AskDefine | Define panhandler

Dictionary Definition

panhandler n : a beggar who approaches strangers asking for money

User Contributed Dictionary



Obscure. Panhandling always seems to involve a container for receiving loose change, so perhaps referring to a small, handled pan. This would seem to be the origin of the verb.


  1. An urban beggar who typically stands on a street with a outstretched container in hand, begging for loose change.
  2. A bum.

Extensive Definition

"Beggar" redirects here. Distinguish from Begga and Bega.
Begging means to request something in a supplicating manner, with the implication that the person who is begging will suffer emotional and/or physical harm if the request is not granted. As such, the term is applicable not only to individual persons, but also to groups, such as street corners or public transport, and encountering a stranger who requests money, food, shelter or other things.
Begging may be the only possible means of survival for persons with no job and no access to social security, particularly undocumented refugees or subsistence farmers in times of famine or drought.
Begging may also be a means by which persons with drug, alcohol, or psychiatric problems which prevent them selling their labour choose to sustain themselves, in preference to living with families, or in institutions, which they may dislike.
In a strictly free-market capitalist system, begging is one of only three possible ways of surviving; the other two are selling labour, and living on the income from investments. Since relatively few people have sufficient investments to generate a living wage, it follows that people who are unable to sell their labour for any reason are often forced to beg. In some cases, the descent from a middle-class lifestyle to begging can happen within a short period of time, and this is a popular theme in contemporary fiction.
One of the advantages often claimed for a social security economy over a free market economy is that fewer people are forced to suffer the indignity of begging to survive.
Begging is also referred to as sponging, spanging (short for "spare-changing") or (in American English) panhandling.
In many towns and cities throughout the world, it is common to see beggars asking for currency, food, or other items. Beggars often beg for spare change equipped with cups, boxes, hats, or other items into which currency can be placed and sometimes display signs with messages such as "Help me. I'm homeless."
Begging is distinct from, but often associated with, busking, in which persons make music (of varying quality) in public places and request donations from the public.

Aggressive panhandling

Aggressive panhandling involves the solicitation of donations in an inappropriate and intimidating manner. This is not mugging, but rather a "borderline" activity which is often prohibited by law. Examples include:
  • Soliciting near ATM banking machines.
  • Soliciting from customers inside a store or restaurant.
  • Soliciting near or at religious or holy sites (such as in the Old City of Jerusalem or the Vatican City).
  • Extending the head and both arms, or even the hand, into a car window to solicit.
  • Soliciting after dark, in a secluded area.
  • Approaching individuals from behind, as they are exiting their vehicles, to solicit.
  • Soliciting in a loud voice, often accompanied with wild gesticulations.
  • The use of insults, profanity, or veiled threats.
  • Refusing to take "No" for an answer, and following an individual.
  • Demanding more money after a donation has been given.
  • Invasion of personal space, cornering, blocking, or inappropriate touching.
  • A "team" of several beggars approaching an individual at once, often surrounding the person.
  • "Camping out" in a spot where begging negatively influences some other business (such as in front of a store or restaurant) in the hope that the business owner will give money to make the beggar go away.
  • There have been reports of beggars who will attempt to have their limbs amputated in the hope that they can solicit more out of sympathy.

Restriction of beggars


The province of Ontario introduced its Safe Streets Act in 1999 to restrict specific kinds of begging, particularly certain narrowly-defined cases of "aggressive" or abusive panhandling. In 2001 this law survived a court challenge under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The law was further upheld by the Ontario Court of Appeal in January 2007.
British Columbia enacted its own Safe Streets Act in 2004 which resembles the Ontario law. There are also critics in that province who oppose such laws.

United States

In many larger cities, such as Chicago, Illinois, panhandling has been banned. In Chicago, there are a number of signs at regular intervals reminding people that peddling is banned. This rarely dissuades the beggar, and the constitutionality of such bans has not been firmly established by case law. In 2004, the city of Orlando, Florida passed an ordinance (Orlando Municipal Code section 43.86) requiring panhandlers to obtain a permit from the municipal police department. The ordinance further makes it a crime to panhandle in the commercial core of downtown Orlando, as well as within 50 feet of any bank or automated teller machine. It is also considered a crime in Orlando for panhandlers to make false or untrue statements, or to disguise themselves, to solicit money, and to use money obtained for a claim of a specific purpose (e.g. food) to be spent on anything else (e.g. drugs). The potential for these latter restrictions to be enforced is minimal.
In Santa Cruz, CA, there are regulations for panhandlers on where they can and cannot "Spange". For example, they must be a certain distance away from the door of any business.
The Atlanta, Georgia, city council approved a ban on panhandling on August 16, 2005, and Mayor Shirley Franklin is expected to sign the ban into law. In most, if not all, US jurisdictions, beggars can be arrested and jailed under the vagrancy laws.

United Kingdom

Begging is also banned in the London Underground System, although there are designated "busking spots" that can be hired in some stations that allow musicians to entertain travellers.

Begging and spirituality

In some countries begging is much more tolerated and in certain cases encouraged. In many, perhaps most, traditional religions, it is considered that a person who gives alms to a worthy beggar, such as a spiritual seeker, gains religious merit.
In traditional Christianity, the rich are encouraged to give to the poor. Speaking of criminals, prostitutes, beggars, and other people despised by society, Jesus said, "I am the least of these," which is taken to mean that giving to a beggar is the equivalent of giving to Jesus himself.
In many Hindu traditions, spiritual seekers, known as sadhus, beg for food. This is because fruitive activity, such as farming or shopkeeping, is regarded as a materialistic distraction from the search for moksha, or spiritual liberation. Begging, on the other hand, promotes humility and gratitude, not only towards the individuals who are giving food, but towards the Universe in general. This helps the sadhu attain a state of bliss or Samadhi.
In traditional Shaivite Hinduism in particular, old men, having lived a full life as a householder in the world, frequently give up material possessions and become wandering ascetic mendicants (sadhus), spending their last months or years seeking spiritual enlightenment. Villagers gain religious merit by giving food and other necessities to these ascetics.
In Buddhism, all monks and nuns traditionally live by begging for alms, as did the historical Gautama Buddha himself. This is, among other reasons, so that lay people can gain religious merit by giving food, medicines, and other essential items to the monks. The monks seldom need to plead for food; in villages and towns throughout modern Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and other Buddhist countries, householders can often be found at dawn every morning streaming down the road to the local temple to give food to the monks.
There is also a long traditional of rather less spiritual beggars, in India and elsewhere, who are simply begging as a means to obtain material wealth. Some are even beggars for generations, and continue their family tradition of begging. A few beggars in the subcontinent even have sizable wealth, which they accumulate by "employing" other, newer beggars. They can claim to have territories, and then may engage in verbal and physical abuse of encroaching beggars.
In Europe, women from the poorer countries of the continent (e.g. Bulgaria) are sometimes forced by organized gangs to beg in cities in Western Europe such as Barcelona, the proceeds being collected by the gangs.
In some countries, including Malta and Cuba, there is no noticeable incidence of begging.

Use of funds

A common criticism of beggars is that they spend money received on irresponsible or unnecessary items, particularly on drugs, alcohol or tobacco. This is often stated as a reason for not giving money to panhandlers. Also, in many communities in developed countries, various state and private charitable social services may be available such as welfare, soup kitchens and homeless shelters that may reduce any survival need for begging.
A 2002 study of 54 panhandlers in Toronto reported that of a median monthly income of $638 Canadian dollars (CAD), those interviewed spent a median of $200 CAD on food and $192 CAD on alcohol, tobacco and illegal drugs, according to Income and spending patterns among panhandlers, by Rohit Bose and Stephen W. Hwang. The Fraser Institute criticized this study citing problems with potential exclusion of lucrative forms of begging and the unreliability of reports from the panhandlers who were polled in the Bose/Hwang study.
In North America, panhandling money is widely reported to support substance abuse and other addictions. For example, outreach workers in downtown Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, surveyed that city's panhandling community and determined that approximately three-quarters use donated money to buy tobacco products while two-thirds buy solvents or alcohol. In Midtown Manhattan, one outreach worker anecdotally commented to the New York Times that substance abuse accounts for 90 percent of panhandling funds.
Because of this, some advise those wishing to give to beggars to give gift cards or vouchers for food or services, and not cash.

Begging on the Internet

Begging like other activities has also adapted to the net taking on an "e-panhandling" role. Instead of begging on the streets, cyber panhandlers set up a website where they "beg" for money. Later variants tried to request money for their personal needs that were beyond their financial ability with some success. Begging has also become commonplace in the chatrooms of various gambling and poker websites. In poker sites, one will frequently see someone claiming that they are so good at the game that if someone lends them 10 dollars, that they'll have it back to the lender with interest in a very short period of time. These may be desperate gaming addicts who have run dry, or they may not gamble at all and simply withdraw the money for their own use. Players of online games may beg for in-game currency, such as Gold in MMOs or Lindens in second life, which can be converted to real world currency.

History of begging

There are few, if any, current techniques for begging which have not been used for hundreds of years, or are not based on older techniques, adapted to modern technology. Beggars rarely recorded their techniques, and often used Thieves' cant to disguise their own communication. What is known of them is largely from records of law enforcement, penitential or rogue literature. From early modern England the best examples are Thomas Harman, and Robert Greene in his coney-catching pamphlets. There is no reason to suppose that what he recorded was new. There are similar writers for many European countries in the early modern period.

Notable beggars


Further material

  • Born Losers: A History of Failure in America, by Scott A. Sandage (Harvard University Press, 2005).
panhandler in Arabic: تسول
panhandler in German: Bettler
panhandler in Persian: گدا
panhandler in French: Mendiant
panhandler in Indonesian: Mengemis
panhandler in Hebrew: קבצנות
panhandler in Dutch: Bedelen
panhandler in Japanese: 乞食
panhandler in Polish: Żebranie
panhandler in Portuguese: Esmola
panhandler in Russian: Попрошайничество
panhandler in Sicilian: Limusinanti
panhandler in Simple English: Begging
panhandler in Serbian: Просјачење
panhandler in Finnish: Kerjääminen
panhandler in Swedish: Tiggeri
panhandler in Thai: ขอทาน
panhandler in Vietnamese: Cái Bang
panhandler in Chinese: 行乞

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

beggar, bum, bummer, cadger, coupon clippers, drone, freeloader, hobo, idle rich, leisure class, loafer, lounge lizard, lumpen proletariat, mendicant, mendicant friar, mendicant order, moocher, nonworker, parasite, rentiers, schnorrer, scrounger, spiv, sponger, the unemployable, the unemployed, tramp
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