too!

“Differential” psychology orders people from clever to stupid (Nisbett et al., 2012; Spearman, 1904). Some have argued that instead of evaluating thinking ability, psychologists should instead study what it is that people care enough to think about and do (Raven, 1988). What might this mean? Perhaps we (social science, broadly?) should study:

  1. What people could think about;
  2. What people are thinking about, i.e., what they make an effort to think about and what thoughts come effortlessly;
  3. Why people don’t think about things that they could think about;
  4. What they can do;
  5. Why they are or aren’t doing things they can/could do.

The goal would be to shift studies of ability as a score to qualitative studies of the nature of what people think, feel, and do. This leads to an interesting set of problems. Let’s define a desired-action as an action which others’ want or need either to do themselves or to delegate to others and a desired-skill is what’s required to do those actions. Even with a qualitative model of thoughts, feelings, and actions, there remains the problem that:

  1. Some desired-skills are in more scarce supply than others.
    1. As a corollary, the abilities and motivations required for scarce desired-skills can be difficult to modify at the population and individual level (high gSpearman’s “general factor in intelligence” – is thought to enable desired-skills; attempts to increase it through, e.g., “brain training” have failed);
  2. Some desired-skills are more in demand than others.
    1. Another corollary: there may be no “good reason” for demand other than that a group of people have arbitrarily come to decide that they want something;
    2. In-demand doesn’t imply “useful” (in any sense) for self or society (see also ideas around social closure and opportunity hoarding; Wright, 2009);
  3. People are rewarded for doing scarce and in-demand desired-actions.
    1. This reward is currently often seen as financial, but there are other ways people can feel rewarded.

One possible conclusion (with a bit of an arm-wave) is that social scientists should be working out how to reduce the set of things that feel scarce. Perhaps it all comes down to human motivation (Maslow, 1943):

  1. Physiological
  2. Safety
  3. Love
  4. Esteem
  5. Self-actualisation
  6. To know and understand

Another way to think about this is that needs are part of a psychosocial ecosystem. And, much like how – if we want to stop the destruction of the planet – we have to find ways to live in a more sustainable way in terms of the material resources we use, we also – if we want to stop the destruction of our minds and relationships – have to help each other manage our needs. Think about an example of material sustainability. Do we really need to have a new plastic bag every time we go shopping? Are some of our apparent needs which rely on scarce-actions just arbitrarily so?

[And the scrap fizzled out here… Over to you…]


Maslow, A. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50, 370–396.

Nisbett, R. E., Aronson, J., Blair, C., Dickens, W., Flynn, J., Halpern, D. F., & Turkheimer, E. (2012). Intelligence: new findings and theoretical developments. American Psychologist, 67, 130–59. doi:10.1037/a0026699

Raven, J. (1988). Toward Measures of High-Level Competencies: A Re-examination of McClelland’s Distinction Between Needs and Values. Human Relations, 41, 281–294. doi:10.1177/001872678804100401

Spearman, C. (1904). “ General Intelligence,” Objectively Determined and Measured. The American Journal of Psychology, 15, 201–292.

Wright, E. O. (2009). Understanding Class: Towards an Integrated Analytical Approach. New Left Review, 60, 101–116.