I caught this interesting story from the Christian Science Monitor about Adam Shephard, a 2006 Merrimack College graduate who temporarily left the middle class life and, on purpose, started his life over in South Carolina with $25 in his pocket and little else. His goal: to test the American Dream. His goal was to have an apartment, a car, and $2,500 in savings within one year. To make it more challenging, he decided not to use any of his previous contacts or mention his college education.
During his first 70 days in Charleston, Shepard lived in a shelter and received food stamps. He also made new friends, finding work as a day laborer, which led to a steady job with a moving company.
Ten months into the experiment, he decided to quit after learning of an illness in his family. But by then he had moved into an apartment, bought a pickup truck, and had saved close to $5,000.
The effort, he says, was inspired after reading “Nickel and Dimed,” in which author Barbara Ehrenreich takes on a series of low-paying jobs. Unlike Ms. Ehrenreich, who chronicled the difficulty of advancing beyond the ranks of the working poor, Shepard found he was able to successfully climb out of his self-imposed poverty.
He tells his story in “Scratch Beginnings: Me, $25, and the Search for the American Dream.” The book, he says, is a testament to what ordinary Americans can achieve.
At first, I thought to myself, OK an interesting experiment by a strong, young, healthy, native English-speaking, single, white, college-educated male who chooses to experience life as a member of the working poor on the wrong side of the tracks to prove Barbara Ehrenreich’s thesis in Nickel and Dimed wrong.
On many levels, it can be argued that his experiment, judging by his many life advantages, is inherently flawed. I doubt if getting a job, an apartment, a car, and some savings-his measure of ascent out of the life of a struggling working class person-would have been doable so quickly if he weren’t already healthy, young, strong, white, a college graduate, well-educated, or English-speaking. Let him try living on the streets from a different starting point-as a single mother without a high school diploma, for example.
Moreover, let him try the working poor life for more than ten months. Let’s see him truly leave the middle class life for several years and starting from the streets, go for larger, more significant goals than an apartment, a blue-collar job, and $5,000 in savings. Let’s say, marketable educational credentials like a technical degree or a college degree (oh I forgot he already had that), secure housing, good credit (oops I forgot he also already had those), and doing it all while raising and supporting elderly parents or young children. In fact, trying to raise these children right and send them to good schools from elementary to college. And don’t forget decent healthcare. God forbid he develops a chronic physical condition that will diminish his capacity to perform heavy, manual labor.
Shephard is entitled to try to argue with Barbara Ehrenreich’s thesis in any way he wants. What bothers me is the undercurrent of a self-righteous, holier-than-thou assumption on his part regarding the working poor and what it takes to escape a life of poverty and struggle. In fact, not so implicit in his little experiment is the question of what we do, as a society, about socioeconomic inequality and poverty.
He said that he objected to the “victim mentality” of Ehrenreich’s book, especially its thesis that the American Dream is dead. He wanted to see for himself whether or not the American Dream is still alive. And lo and behold, in ten months, starting from his notion of “scratch”, he finds out that it was very much still alive and kicking-for him. In fact, the thesis of his book is that with a little gumption, some middle-class lifestyle strategies like hard work, thrift and savings, and a positive attitude, that anybody can climb out of a life of poverty and struggle perhaps more quickly than they have ever imagined. Hey, if he can do it anyone can!
When asked if his situation would have been radically different if he had childcare payments or if he had been required to report to a probation officer:
The question isn’t whether I would have been able to succeed. I think it’s the attitude that I take in: “I’ve got child care. I’ve got a probation officer. I’ve got all these bills. Now what am I going to do? Am I going to continue to go out to eat and put rims on my Cadillac? Or am I going to make some things happen in my life…?” One guy, who arrived [at the shelter] on a Tuesday had been hit by a car on [the previous] Friday by a drunk driver. He was in a wheelchair. He was totally out of it. He was at the shelter. And I said, “Dude, your life is completely changed.” And he said, “Yeah, you’re right, but I’m getting the heck out of here.” Then there was this other guy who could walk and everything was good in his life, but he was just kind of bumming around, begging on the street corner. To see the attitudes along the way, that is what my story is about.
So there you have it folks, it’s the ATTITUDE that counts. It doesn’t matter if you have real obstacles blocking your path (and not just self-imposed ones like the one Shephard had) such as childcare payments or if you are an ex-convict with a police record, making the right choices and decisions and having a positive attitude is the real key to overcoming a life of struggle and inequality. This goes for everybody-the single mother, the ex-felon, the down-and-out, the young, old, whatever-if Adam Shephard can do it so can you!
Shephard, his story, and the way he has chosen to market it bothers me. Not because I enjoy being a wet blanket in peoples’ patriotic, self-congratulating, celebrations of their human spirit. It worries me because Shephard’s story is bound to catch on to the media and society in general where Important People can latch on to it and use him as an example of what attitude, grit, determination, and middle-class values can achieve for poor folks. In fact, Shephard, judging from his book tour and media appearances, has positioned himself to ride that wave and make a tidy profit as a result.
Shephard’s opportunism has policy implications and has the potential to be used as political fodder by ideologues and politicians who would rather sweep the issues of poverty and inequality and the conditions of life for the working poor under the rug. If you’re poor, hey it must be your own fault. You either made the wrong choices in life, are lazy and are not willing to work hard, or just plain stupid. Either way, it’s not society’s obligation to help your sorry ass out. You won’t get a red cent of taxpayer help but here’s an inspiring book of the story of Adam Shephard – maybe it will inspire you to hustle your way out of your sorry situation.
Shephard the savvy business management graduate appears to acutely know there is a thriving market in American society in putting down the poor. He’s just here to make a buck-it’s the American Way. If it comes at the expense of the dignity and minimizing the situation for poor and working class folk, then so be it.
If you feel like arguing with me first read this – what I believe should be done about poverty and inequality.