I've just finished reading William T. Vollmann's "Poor People." This comes at a good time, because Kitchener/Waterloo's panhandlers sprout in the springtime like daisies, and every year I wonder: who are these people, why are they here, and how do their lives relate to mine?
During the last twenty years Vollmann has been traveling the world and asking people: why are you poor? I think he'd hoped to find a "lowest common denominator" key to poverty by doing this, but as he points out at the beginning of the book, people who are uneducated, busy, uncertain, and in pain often do not have the time or means to analyze and express their circumstances. So most of the responses to this question are flippant or contradictory.
Vollmann's approach is observational and he does his best to be cross-cultural as well. One of his early stumbling blocks is that "poverty" isn't a quantifiable quality, especially when you compare hobos in North America with office cleaners in China. Poverty is hopelessly entwined with the culture of the poor person and the status of the observer.
Vollmann finally decides (with many reservations) that poverty is "wretchedness" below the specific culture's "normal" level, and he defines several elements which help to define the poverty lifestyle: invisibility, deformity, unwantedness, dependence, accident-prone-ness, pain, numbness, and estrangement. He provides case studies for each element, as well as 128 full-page pictures of the people being interviewed. The pictures deserve an entire book of their own.
The book does not offer any solutions, either for governments or individuals. Poor people generally request "more aid, better directed," but that is such a difficult thing to organize and supervise that it simply never happens.
After exploring all the facets and difficulties of poverty through the interviews, the best part of the book (as is often the case with his work) comes in the final chapters, where Vollmann describes how the poverty of others affects HIM. His family has been living for years next to an abandoned lot where transients are always sleeping, and very early he realized that he couldn't help those people and -- what's more -- that he had to "keep the door closed" against them. He candidly describes his fear of poor people in his own backyard, people who WANT something from him and have very little to lose by trying to snatch it. He also talks about his exasperation -- tempered with some understanding -- when they destroy his property or try to intimidate him, no matter how nicely he tries to relate to them.
"Poor People" is definitely his most accessible work, and I'd HIGHLY recommend it as an entry point into Vollmann's wonderful, terrible, and deadly world. But be forewarned that he doesn't have any answers, and the book is REALLY a list of questions. It won't teach you how to deal with the next person who asks you for money but it will at least make you consider why you may or may not refuse.