Yet this ideal that elevates rather than humiliates petitioners seems to be in decline today. Recent press reports have highlighted instances of supposedly wealthy beggars. Such stories wildly misrepresent what life is like for all but a handful of those who crouch for hours on Britain's streets. For an average of pounds 6 a day, they endure much abuse and some kindness from those who pass by. There is a danger that many more people may feel justified by such reports in averting their eyes and closing their minds to those asking: 'Can you spare a bit of change, please?'
People produce different justifications for walking swiftly past. They say they prefer giving to organised charities. Liberal consciences agonise over offering money to those who are the worse for drink. Others feel threatened or harrassed by beggars, particularly those who walk up and down tube trains; and, as the numbers seeking money have grown, it has become impossible to help everyone.
These are understandable concerns. But people should be wary of using them as an excuse to ignore every person who asks for money. They should remember what most societies acknowledge: that giving can be good for both parties involved. An encounter with a beggar is perhaps the only moment in many people's daily lives when they are forced to engage face to face with poverty.
Offering a few pence is not the same as signing a cheque for a charity or responding to a rattled tin. The reality of having little money, no accommodation and inadequate clothing is immediate to the giver. The wise and humane will be grateful for a chance to dwell momentarily on their own relative good fortune and reflect on how fate might have dealt them a worse hand.