statistics, the first cousins of lies

policing cambridgeThis little magazine dropped through my letterbox the other day. Its purpose is to summarise police work in the area over the past year. All very commendable, but I take issue with one claim made in an artice entitled, ‘Life on the street’. In it, PC Christian Dicks states that, “The average homeless person in Cambridge can make £400 a week by begging.” He goes on to say, “In London I’m told its more like £1000.”

I cant help wondering where PC Dicks gleaned this information. My guess is it is the result of an exaggerated account of a particularly good day. Perhaps, a few days before Xmas, someone wound up with £73 one evening. He or she was probably far from average. Most likely they were playing seasonal music. Excited by their success, they bragged about it to fellow beggars & buskers, rounding their earnings up to £80 in the process. In this new polished version of reality, our braggart puts in a 5 day week and earns £400. And hey presto, in the giddy world of statistics, £400 becomes average earnings.

I’ll grant you this is a flight of fancy, but it is based on hard, personal experience. I have been that braggart. Back in the 70s and early 80s I was more or less homeless for a while and made my living playing music on the street. I know how full of bluster and lies we all were. I don’t expect much has changed. We all had our good days, but in truth these were far outnumbered by the bad.

This kind of misinformation does a great disservice to street musicians and indeed all street people. A great many hard working people do not make £400 a week, and they believe what they read. If they have any inclination to give, this kind of misrepresentation is going to persuade them otherwise. Instead of supporting the reality that many people on the street need and deserve our help, we are led to believe they are a bunch of chancers who are far better off than we are.

Being homeless and living on the street is not a career choice. I remember in the 80s in New York, Mayor Koch spending money on an advertising campaign aimed at persuading citizens not to give money to beggars because it just encourages them. As if all street people, faced with dwindling returns, would give up the itinerant life and get jobs on Wall St.

When you see someone begging or busking, you can be fairly certain they have all kinds of personal problems, and earning £400 a week is not one of them. There are scandalous examples of tricksters who mercilessly con the public, but the vast majority are the weak and dispossessed who have nowhere or no one to turn to. Please bear this in mind when you consider giving them something.

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