Although the term "Almsgiving" may by extension cover all charitable giving, whether at the initiative of the giver or as a consequence of begging, here we are concerned with it in the more narrow sense---as a response to a beggars appeal.
How do we deal with beggars? Do we assume a lack of guile and give indiscriminately? Or are we more realistic---even cynical---by giving only to those we consider "deserving."
This is not a new issue. The Parable of the Good Samaritan underscores this. Certainly it is an essential precept of the Judeo-Christian tradition to be merciful, to respond to unfortunates freely, even sacrificially, and from the basis of love. However, what constitutes the most "loving" response has long been a subject of debate.
Many from this tradition have held the position that indiscriminate charity is anything but the most "loving" response. To encourage dependence is seen as the antithesis of a "loving" response. Rather, they would invoke "tough love."
So it is that we find in the time of Charlemagne a statute forbidding alms for the able bodied, those who otherwise could be self-sustaining.
Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) sought to harmonize Judaism with Aristotelian philosophy in his controversial major work, "Guide to the Perplexed." Philosopher and theologian as well as physician to the Sultan Saladin and leader of the Jewish community in Egypt, he outlined in this work the "Eight Degrees of Charity."
"The Eighth, and most meritorious of all, " he wrote, "is to anticipate charity by preventing poverty; namely to assist the reduced fellow man, either by a considerable gift, or a sum of money, or by teaching him a trade, or by putting him in the way of business, so that he may earn an honest livelihood, and not be forced to the dreadful alternative of holding out his hand for charity."
St. Francis and his followers (c 1182AD) , in a sense, legitimized begging. They sought alms to support them in their ministry. However, in another sense, such asking was more like contemporary fundraising to support a worthy charity than straightforward begging (which more times than not is directed to relieve only the distress of the individual seeking help, and often leads to conversion of the gift to use other than what was intended or expected by the donor).
The issue was secularized by passage of the Elizabethan Poor Laws (1601 AD). The able bodied were sent to workhouses, or jail, if they refused to work! We find in Colonial America, which operated under the same system of laws, an emphasis on self-help and an intolerance of dependency.
The issue is still "front page." How do we forestall the need that reduces people to begging? Is it to be "Workfare" or "Welfare?" Is begging to be outlawed? (It is in many locations). If it is, is the law to be enforced? (As it was in recent years in downtown Detroit). Will Welfare Reform reduce the incidence of begging? Is it "tough love" (as proponents of reform hold) or just "being tough and heartless" (as some would maintain.)
Whatever happens, at least some beggars are likely to present themselves to each of us. How will we respond? It becomes a personal matter. Do I automatically give? Or, do I hold back believing that the gift would just feed dependency and perhaps bad habits? (And, in either case, giving or not giving, will we move on with a feeling of unease or possibly guilt?)
In some communities, voucher plans are in place to help answer the dilemma. The beggar is given a voucher redeemable for food, clothing, shelter---and, in some cases, directions to agencies that can help. Although the vouchers have value, and can be traded for undesirable outcomes, it is felt the value of the program far outweighs any shortcomings.