Am I a cash transfer evangelist or hypocrite?

I’m going to get off the cash transfer wagon on this blog because it’s getting boring for me and for you.

But first… am I an evangelist or hypocrite? I think the answer is both.

There is a homeless man who stands outside the grocery store in my building every day. He looks about 50. Every day he asks me for change, and every day I say, “sorry, no.” I feel badly, but I comfort myself with the thought that Jeannie and I give $100 every month to City Harvest, a network of NYC food programs.

Why do I think it’s a good idea to give cash to the poorest in Uganda, but not to the homeless of NYC?

The obvious worry is that the money will be “wasted” in that it’s spent on getting drunk or high. Possibly my money could do more harm than good.

But then this is the very myth I and others have looked into and dispelled–at least in poor countries. (David Evans has a very nice blog post and paper looking at 44 studies. 42 say that the poor don’t spend cash on booze or cigarettes.)

You might suspect (and I do) that the poorest in NYC are different. The average person in Uganda or Liberia is very poor, and the average person does just fine with cash. But a homeless person in NYC is not average (at least not the ones who stand outside my grocery store for years). The poorest of the poor in developed and developing countries might be different.

That would be easier to believe if I didn’t have a cash transfer experiment (stay tuned) where we gave cash to the poorest men in the urban slums of Liberia. We sought out men who, as often as not, made their living through theft or drug dealing, were often homeless, and were rampant users of alcohol, marijuana, and sometimes harder stuff. (We even specifically recruited the guys hanging out in front of grocery stores begging.)

As best we can tell, they saved and invested most of their money, and spent little on “bads”.

I am curious: can anyone suggest reports or studies on the homeless in urban America? Are there agencies that give cash to the poorest and most hardcore homeless in the US? Particularly good program evaluations?