Often, however, they are handicapped by coming from broken or unhappy homes, being poorly educated, in poor physical or mental health and suffering from alcoholism or addiction to drugs.
Crisis, a charity working for homeless people, interviewed 145 beggars in central London last autumn in an attempt to find out who begged and why. The research took place before John Major's infamous description last May of beggars as unnecessary and unacceptable 'eyesores'.
Mark Scothern, director of Crisis, said yesterday: 'While there may be a few people who want to beg, our study shows that the vast majority of beggars are leading a bleak hand-to-mouth existence.
'Begging is usually taken up very reluctantly to get money to survive a shortage of money. While begging they face violence, abuse, depression and isolation.'
The study suggests that the majority of beggars are male, that almost 80 per cent are homeless, either sleeping rough or in temporary accommodation such as hostels, and that nearly half had been in care as children or had experienced a disrupted or traumatic childhood. A quarter of those interviewed slept rough before they were 16.
One in three of those interviewed had a history of mental problems - 17 per cent having been in a psychiatric hospital, one- third had a drink or drugs abuse problem and three-fifths of those spoken to had no educational qualifications. The study says that beggars are 'generally homeless and impoverished, in poor health and low on morale, with a long history of difficulties and problems'.
It claims the recent explosion in street begging is a consequence of inadequacies in the benefits system, both in the level of benefit and the way it is administered. The report says many young people began begging after income support for most of those under the age of 18 was abolished in 1988.
The majority of those interviewed (54 per cent) were of white English or Welsh origin, 21 per cent were white Irish and 14 per cent were of Scottish origin. Two per cent identified themselves as Caribbean. While 15 per cent felt they would always beg, the rest regarded begging as a temporary phase in their lives prompted by bad luck. The report says that while a small minority of beggars are bogus, commuting from their homes into the capital after donning scruffy clothes, 80 per cent are genuinely homeless and poor.
Those sleeping rough, as opposed to sleeping in hostels, tended to be older and were much more likely to be Scottish or Irish. Most of those interviewed had once had a home of their own but had lost it, frequently after the break down of a relationship. Just over half were single, a quarter were separated or divorced and 16 per cent were in a relationship. Fifty-four per cent had children.
More than 90 per cent had worked at some time in their lives. More than 20 per cent of the sample had formerly been in the armed forces. Sixty-three per cent said they wanted to work - only 9 per cent said they did not - 44 per cent had applied for a job during the previous year and 17 per cent had earnt money from selling the Big Issue magazine produced and sold by homeless people.
A beggar's income fluctuated widely from day to day but averaged pounds 10 to pounds 20 a day. The money was generally used to top-up state benefits. Eighty per cent of those interviewed were in receipt of one or more social security benefits.
The study concludes by calling for benefits for young people to be restored in full, benefit rules to be changed to make it easier for people to do casual work, and for government funding for day care centres to enable them to open longer.
Crisis also suggests that travel warrants, food vouchers and phonecards could be issued to the homeless as a more effective way of helping them to manage their resources and calls for the abolition of the 170-year-old Vagrancy Act, which outlaws begging.
We Are Human Too. A Study of People Who Beg, is available from Crisis, 7 Whitechapel Road, London, E1 1DU: pounds 8.
Leading article, page 13