An Ordinary Person

An Experiment On the American Dream | February 16, 2008

american-flag.jpgI 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.

He has a web site based on his book and is currently on a book and speaking tour, and is slated to appear on the Today Show, Inside Edition, and Fox News.

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.


  1. I just heard an interview with this guy and my hackles went up when he started off describing his motivation as having read Nickel and Dimed and not “thinking much of it.” There is a potentially interesting story to be told in what he did, but as many people are pointing out, for a college-educated, fit young white guy with a middle-class background, who has a point to prove and the security of a social network safety net, even if he chooses not to use it, to do what he did, doesn’t prove much at all. And the attitude that he himself brought to his experiment really detracts from whatever literary value the book might have – it’s a nose-thumbing directed at a political foe, rather than an observation about the economic life of Americans.

    The guy really came off as an obnoxious chest-thumper. Grr.

    Comment by piminnowcheez — February 16, 2008 @ 2:50 pm

  2. I just heard this guy on the radio too. What an asshole. I bet we’ll be seeing much more of him on Fox and what have you. It’s been a while since I read Ehrenreich’s book. I can’t remember did she ever posed as a white male mover. It might have made the book more memorable. Thanks for the thoughtful post.

    Comment by Dan — February 16, 2008 @ 4:52 pm

  3. I just listened to his interview on NPR and he seemed smug and self-righteous. He was dismissive and intolerant of what he considers “excuses” that people make for not saving money, for being thrifty, and for not advancing in life.

    His interview only confirmed to me that he wrote his book not as an honest, sincere exploration of the life of working poor Americans but primarily as his weapon against Barbara Ehrenreich and people like her who make politically-charged arguments for the interests of poor and working class folks. In short, he’s an aspiring ideologue/culture warrior who positions himself as the conservative counter-argument to Ehrenreich.

    Comment by Liberal Arts Dude — February 16, 2008 @ 5:47 pm

  4. Please refer to the previous three responses for the attitudes that are required to fail in the world. Scratch Beginnings is not about what you have materially, it’s about what you do with whatever you have. And what you do with what you have, is based off of your attitude. This guy started homeless and wrote a book, with his attitude, and these three aforementioned “bloggers”, haven’t done anything but complain about the system and have the “poor me’s”, just like Barbara Ehrenichshicheiich. Thus, not changing a dag gum thing. Well, the glass is half full if you ask me, and since you aren’t drinking, I believe I’ll help myself to yours too.

    Comment by Jonathan Gable — February 17, 2008 @ 4:40 am

  5. Hello Jonathan

    1) Adam Shephard did not start out “homeless” — he still had his safety net in place throughout his experiment. Credit card, a loving family, his middle class background, his college education, etc. in addition to being young, strong, and healthy. And he ended his experiment after only ten months.

    2) I wonder how the tone of his book would be if that safety net would have been torn away from him unwillingly and he did, indeed, became homeless for real the way real poor and working poor people get to be homeless.

    3) This isn’t a debate about having the “right attitude for success in life” although I perceive that is how you see it. My sticking point with the book is that it trivializes the experience of being poor and working poor and reduces it to being about attitude and desire to succeed. While I can say there is something to be said about such things, the issue is not as easy and not as by-the-numbers as Adam Shephard’s book suggests.

    4) I was in a situation in my life at one point like Adam Shephard although it was for real and wasn’t an experiment. Like him, what got me out of it was hard work, my education, middle-class habits of savings and thrift, and a loving family — and a lot of time — a period of years, not just ten months. Unlike him, I have an appreciation of how fragile and how insecure the situation is for most working class and even middle class folks in the US. That is why I see this issue as being more complex and not just reducible to simply having “the right attitude.”

    Comment by Liberal Arts Dude — February 17, 2008 @ 4:23 pm

  6. Yes, he comes across as smug and self righteous. Yes, he had the advantage of being young, healthy, strong, and english speaking.

    But he makes a lot of valid points. I believe the reason people stay poor is not because they’re incapable of pulling out of it, but because they allow their circumstances to depress them so much that they really do need the quick fix that the next purchase brings them- whether that be drugs, getting their hair done, or buying speakers for their car or a bigger tv. People stay poor because they fall into the belief that their wants are actually necessities, and those things eat up all of their money- and then some.

    And then you land, and look around, and realize that you’re screwed. And you have to decide whether you’re going to continue to coast, or if your going to take a deep breath and make the hard decision.

    My husbands back is majorly screwed up- and all he’s trained to do is manual labor. Heavy manual labor. Which is why we found a $60 class at the local community college that will get him a better paying desk job.

    My father is a felon, and he got out of prison totally unsuited for any job available to him, and four children. So he got a barely-running pickup and a circular saw (total cost: $450) and started a construction company which is still going strong 12 years later.

    Me, I had some advantages. Right now I’m working to get myself out from under an enormous, mostly self inflicted mountain of debt, and I’m also trying to build a business doing what I love. And I really believe that it’s all about goals and determination, and perhaps most importantly, the ability to be content with a much lower standard of living than you think you deserve, so that someday you can have more.

    Comment by Kellie — February 18, 2008 @ 2:46 pm

  7. Those who say something can’t be done need to get out of the way of those who are doing it.

    Comment by Rangerdoc — February 18, 2008 @ 2:48 pm

  8. Man, I smell a reality show coming on ‘The American Dream’ . . . where a collection of different people are dropped off in a city with nothing, and the winner at the end of a year is the one with the most assets.

    Comment by Traciatim — February 18, 2008 @ 2:55 pm

  9. LAD>
    But most of your complaints about Adam’s safety net existed for Barbara. I remember listening to her talk on NPR about her book and her own background. It’s not like she came “up from the street” as well, but similar college background and successful career. So that same net existed for both of them, in different fashions.

    As for ending his experiment in 10 months, why not if he surpassed his goals? I’m just not sure I follow the complaint of his time frame.

    For full disclosure I haven’t read the book yet, but I have read NnD’ed. And to tie this in w/ your point #3, I do want to give it a full read for specifically that reason. Barbara’s approach seemed to be “I’m Poor“, while from what I’ve seen so far Adam was more “I’m Poor.” I agree that one shouldn’t trivialize being poor, but to accept it as fact and not bemoan the situation. No not bemoan, cause that’s not what Barbara does. … But she did seem to say I’m poor so I can’t do _____, instead of I’m ______ and want ______, how do I plan to get there? It wasn’t a crutch, or excuse …. just not helpful or useful. Does that follow?

    Comment by Itch — February 18, 2008 @ 3:25 pm

  10. Hi there Itch

    But most of your complaints about Adam’s safety net existed for Barbara.

    I grant you that. So it is fair to view Nickel and Dimed with skepticism as one would Scratch Beginnings. Both are books by relatively privileged authors seeking to describe the life of the working poor. My point is that the experience of being poor has to do inlarge part with not having that safety net in place and how terrifying that experience can be.

    As for ending his experiment in 10 months, why not if he surpassed his goals? I’m just not sure I follow the complaint of his time frame.

    My point is that someone from the working poor would not have a middle class life to return to in case of a calamity like a relative falling ill. They would have to make do with their limited resources to deal with medical problems. Oftentimes, without health insurance.

    For full disclosure I haven’t read the book yet, but I have read NnD’ed.

    Full disclosure — I haven’t read Adam’s book yet as well so my reaction to his book is mostly from the various readings I have done in the Internet, his interviews, and my understanding of the premise he sets for the book. I hear he is giving away PDFs of his book so I will probably email him for a copy so I can read it.

    Barbara’s approach seemed to be “I’m Poor“, while from what I’ve seen so far Adam was more “I’m Poor.” I agree that one shouldn’t trivialize being poor, but to accept it as fact and not bemoan the situation. No not bemoan, cause that’s not what Barbara does. … But she did seem to say I’m poor so I can’t do _____, instead of I’m ______ and want ______, how do I plan to get there? It wasn’t a crutch, or excuse …. just not helpful or useful. Does that follow?

    This is where I see the discussion veering into potatoes and po-tah-tos, tomatoes, and to-mah-toes. Look — I agree with Shephard that street smarts, moxie, money management and savings and thrift are essential survival skills in this world. If you don’t have that you will be sunk whether you are poor, middle class, or rich. So that is the level that I see most people read Shephard’s book — as a self-help survival guide.

    Being someone who realizes that the issue of poverty is political football, I also tried to put Shephard’s book in a more critical light because his book does have political implications.

    Will Shephard let his book be political fodder for politicians and ideologues who are unsympathetic to the working poor and their interests? Only time will tell. But the fact that he immediately set himself up as the anti-Ehrenreich set a red flag to me that ideologically he is putting himself as opposite of the activism and politics that books like Nickel and Dimed represents. Which necessitated a more critical look at the premise of his book.

    Comment by Liberal Arts Dude — February 18, 2008 @ 4:07 pm

  11. Heaven forbid anyone ever have a “take charge” attitude and believe in the possibility of turning their life around ….

    Comment by Michael — February 18, 2008 @ 4:09 pm

  12. Does the fact that he started out living in a shelter seem like a red flag for anyone else? I’m rather intimately acquainted with the homeless shelters in my area and you can’t just “live” in one; it’s exceedingly difficult to get in, and whether you’re able to stay there is a day-by-day or sometimes week-by-week question. I haven’t read his book either, but his whole “Oh, I stayed in a homeless shelter” line is very upsetting to me.

    Even if he did stay in a shelter for a significant period of time, that’s not an option that is available to everyone (or even, I’d argue most people. Especially most single young men, who are the hardest group of homeless to house). And considering that in Nickled and Dimed the single most difficult and expensive issue for all the people mentioned in the book is keeping safe housing, I think his claim that anyone can do this is pretty bogus.

    Comment by Anne — February 18, 2008 @ 5:29 pm

  13. For starters, yes he did have alot going for him before he took on this project so it wasn’t “exactly” the same. However, it doesn’t matter that you have a safety net and an education if you do not utilize them in any manner. If you want proof, read “The Glass Castle”, by Jeanette Walls. Her mother had land worth millions, but they lived beyond poor growing up.

    No, he did not have a probation officer or child care payments, but that is also kind of the point. He hadn’t CHOSE to make stupid decisions that he was not capable of handling. Granted, not everyone fits into that catagory, as some people have children and then have a catastophy in their life causing poverty. But, if you are working a minimum wage job, are not married, have no skills, if even a high school diploma, and can barely take care of yourself, WHY WOULD YOU HAVE CHILDREN YOU CAN’T TAKE CARE OF EITHER??? The argument here of course is that the children weren’t planned. WEll, I’m not prepared to have children at this point in my life, so I am not having sex. Or, if I did choose to have sex, I would be taking exreme precautions to avoid pregnancy. Or, if I did wind up a parent, I would put the child up for adoption knowing that child doesn’t deserve the crap life I would give it currently. I would not just have sex with some girl I met at the bar, or be selfish and think only of what I want. No, I do not have a probation officer, because I don’t want one. I do not want to have a criminal record holding me down so I am not a criminal. I can’t really elaborate on that one, its more than obviously clear. A person isn’t poor because they have a child to take care of or a criminal record holding them down. They are poor because they have made extremely poor decisons. (again, not everyone falls into that catagory, I know.)

    Yes, Shephard did have a nice life to go back to once his project was over, but if he hadn’t, he certainly had a better life at month 10 than he had at month one. If he didn’t have a better life to go back to, he would just have to keep traveling the road he was on, while not yet becoming a parent or buying a car/house/trivial crap he could not afford nor needed. He would have to continue making sacrifices now that would in MOST CASES result in success. If he did have loftier goals of achieving a technical education, etc. he would just have to keep on track and eventually get it, just like the truck and the appartment. It would take a few years, but that is one of the biggest problems in America today, our “I deserve it now” mentality. No, you(myself included) do not “deserve” it, nor do you deserve it now. You earn it and it takes time. I say this as someone with a net worth of -(yes, that’s negative)$25,000.00 I actually have to be worth something to be worthless.

    And lastly, while some shelters do not allow living there long term, some do. I know in my area, the YMCA, the Salvation Army, and the Union Rescue Mission all have some form of living arrangments. So, while in some area’s he may not have been able to live there, in some area’s he could. That’s one thing I’ve never understood. If I’m homeless, why am I living in New York City where everything is insanely over priced and winters suck? I’m walking/hitching to warmer climates. Obviously I have nothing holding me back, and though it will take time, its a better plan than doing nothing. Atleast I can sleep in a box in 70 degree weather than 10. I know it sounds like such a small thing, and I’m not being sarcastic. I’m genuine, and the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.

    Comment by Joshua — February 18, 2008 @ 9:20 pm

  14. I haven’t read Adam’s book, but will put it on my list. I think the criticism that Adam is advantaged because he is young college educated healthy white male is valid. He’s got more than a few things going for him. However, it doesn’t change the fundamental issue success actually is possible. That’s what I hated about Nickel and Dimed, Barbara never envisions success as a possibility and she patronizes and condescends any effort to achieve success. She’s the one who wants to keep clear class divisions. I wanted so much to like Nickel and Dimed, but her attitude made it impossible even when I actually agree with her on many of the conclusions. The poor deserve much better than what they get now. There’s no reason we shouldn’t as a nation spend money on universal health care, better poverty assistance. However, success is not a sin as Barbara likes to paint the picture.

    As a side note, I also know for a fact that it’s possible to succeed when you’re not white, not young, and have kids to feed. My uncle and aunt with 14 year old son in their late 40s speaking no english. 7 years late he owns his own house, car, and a laudrymat business. Yes, he was lucky that he family that served as safety net. But he never used that safety net and was able so succeed via hard hard work and simple living. He still works too hard. Working 7 days a week at his laundrymat and his original job assembling computers. First thing he did when he arrived in the country, he quit smoking.

    Comment by dong — February 18, 2008 @ 11:08 pm

  15. [...] An Experiment On the American Dream [...]

    Pingback by Back to Regular Programming « An Ordinary Person — February 19, 2008 @ 2:46 am

  16. Unfortunately, not everyone is able to get out of the working poor class. Jobs can be scarce. Rent/mortgages can take in a large percentage of your income. Education, even public education, is increasingly demanding parents pay more for students’ “needs”, like field trips, homework materials, paper, computer equipment, etc.

    Unless you live in an area with public transportation or where it easy to walk to most places, the price for gas and car maintenance is going up as well.

    Food prices, thanks to farmers growing stuff for ethanol rather than for food, are going up. That means more money spent on food, despite the fact we currently pay an average of 10% — the lowest in the world per capita — of our income on food.

    Healthcare premiums are increasing, as are co-pays and other health out-of-pocket expenses.

    Property taxes, state taxes, road taxes…taxes everywhere is going up in most markets.

    So, even if you are a family who lives by a budget, doesn’t spend money on every indulgence, doesn’t use credit cards, has a good educational background yet unable to use it yet…even the most frugal of families in the bottom socio-economic classes have many incidents preventing them from acquiring more wealth.

    Comment by Jersey — February 19, 2008 @ 5:18 am

  17. You get what you concentrate on.
    Good or bad.

    Comment by foxhollowjewelry — February 19, 2008 @ 5:36 am

  18. Barbara Ehrenreich lived in hotels and ordered in/ate out!

    She did not live the life.

    She set out to fail – to confirm her ideologically motivated notions.

    I went to (state) university with Asian and African immigrants who did just as Adam Shepard and the other “authentically poor” people he describes – they worked their butts off, roomed with others to save money (sometimes sending money back overseas), did not impregnate anyone or get in trouble with the law, and invested in learning a marketable skill.

    My grandparents came to the US with the clothes on their backs. Neither of them spoke English.

    One grandfather got himself into the building trades – the other saved his pennies while working in the garment industry, bought his own sewing machine, and learned to be a master tailor.

    Both my parents went to college.

    That’s how it’s done – and it’s been repeated by wave after wave of immigrants to America. No place makes it easier to do this than America.

    Get pregnant before you get married, don’t go to school, get drunk, get in trouble – you will not get ahead.
    And unlike limosine liberals, I will not feel guilty about my own success – which I gratefully know is based on generations of discipline and hard work.

    Comment by Ben-David — February 19, 2008 @ 3:44 pm

  19. I’m not sure I really get the distinction here.

    Ehrenreich and Shepherd are both college educated white people who attempted to represent themselves as poor in order to prove a point. Neither mentioned their college educations, or used any of their social contacts in order to get jobs or receive preferential treatment.

    Ehrenreich approached her attempt as “The American Dream is dead,” and set out to prove it. She attacked everything with the same attitude. She did a lot of things that make no sense if you’re actually trying to succeed. Seriously, what poor person ACTUALLY trying to scramble out of poverty chooses to live in a hotel and eats out all the time?

    Shepherd, on the other hand, went out of his way to prove that you COULD succeed. He ate a lot of cheap food and lived in a homeless shelter in order to save money, until he could afford to get his own place.

    All this proves to me is that two people starting from roughly identical situations can get wherever they aim. If you really want to get out of poverty, it can be done. You, (and everyone with you, including children/parents/etc) have to REALLY want to accomplish it. Yes, there are some serious issues that can be hard to overcome, and many of them are great excuses. “Oh well, I have kids.” That said, growing up, I was middle class, and my friends who lived in the projects always had better TVs, nicer video game consoles, and flashier cars than my family had. Of course, we owned our house, I didn’t have to take out loans for college, and my parents actually have retirement savings, but I’m sure those Televisions brought real joy to people.

    If you want to succeed, and are willing to sacrifice for it, you can. If you want an excuse as to why you can’t succeed, there are tons of socially acceptable ones. Pick whichever one fits you best.

    Comment by Jeff — February 19, 2008 @ 7:46 pm

  20. First three commenters,

    I think you’re mistaking Scratch Beginnings for an attempt at a catch-all solution to poverty. I don’t believe it is. Nobody is insane enough to think that every single person on the planet can achieve a middle class lifestyle in 10 months, no matter what condition they’re in. There’s mental illness, physical infirmities, criminal backgrounds, family problems, etc. Those things are hard to contend with.

    However, it is equally naive to believe that 100% of poor people are in a situation that is completely beyond their control.

    Scratch Beginnings shows that for people on a certain end of the spectrum of potential, getting out of poverty is possible. Now maybe you think that’s obvious or worthless but it’s a legitimate response to critics (like you) who spout blanket statements about poverty being nigh impossible to escape from.

    I think it’s important to identify what elements of his story are applicable to other poor people rather than argue that the entire experiment was worthless. What can be passed on through teaching so that more poor people are able to escape poverty? If he’s right and a change in attitude could help some percentage of poor people (10%? 20%?) then how do we foster that?

    Comment by Jon — February 19, 2008 @ 7:56 pm

  21. Interesting debate here, has anyone read the book yet? I was also irritated by the sound of Shepard’s approach, so I’m going to check it out of the library instead of buying it. The guy spent 70 days in a shelter? hmmm. Shelters in my area (deep south usa) limit you to 10 days in any given year, and that’s if there’s room, and if you are a man. Fewer housing assistance options are available for women. The dude used foodstamps? Sounds to me (without having read the book!) that this kid is arguing the need for a strong and inclusive social safety net. Let’s not forget, job opportunities in this century are still a good deal more lucrative for a man than for a woman. Throw young, fit and healthy into the mix, and the numbers improve dramatically. By the way, Ehrenreich was very clear in her book about why she lived in a motel, and why she found cooking reasonable meals nearly impossible. Flophouse motels don’t require references, or security/utility deposits, neither do they have kitchen facilities.

    Comment by balderdash — February 19, 2008 @ 9:54 pm

  22. Hello there Jon

    I think you’re mistaking Scratch Beginnings for an attempt at a catch-all solution to poverty. I don’t believe it is. Nobody is insane enough to think that every single person on the planet can achieve a middle class lifestyle in 10 months, no matter what condition they’re in. There’s mental illness, physical infirmities, criminal backgrounds, family problems, etc. Those things are hard to contend with.

    OK this is where we probably read the premise of the book differently. I did see it as a simplistic catch-all solution. If I’m mistaken on that then perhaps I need to revisit. Or perhaps Adam Shephard himself would be a better source on this.

    However, it is equally naive to believe that 100% of poor
    people are in a situation that is completely beyond their control.

    I don’t think I ever made that assertion or that Nickel and Dimed does either. I read Nickel and Dimed as primarily exposing the challenges of living life at the near bottom rungs of society. I did not read it to be “poverty is destiny” but more of a call-to-arms to the rest of society that there is some serious socioeconomic problems that exist in American society and we should be concerned about them.

    Scratch Beginnings shows that for people on a certain end of the spectrum of potential, getting out of poverty is possible. Now maybe you think that’s obvious or worthless but it’s a legitimate response to critics (like you) who spout blanket statements about poverty being nigh impossible to escape from.

    Hey no need to be contentious here — but I get what you are saying. My point is not that poverty is impossible to escape from. Twelve years ago I was living a Scratch Beginnings and Nickel and Dimed existence myself. Currently I am a white collar professional in Washington DC and I have a Masters degree. I just found Scratch beginning’s premise to be overly simplistic and glossing over the realities and challenges of poverty. I found Nickel and Dimed to speak more to my own experiences and mental state when I was living that type of life.

    I think it’s important to identify what elements of his story are applicable to other poor people rather than argue that the entire experiment was worthless. What can be passed on through teaching so that more poor people are able to escape poverty? If he’s right and a change in attitude could help some percentage of poor people (10%? 20%?) then how do we foster that?

    OK this is where you say an intriguing proposition. Teaching people the basics of financial literacy, instilling self-discipline and thrift in young people, etc. That I think is something that not even Barbara Ehrenreich will disagree with.

    To future commenters of this post:

    I have been pleasantly surprised and overwhelmed at the comments and visits to my little blog this past weekend. Since I posted this thing on Friday I am getting close to a thousand individual page views.

    I invite you to read my final thoughts on this matter. If you liked or were challenged by what you read in your first visit here please feel free to drop by anytime to read the regular offerings of my blog.

    Comment by Liberal Arts Dude — February 19, 2008 @ 10:52 pm

  23. “My point is that the experience of being poor has to do inlarge part with not having that safety net in place and how terrifying that experience can be. ”

    For me, the overriding point of Scratch Beginnings is that individuals can/must overcome that fear. I’ve followed a few online discussions, and I think that over-politicizing both of these books is a disservice to their relative significance.

    As a side note, I would love to read a sequel by a Hispanic female – any volunteers out there?

    Comment by Kris — February 20, 2008 @ 3:59 am

  24. Liberal Arts Dude, I commented already and don’t really have anything to add to that. If you haven’t already I would check out the interview with Adam over Get Rich Slowly That’s where I came across this blog.

    Comment by dong — February 20, 2008 @ 10:15 pm

  25. [...] An Experiment On the American Dream [...]

    Pingback by More on the American Dream « An Ordinary Person — February 20, 2008 @ 11:04 pm

  26. Hi there Dong

    I did see the interview with Adam in the Get Rich Slowly blog. Many thanks for mentioning that.

    Here’s a link to some research and social science resources that are very relevant to the topic and discussion. I hope that this research gets wide exposure.

    Comment by Liberal Arts Dude — February 20, 2008 @ 11:07 pm

  27. I haven’t read the book either, but from what Shepard has said it doesn’t sound like he’s as much of an ideologue as Ehrenreich. I read her book, and like Shepard I was not very impressed by it. It seemed to me that she set out to fail, so it is not surprising that she succeeded in doing so. Part of my problem with Nickel and Dimed is that Ehrenreich didn’t recognize that it takes skills to be poor. It’s not easy to live on very little. She never tried to acquire thos skills. At the point where she wrote about her “conditions” she lost me- I mean if you’re going to be poor you can’t refuse to have housemates or insist on having a car. And she only spent a month in each place- it takes longer than that to build things up to the point where you’re doing OK.

    So yeah, Shepard is white and speaks English. But Ehrenreich is coming from a much higher social stratum than Shepard- that was part of her point, and part of what bugged me about NnD’d- her attitude seemed to be “well, if I can’t do well at this how can you expect _poor_ people to?” The answer is that poor people know how to be poor, and Ehrenreich didn’t, and wasn’t willing to learn from the people around her. I also think you’re overestimating the importance of race in this case- it’s easier to be white, but a young, fit black man ought to be able to do what Shepard did too- it’s not as if no moving company would ever hire a black man. It’s not 1963. I don’t mean to imply that there isn’t racism anymore- I’ve seen a fair bit of it, and I’m white. I know that blacks see a lot more than I do. But I also know that there are a lot of middle class blacks in the US now. The vast majority of blacks of my age in the US grew up in much better economic circumstances than I grew up in. Speaking English is a bigger deal- I would not want to be in the job market without being able to speak English. And I certainly would not want to be looking for work from a wheelchair. Shepard is who he is, and short of cutting off his legs or doing major damage to the part of his brain that processes language he wasn’t able to change that. But you should note that he had _much_ less social capital than Ehrenreich. And it’s also worth noting that an awful lot of poor people are fit and speak English.

    This isn’t an academic exercise for me. I grew up in really abject poverty. My mother is brilliant (and I don’t use that word lightly), but she was a terrible alcoholic who made very little money during most of the years that I was growing up. She was also constitutionally incapable of taking a dime from the state. We always ate, but at one point when I was in Junior High I slept in a bedroom in which the temperature was often -10 degrees Fahrenheit at night, and sometimes colder than that. We didn’t even have an outhouse at that place. There was an abandoned pig sty out back where I went to do my business- until you’ve dropped trou under a full northern moon when it’s 30 below with a high wind whipping down the mountain you have no idea what cold is (and, incidentally, you have no idea how bright the northern night sky can be.. there are always compensations. At a remove of more than 20 years I remember the light more than the cold.) And not having bathing facilities and having to sleep under 10 blankets in my clothes and my winter coat did not make me popular in Junior High. My childhood was like something out of a Monty Python routine- “and then we had to go live in a lake…”, etc. ;).

    I dropped out of school at 14 and was living on my own (with some friends) at 15. The law in the state I lived in only allowed me to work two nights a week, because I was under 16. My dishwashing job was 20 miles of rural road away, so I had to start hitchhiking at 10 AM to be sure of getting there by 4 PM. A couple of times we went really late because of an unexpected rush and I had to walk the last 8 miles and got home at 6 AM. I made about 80 dollars a week, before FICA (this was 1986, I think. 80 dollars was a bit more than it is now, but not much more). So I am more than unimpressed by Ehrenreich’s book- I find it unforgivably condescending and profoundly dishonest. I was poor even compared to the poor, for many years, but I am able to speak for myself. I don’t need Barabara Ehrenreich to pretend to be poor while living luxuriously to give me a voice.

    At least Shepard didn’t set a bunch of strange conditions that ensured he would experience no real discomfort. He went and lived in a homeless shelter in South Carolina… not a real comfortable thing to do for a few months. In fact, I was never able to bring myself to do that- I was homeless for a couple of brief periods in my teens and early 20s and I never went to a shelter. They are not nice places, as far as I can tell- at any rate, they require that you give up more autonomy than I was ever able to. I had a good Army Surplus “Heavy Winter Conditions” sleeping bag, and there was always some desolate place where I could lay it out and be undisturbed, if I couldn’t find some couch space somewhere.

    There’s one thing that has changed since I was a lad, LAD. The cost of housing has gone through the roof. To a large degree this has been accomplished by people like you. If you’re really interested in helping the poor you ought to start by fighting the sort of zoning laws that have been passed under the rubrik of “sustainable growth”. Progressives are really bad news for the poor- they cluck sympathetically and then F*** you right between the eyes, and the value of their palatial home magically increases by 500% in a decade somewhere between the clucking and the.. well, you know. I paid $80.00/month for my one-third share of my first apartment. Even into my middle 20s I had an ironclad rule- I never paid more than $200.00/month in rent, and I tried to keep it under $150.00. Even accounting for inflation there aren’t a lot of places in the country where you could do that now, unless you’re sleeping 6 to a room. So, again, if you want to help the poor, let’s drop things like rent control (which benefits the middle class at the expense of the truly poor) and “sustainable growth”. If you’re not willing to take a long hard look at he land-use and development regs that have come largely from the left, I’ll have to conclude that you are an ideologue yourself, contentious as that might be.

    When I was a kid I read a book called “Nobody’s Family is Going to Change”. It was written by the same writer who wrote the much more famous “Harriet the Spy”. The point of the books was.. well, the title pretty much spells it out. To paraphrase D. Rummy, you go to war with the world with the circumstances you’re given. The world is a harsh and unforgiving place, and that’s not going to change. NnD’d is a good book if you want to make a lot of spoiled rich kids feel smug during their required reading, but Shepard’s book, as inauthentic as it is, sounds like a better book about the poor. You can tell just by reading his interview… he listened to the people around him, and learned from them, and names them, and respects them. Ehrenreich just tried to get them fired from Wal-Mart because she had an axe to grind. Nobody’s Family is Going to Change- the champions of the poor need the poor to be poor. They could hardly be their champions otherwise. Barbara Ehrenreich isn’t going to put you through college, but a job with a moving company might.

    Comment by Duncan — February 21, 2008 @ 1:30 am

  28. Hello Duncan

    Many thanks for visiting my blog and sharing your story.

    I must admit I know not a whole lot about the zoning laws and rent control that you talk about. So I’m willing to listen. Can you give me a few links by email to educate me on the matter?

    I will come right out and say it — I am a politicized person. I don’t know whether or not ideologue is what you will call it or something else but I write from a political perspective and I’m not gonna deny it. But I also consider myself an open-minded person who is willing to hear you out no matter what perspective you come from.

    If Scratch Beginnings speaks to you and your experience, more power to you. I guess we will just agree to disagree on that matter.

    But I am curious — as someone who comes from a poor background, if Progressives are not your cup of tea politically, who do you feel best represents your interests? I ask this as an honest question and I am not trying to bait you into an argument.

    This is after all, a political blog so discussions of politics is not unusual in this case (although I know most readers don’t see Scratch Beginnings as a book with a political subtext).

    PS: If you are interested in social science research on the American Dream visit this interesting site:

    Comment by Liberal Arts Dude — February 21, 2008 @ 2:18 am

  29. I’ll just expose my neck now… makes things quicker; I actually agree with the guy, the ‘so called’ American Dream is alive and well, based on three basic premises.

    1) You are willing to sacrifice life quality NOW, so that you can enjoy things when you are old and worn out.
    2) That you are inherently selfish in all things, looking out for only yourself, not taking care of others.
    3) You are willing to do ‘whatever it takes’ to get where you want to go, even if it is ‘beneath you’.

    Points 1 and 2 are the reasons why so many successful people are right, royal, bastards. We could all use a little more of point 3.

    Comment by Joel — February 21, 2008 @ 7:25 am

  30. From today’s New York Times:

    Higher Education Gap May Slow Economic Mobility

    Economic mobility, the chance that children of the poor or middle class will climb up the income ladder, has not changed significantly over the last three decades, a study being released on Wednesday says.

    The authors of the study, by scholars at the Brookings Institution in Washington and sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts, warned that widening gaps in higher education between rich and poor, whites and minorities, could soon lead to a downturn in opportunities for the poorest families.

    The researchers found that Hispanic and black Americans were falling behind whites and Asians in earning college degrees, making it harder for them to enter the middle class or higher.

    “A growing difference in education levels between income and racial groups, especially in college degrees, implies that mobility will be lower in the future than it is today,” said Ron Haskins, a former Republican official and welfare expert who wrote the education section of the report.

    Full article here

    Comment by Liberal Arts Dude — February 21, 2008 @ 4:57 pm

  31. Well, there’s a fair bit out there on the effects of rent control and land use regulation. Just a couple of links: and I’ve seen this process first hand- the town that is closest to a hometown for me went from reasonably affordable to really outrageously priced in a very short period of time. There were a number of factors at work, but the dominant one was “smart growth”, which was shorthand in that case for making it really hard to build new housing. The people mandating this also made a nod to affordable housing requirements, but they controlled access to these units. It’s a long story, too long to tell here, but it created a lot of really perverse incentives.

    My interests aren’t really the interests of the poor anymore- I’m basically part of the entrepreneurial class at this point in my life, though it took me a long time to get here, and if I’m honest about I have to admit that I still have a lot of what can only be called pathologies, derived from having been so poor for so long. I think I would likely have been more successful if that weren’t the case- I’ve managed to make some real opportunities for myself, but I’ve also managed to blow a fair number of them in ways that I likely wouldn’t have if I’d come from a different background.

    That aside, I don’t think anyone is really looking out for the interests of the poor. That’s really just the nature of the beast. People with power look out for themselves, and by definition the poor don’t have a lot of power. I also don’t think there will ever not be an underclass. Primate societies are hierarchical- if we didn’t have an underclass we’d have to invent one. But I am deeply suspicious of people who claim to be looking out for the poor- they rely more on the existence of the underclass than anyone else. In particular, when I read Ehrenreich I see a member of the upper classes using the poor as a means of beating on another segment of the upper classes. The part of Nickel and Dimed where she fantasizes about poisoning someone because she disapproves of the politics of his bookshelf is the most revealing part of the book, if you ask me. Combined with her inability to see anyone around her as more than a cipher, it left a really bad taste in my mouth, and I know a couple of people who grew up in circumstances not entirely different from mine who felt the same way.

    I understand that you’re political, that’s fine- I have my own politics, which are quite a lot more laissez-faire than yours, I would guess. I’m not a doctrinaire libertarian, but my politics do have a libertarian flavor. I was just trying to point out that a lot of the criticisms you’re leveling at Shepard apply to a greater degree to Ehrenreich. Of course neither of us has read his book… but Shepard’s sounds more honest to me, from his interviews.

    Shepard seems to have done a better job of seeing the people around him as people. NnD’d doesn’t do that, and it seemed to me to reduce its players to dumb statuettes, unable to speak for themselves, and devoid of agency. It’s a tremendously reductionist work.

    Shepard may overestimate how easy it is for the poor to improve things for themselves. I used the word pathologies earlier, about myself, and I meant it. I’ve known a number of really successful people, and I think that if you set most of them down in a random city with $25.00 they’d be pretty well off in 5 years- not an apartment and a pickup truck well off, rather a million in assets well off. They know how to do it already, in a way that you probably won’t if you’ve always been poor. And I have to admit that I had some advantages myself in this respect- if you go back just a couple of generations my family was prominent in the US, and a few generations before that they were among the most powerful families in Europe. And even when we were desperately poor during my childhood we were not stereotypically poor- my Mom published a book a year during part of that time. It’s just that she only made about $6000.00-$8000.00 per book. I took the SATs when I was 13 and did well on them for my age- 1310 with a verbal score over 750, before the SATs were rescaled. I did it just to put a thumb in the eye of the school I went to, as I was held back a grade that year.

    So I inherited some social capital, though maybe it would be fairer to say that I inherited some intellectual capital. I did eventually manage to go to University, as an adult student, though it took me a long time to get those ducks in a row. And I was more than intellectually prepared for it, but socially I was less so. My record was mixed at Uni- I studied hard subjects, and in many cases did very well. I was generally acknowledged as one of the best programmers in the CS department of a school with a fairly good program. But I left after 4 years, without a degree. Luckily I had by that point learned a trade, and a rather remunerative one at that. What I hadn’t learned, and what I still haven’t entirely learned, is how to get by in a society that has a code of behavior that is both strict and arbitrary. I never managed to internalize the set of rules that defines membership in middle class society. I can’t say I am eager to do so, in all respects, tbh… the truth is that I like the poor better than I like the petty bourgeois. But at a certain point you have to do what you have to do.

    Your take on Shepard is that he has “self-righteous, holier-than-thou assumption[s]“. My take is a bit different- he is looking at things as they are. Ehrenreich does not, to me, seem really concerned with “the question of what we do, as a society, about socioeconomic inequality and poverty.” She seems concerned with scoring points against her class enemies. I don’t think that I am particularly self-righteous when it comes to the poor, or when it comes to the question of being poor. But I know that no one was going to come along and fix things for me; it wouldn’t have been to their advantage. So I have had to muddle along, and make of things what I can. I have some things working against me, and some things working for me- this shouldn’t be surprising. The poor are not a monolithic mass.

    That was my point in bringing up the book “Nobody’s Family is Going to Change”. One of the things you learn, when you are poor, is that no one is really on your side. That’s not going to change. Another thing you learn is that the people who talk most loudly about your plight are the people you most need to be afraid of. I’m not saying it’s easy to do it, but I am saying that the best hope is to stand up and walk forward. No matter what they say, no one is going to fix things for you. It’s a hard, unforgiving world, but the one thing that can only be taken from you with your own permission is agency. There are exceptions of course- some people are simply so mentally ill that they truly lack agency, and I am in favor of treating them as wards of the state, though I am pretty sure that the mercies they receive will not be all that tender. But the problem with most anti-poverty initiatives is that they treat capable people as wards. The champions of the poor have very strong incentives to see that the poor remain poor, and dependent, and I believe that people tend to respond to incentives.

    Comment by Duncan — February 22, 2008 @ 7:06 am

  32. Hello there Duncan

    Many thanks again for another insightful response. I must admit you gave me lots to think about and ponder. Although your points were in disagreement with my ideas and politics I appreciate you taking the time to really give me your thoughts.

    Getting back to Scratch Beginnings and Nickel and Dimed, This discussion is currently framed along the lines of “Is the American Dream Alive or Dead?” and the measure of the aliveness of the Dream is whether or not a single individual (Ehrenreich or Shephard) had a difficult time in the job market and rising above
    their status. The responses, therefore, reflect more the personal politics and prejudices of people who are either sympathetic or tend to agree more with the underlying message and politics of Ehrenreich or Shephard.

    Which is why I am intrigued by the social science research on socioeconomic mobility that has been published by the Economic Mobility Project — if both Ehrenreich or Shephard’s experiments are methodologically flawed, then it’s time to get an impartial, preferably nonpartisan source that will provide some hard data and research.

    Some important insights I got from their web site (lifted from their press releases):

    (1) As income growth has slowed for the typical family and income inequality has increased since the 1970s, many middle class Americans are anxious about their own and their children’s economic prospects. These insecurities need to be assessed against the backdrop of whether the opportunity to improve one’s lot remains strong.

    (2) Across every income group, Americans are more likely to surpass their parents’ income in absolute terms if they earn a college degree, reinforcing the conventional wisdom that higher education provides a means for opportunity. The report, authored by Ron Haskins and using data from the Panel Study of Income
    Dynamics, finds that 84 percent of Americans born into the bottom quintile who earn a college degree move up at least one rung on the economic ladder—and 19 percent make it to the top. This compares to only 5 percent of those born into the bottom that make it to the top without a college degree.

    Yet, family background plays an equally, if not more important, role than education. Of Americans born into the top quintile who earn a college degree, 54 percent remain there as adults; nearly triple the percentage of college graduates born to parents at the bottom that make it to the top of the income distribution. Perhaps more strikingly, 23 percent of those born into the top quintile that do not get a degree stay at the top as adults, a slightly higher percentage than the number of college graduates from the bottom quintile who manage to climb to the top.

    (3) In the generation immediately following World War II, strong economic growth in the U.S. spurred a rise in absolute economic mobility. Over the last generation however, the combination of slowing economic growth and rising inequality has increased the importance of relative mobility, or movement between the ranks, in
    America. The hope that increased opportunity would offset the effects of slower growth or more unequal incomes is not supported by most of the evidence. Although the research base is limited and the studies do not all agree, taken as a whole, the current literature does not suggest that the rate of relative mobility has
    changed much since about 1970. If anything, relative mobility may have declined.

    No matter our disagreements with either Ehrenreich or Shephard, the issue of inequality and social mobility is pretty complex. The studies seem to suggest that there should be cause for concern when so many people are anxious about the economic prospects for them and their children and that economic insecurity is a reality that we are living with in recent years.

    This is why I choose to write about socioeconomic issues and why I think it is important that ordinary citizens are educated and engaged in these types of conversations. No matter your politics one has to be concerned about the information I cite above.

    This is the point where I start thinking not as an individual person but as a citizen with democratic choices to make. As individuals living in an economy, we are all subject to forces larger than ourselves. The point I want to make with this blog and discussions like this is that how do we, as ordinary people, best make use of this democratic system to advocate for ourselves?

    Look — it’s been years since I was poor. I am in the middle class now. But I feel acutely the uncertainty and economic insecurity alluded to in the data by the Economic Mobility project.

    As I said in an earlier blog post the best advocates working people will have in this democratic system are themselves. If Progressives aren’t your cup of tea to represent your interests that’s OK. But still, as a working person I see the need for the interests of working people (and the poor) to be represented in the national debate/discussion about economic issues. Because absent such representation our interests will be overlooked.

    Comment by Liberal Arts Dude — February 22, 2008 @ 4:54 pm

  33. Well- as far as those statistics go, I guess we’re seeing different things in the same numbers, because they indicate a pretty high degree of social mobility to me. It’s important to recognize that when you measure things in quintiles you’re talking about a zero-sum game. For every person who rises into a higher quintile, some other person must fall out of it. So I think you’re necessarily going to see a high degree of autocorrelation there. If it’s your aim to have a society in which background doesn’t correlate at all with future earnings, well, I’m not sure what to say except that I don’t think I’d want to see that tried.

    There are some other questions you can ask though- questions like, “how well, in terms of absolute affluence, are the two bottom quintiles doing?”, and “how big is the gap between the bottom quintile and the top quintile?”, and “what happens to the bottom few percent, the people who just fall out of the game entirely?” You can also ask if it is possible to maximize the first while minimizing the second- I tend to believe that those two goals are at odds with each other. If I’m right about that, which is more important?

    Beyond that, OK, you think it’s important for there to be advocates for the poor and the working class. What policies should they be advocating? I don’t think that this is a simple question- there has been a lot of “advocacy” for the poor over the last 40 years, and an enormous amount of money poured into “Great Society” programs, and it seems to me that a lot of that advocacy and money has actually hurt the interests of at least some of the people it was intended to help… of course, it’s important to remember that the poor and the working class are not monolithic, and often have opposing interests. So, what policies should the poor themselves be advocating?

    Comment by Duncan — February 22, 2008 @ 8:19 pm

  34. Excellent post and awesome discussion! Thanks for providing this.

    Ehrenreich’s book rubs me the wrong way: it’s patronizing. I need to read Scratch Beginnings before commenting on its quality. But I will say that what bothers me about both authors is . . . well, the phoniness of intellectually gifted, college-educated people with a safe haven waiting for them pretending to be “poor.” When the base on which you build is a lie, can your construct be believed?

    I once knew a law-school graduate who decided to go on the road as a modern-day hobo for several months. It looked fantastic on his job applications. He didn’t have to write a book to capitalize on the experience: he used it to join a high-paying law firm.

    Anecdotally speaking, it strikes me that a fair amount of upward AND downward mobility characterizes America just now. Upward, especially among Latino/a immigrants and second-generation citizens; especially among Eastern European immigrants. Downward, among Anglo and other groups when people miss out on decent education or are born into families with no cultural or intellectual capital.

    For example, one friend grew up dirt-poor in the San Joaquin Valley, the daughter of farm workers. She is doing quite well, thank you, with a Ph.D. and a decent middle-class income. One of her sisters was a high-school principal; other family members have middle- to upper-class lifestyles. Their advantage seems to have been the traditions, attitudes, and ambitions nurtured in a strong family. Same is true of a friend who started out cleaning houses, sent her sons to good universities and now lives in considerable middle-class comfort. And a friend who arrived in the U.S. from Bosnia with nothing but now runs a profitable tile-laying business, owns an apartment house and several rental properties, and has a rental house and a summer home in the old country.

    One of my former research assistants has a drinking problem, unacknowledged despite an arrest and jail time for extreme DUI. She’s out of the slam but is not allowed to drive. Without a car, she can’t get a job with a middle-class wage — public transportation in this area is poor to nonexistent. She’s waiting tables at the only restaurant within walking distance of the friend’s sofa where she sleeps. At this point it is unlikely that her future holds anything other than a downward spiral.

    She has a master’s degree, is very smart, and grew up in a middle-class (though broken) home. When you have an illness or addiction such as alcoholism, you start from a very different position from Ehrenreich’s and Shephard’s — just as you do when you are uneducated, abused, or have a low IQ. It’s hard to know what social programs can rescue individuals faced with huge social, health, or intellectual liabilities. If upward mobility hasn’t changed over the past decades, what we’re doing now isn’t helping much.

    Comment by Funny about Money — February 23, 2008 @ 4:19 pm

  35. We clearly agree about a number of things, Funny. But, though I made this point earlier, I’d like to reiterate it: if we’re talking about social _mobility_ we are pretty much talking about a ranking system. You say: “…a fair amount of upward AND downward mobility characterizes America just now…”. Given the first, the second must be the case. You cannot have upward social mobility without an equal amount of downward social mobility. One implies the other. And, if we’re concerned only with social mobility, when LAD worries about the “insecurity” felt by many Americans he is in fact worrying about too much social mobility rather than too little.

    To be fair, LAD also mentions inequality in the same post. So, you might not feel insecure because you think you are going to fall in rank, but still feel insecure because you think that you are going to become less affluent relative to those ranked above you, even if your relative position on the ladder remains the same. Depending on where they are on the ladder and how many rungs upward they are looking, this has certainly happened to a lot of people in the last 20 years, so it’s a reasonable concern. How important a concern it is is a matter of some debate- how you feel about it is likely to have something to with how much you feel that economic behavior is mostly a fight over a fixed pool of resources, though there are other factors. That’s a subject on which I could write a large standalone comment. I’ll limit myself to saying that I think that there are some important fixed resources, but that they are mainly artificially fixed. They’re generally the resources that either maintain the ladder ranking we’ve been talking about or serve to signal that ranking- those are not entirely independent effects, of course.

    Then there is a third metric, which I think LAD’s sources ignore- how affluent, are you, in real terms, if you leave out all measures of affluence that are solely determined by your place in the primate hierarchy, compared with people who occupied your rung of the ladder x years ago? This is a very difficult thing to quantify- I’m typing this comment on a computer system that is far more powerful than systems that sold for millions of dollars 40 years ago. But I could not trade it for food or housing worth millions of 1968 (or 2008, for that matter) dollars. All in all, I do think that most people above the bottom 2-3% are, in absolute terms, better off than their 1968 analogues. In almost every market better things are available at lower prices relative to income than they were then. The big exception is housing… housing is what really kills you these days. It’s worth noting that housing prices have been a primary factor in recent social mobility levels. I happen to think that that has a lot to do with what I was saying in the last sentence of the above paragraph- a great example, in some places at least, of the sort of completely artificial wealth creation that really does share a lot of characteristics with zero-sum games.

    Comment by Duncan — February 24, 2008 @ 9:53 am

  36. Hi Duncan

    I replied to your last question on this thread over at this posting:

    I thought the discussion was veering off topic from Shephard’s book and belonged more over here.


    Comment by Liberal Arts Dude — February 24, 2008 @ 1:50 pm

  37. Yes, I see where you’re going, I think. So, if _mobility_ is seen as _relative_, then Climber A can’t go up unless Parvenu B slips “downward,” right?

    Would this suggest, then, that it’s fundamentally impossible for a socially layered culture to have no one in the “lower class”? You couldn’t have a middle class without something to compare it with: an upper class and a lower class.

    In that construct–which arguably does describe the U.S. at this time–large numbers of people are doomed to chronic unhappiness. Unlike say, a nineteenth-century Englishman, the twenty-first-century American doesn’t know where his place is and so cannot reconcile himself to his social position. In a culture committed to the idea that everyone has the potential (indeed, the duty) to move “upward” or at least to project the impression of “upwardness,” every man (or woman) who thinks he’s got it made is at risk of being unmade.

    Having spent 25 years in the upper class and made a deliberate decision to disconnect from it, I’m probably too focused on my own definition of “middle class”: enough income to live simply but comfortably in an area that is reasonably safe for a single woman but has access to nearby cultural amenities.

    Your definition is undoubtedly closer to the broadly held view of things.

    Given the Brownian movement that characterizes the U.S. social class system, as a result of the very mobility that we tout as a good thing, it would seem the polity’s goal should not be to eliminate poverty but to make poverty bearable for the poor: to see that everyone has enough food, education, and social services to avoid, to the extent possible, random utter misery.

    BTW, I’ve included a link to this post at today’s round-up:

    Comment by Funny about Money — February 24, 2008 @ 5:02 pm

  38. The problem with your approach is that there are more people who are like you than there are like Adam. Adam knew people who were pulling themselves slowly upward. When you tell people that they can do it too the first reaction is anger. I felt your anger. Why are you angry for other people who have child support payments, have a full time job and sick and elderly parents etc? Get out of the way. My experience has taken me a long way meeting many people over my 35 yrs living and working with people and you do not speak for them. There are too many people in the US who are angry. Some are angry because others have more. The ones I have met are happy for what they provide for themselves. Why are you angry? Be honest and don’t say that you care about the “have nots” because I can see clearly that is not the reason. What is it? Don’t tell me,I don’t care. Ask yourself. Tom Bryant Brookhaven Pa.

    Comment by tom bryant — February 26, 2008 @ 4:23 pm

  39. It looks like it isn’t just Shephard and Ehrenreich who are doing “experiments” of living at the poverty line. Here is a series of articles from Canada where journalist Jan Wong works as a maid for a month. View the archive of posts at:

    Jan Wong discusses “Maid for a Month”

    Comment by Liberal Arts Dude — February 26, 2008 @ 11:05 pm

  40. [...] real world, you know that privilege makes a hell of a lot of difference.  Meanwhile, a few other people are talking about this guy too.  [h/t [...]

    Pingback by that whole bootstraps thing « Molecular Shyness — February 27, 2008 @ 4:23 am

  41. Adam Shepard’s “experiment” was bogus.

    He’s an able bodied US born White American male, with no criminal record and no dependent children and/or child support.

    That gave him a huge advantage over his competitors – that is, the other poor folks he had to compete with for jobs and resources.

    He didn’t have any health issues that would have limited his employment options.

    When he went for services – like shelter or public assistance – or went looking for jobs, caseworkers and bosses saw somebody who “looked like them” either racially or culturally, and were more likely to help him out.

    Think about it – a White guy standing among a group of Mexican men at a day labor shapeup.

    Who’s more likely to get a job when the first truck pulls up?

    Who’s likely to get paid more?

    (this is very real – according to a Carpenters Union organizer I know, there is a non union contractor in New York that pays it’s White non union carpenters $ 15/hr and it’s Latino and Black carpenters $ 7 – barely above NYS minimum wage)

    And, when that White boss is looking for one of the day laborers to give a full time job, who do you think is going to get the spot?

    Also, lacking a criminal record, he had no curfew, and no limitations on what kind of jobs he could get.

    (here in New York, if you have a record, you can’t work in any number of jobs – you can’t even be a real estate agent, or work at a newsstand in an airport!)

    He also didn’t have any criminal fines, debts or child support garnisheements being deducted from his wages.

    In short, he began the game standing on home plate – and has the nerve to claim he hit a home run!!!!

    Here’s a thought – why not duplicate that “experiment” but with a twist.

    Get a Mexican man, with two kids back home with his wife, and one kid with a woman up here (who has a child support order against him).

    Let’s also add in a couple of misdemeanor convictions and a Probation Officer that he HAS to see every month, on a weekday, at 9AM or he will AUTOMATICALLY get locked up.

    Let’s also give him a limited proficiency in English, and a 5th grade reading level in Spanish.

    Then let’s see if he can save $ 5,000 in 8 months!!!

    Let’s flip the script even further – have a Black woman with three kids try his experiment.

    Remember, she will be locked out of even the lowest paying day laborer and construction jobs, just due to gender.

    She’ll only be able to get pink collar jobs – nanny, waitress, supermarket cashier, ect – all of which pay very low wages.

    She’ll also have to pay for a babysitter – and constantly be in fear of Child Welfare taking her kids away if she can’t adequately provide for them.

    She’ll also have to deal with pervasive sexual harassment – from caseworkers, landlords, bosses and potential bosses, customers and random men on the street – all day every day, and will also be in constant fear of rape – especially at night or in remote parts of town.

    Let’s see if she can duplicate Adam’s $ 5,000 miracle then.

    Finally, in answer to the person who claimed that their White immigrant ancestors “pulled themselves up by their bootstraps” through the garment trades and construction.

    Sorry, that’s a lie.

    Up until very recently, you didn’t get a union card in the construction trades unless you knew somebody. Even once you got the union card, you had to know somebody to get steady work (and that’s still true today – I know, I’m a union carpenter in NYC and I see it every day at work even now).

    The same kind of getting jobs through knowing people thing prevailed in the garment trades.

    So, in the REAL WORLD, your people got ahead because they had relatives and friends who helped pull them up.

    So please stop lying about the priviliges your family had, and the priviliges you inherited!!!!

    Comment by gangbox — March 2, 2008 @ 6:44 pm

  42. 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.

    Liberal Arts Dude, having children when you’re broke or committing crimes ARE self-imposed obstacles. When I was starting out, I avoided these things because I knew they would ruin my future plans.

    Do I have the benefits of a middle-class background? Maybe lower middle class. My parents didn’t go to college and neither did I (my dad actually didn’t make it past 8th grade), but I make $75k a yar.

    Comment by pisco — March 13, 2008 @ 1:22 pm

  43. Dooney And Bourke Bags…

    I found your site on technorati and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed to my Google News Reader. Looking forward to reading more from you….

    Trackback by Dooney And Bourke Bags — May 12, 2008 @ 4:55 pm

  44. Adam Shepard is, in my opinion, not too different from what I call “Nomadic Trustafarians.” Picture this, young rich brats, usually just out of college (as Shepard) from areas of socio-economic deprivation like Lincoln and Duxbury, MA; most of Fairfield County, CT; Scarsdale and Great Neck, NY; Alpine and Summit, NJ; the “Main Line” near Philly, etc.

    These rich, college educated, but very naive people temporarily “go native” in many third world countries, notably Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Thailand. After spending 6-12 months “keeping it real” and eschewing western culture (except for the things these people “need,” such as a multi-band cell phone and an internet connection), they return to the Larchmonts and Marbleheads of America and act if they have been “transformed” by the experience.

    Here is an anecdotal account of “Muffie” calling her friend “Leesa” (notice the affectated spellings?). Muffie is just about to return to West Moneybucks, CT from 10 months in Costa Rica. Leesa returned from Nepal a week earlier. Of course, Leesa and Muffie want to get together to discuss how “fabulous” their slumming-it-with-the-natives experiences were.

    Leesa offers to pick up Muffie at JFK. Leesa told Muffie she will be driving “dad’s car.” “Oh, which one?,” Muffie asked. Leesa replied, without any tint of irony in her voice, “I’m not sure if I want to take the 2005 Jag, the 2003 BMW Convertible, or mom’s 2007 Acura MDX.” Muffie asked Leesa to take the Acura, since she thinks her backpack will fit best in the SUV.

    Just as most of his trustafarian brethren return “close to home” after about 10 months or so, Adam Shepard returned back to his wealthy North Carolina family, ostensibly due to “family problems.” HELLO? Poor people have family problems, also. However, the REAL poor cannot escape the “Trustafarian Disneyland” when there are family issues.

    These people must continue to WORK and SCRAPE BY in spite of whatever life throws at them. If these people are lucky enough to even have a car, it is likely out of warranty and prone to mechanical breakdowns.

    I would recommend this book to: People who drive around Wellesley, MA or Hewlett Neck, NY with a “Live Simply So Others May Simply Live” bumper sticker on the back of a two-year old Jaguar or Mercedes!

    Comment by Daniel — September 4, 2008 @ 1:36 pm

  45. “Poor” is a word used here that is meaningless. When we were hunter gathers, we were “poor” relative to now. The Irish, Italians, Jews et al who immigrated here were “poor” in terms of material assets and higher education; they advanced or rather succeeding generations advanced. So poor is just not economic circumtances you are born into. It has to do with culture among other things. The chinese immigrated to other countries and took the hardest lowest paying jobs; they were a minority. Eventually, with their culture of hard work and savings they became “rich” with no aiffirmative action of any govt help; of course, they were then despised by the marjority who they had overpassed in wealth.
    The 2nd and 3rd generation of East, Eur Jews surpassed the culture they came into in wealth and education and professional jobs, wheras the Irish with a different culture took very much longer to escape from “poverty”. Blacks from the West Indies do better than American Blacks.

    So, take the word “attitude” to be a shorthand term for growing in a culture that breeds certain habits that make for sucess.

    And whose fault it is that you have children before you are ready; or that you get pregnant at 15.

    IF nobody is at fault, we might as well empty our prisons; that is the what Nickel and Dimed philosophy leads to.

    According to the philosophy of some here if someone has ten children with an income that can only support one or two because he/she does not anticipate consequences of birth control then it is my obligation to buy him food and allow a few of his chlldren to convert my study into a bedroom for him; of course, this is done via taxation. Remember that scene in Dr Zhivago, the movie, when his house is invaded by order of the govt.
    Cosmic justice is what liberals want and that ends up like the Russian and French revolution. No thanks.

    Comment by len — November 8, 2008 @ 6:03 am

  46. Set your goals, Set your vision and work. That’s what Adam Shephard proved. I see a lot of people in American society that want it easy, and all the flash they can buy (with credit). They don’t want to work for it.
    But the American dream comes from work and commitment. Not from making decisions for the moment and ignoring the future consequences. It doesn’t matter your race, height, education, etc. If people don’t like the American society I suggest they check out one of the other countries on this planet Earth. You may be surprised on how blessed the USA really is.

    Comment by Dale — February 25, 2009 @ 1:44 am

    • Huh? At the risk of opening up this can of worms that is Adam Shephard’s book, I have to ask what on earth are you talking about? No one here is against hard work and responsibility. No one here is for irresponsible decision-making. What are you riling against to the point you say whoever disagrees with Shephard should leave the USA?

      Comment by Liberal Arts Dude — February 25, 2009 @ 3:40 am

  47. Another comment, I see a lot of references to child care expenses, raising kids, etc. Who made these people have kids? Was anyone forced to birth a baby they could not afford?
    Don’t get me wrong, I love kids. But I think it’s a decision people should take seriously and plan for it. Not be haphazard on their decisions and then complain about it later.

    Comment by Dale — February 25, 2009 @ 1:52 am

  48. That man will be on 20/20 on Friday. John Stossel will use him as a example of the American Dream. Shepard is a fraud since he has that safety net. Has anyone seen Morton Sperlock’s “30 Days” on the FX Channel? One of episodes was on having a job.

    Comment by Clint Graves — March 11, 2009 @ 7:13 pm

  49. Shepard makes much of his positive attitude in the book, which I just finished. Let’s keep in mind that it’s a little easier to be positive when you are on a 10-month vacation from your real, expensively-educated, upper-middle-class real life.

    Comment by jack sprat — June 22, 2009 @ 10:13 pm

  50. I do not believe that social mobility is impossible. It is very possible. But still the reality for most people in this country is that they will not escape the economic class into which they were born. For every hip hop artist from the ghetto who becomes a multi-millionaire, there are a thousand equally talented artists who will not escape the ghetto. For every poor immigrant family that arrives in this country and achieves success, there are a thousand families just as hard-working that do not achieve success. Much of social mobility has to do with education and work ethic, but even moreso luck and circumstances. Being in the right place at the right time to take advantage of an opportunity, if indeed an opportunity presents itself to you, has much to do with social mobility.

    I side more with Ehrenreich than with Shepard because she gets this and he does not. She understands the difference between situational poverty and generational poverty. She knows that she is only playing a game, but Shepard thinks his game is real. Shepard is an idealist and a dreamer who is not grounded in reality, which is due in large part to his youth and privileged background. Ehrenreich brings a journalistic integrity to her project, while Shepard has no journalistic integrity, and is not a gifted writer like Ehrenreich. Note that Ehrenreich refuses to lie to anyone, although she omits details about her privileged background. Shepard concocts outright lies to achieve his goals and to get a job, and is a dishonest human being. He lies to get into the shelter, thus displacing someone in genuine need. He lies to get the government to cover his rent, food and clothing expenses, and banks the money, rather than donate it back to the shelter. He lies to his friends about his made-up life. His work should not be compared to Ehrenreich, even though I disagree with her left-wing politics. Also Shepard is dishonest in thinking that he does not have a political viewpoint, which is decidedly conservative (and there is nothing wrong with that). I am neither liberal nor conservative, I am a realist. I do not walk through life with rosy-colored blinders on, as Shepard does. He is blind to the benefits of white privilege, youth, good looks, financial literacy, having an educated demeanor, physical and mental health, and having a proper upbringing in a supportive, nurturing environment with loving parents.

    It is false that you compare Ehrenreich’s project with Shepard’s project. She was not trying to do what he did. She only stayed one month at various menial jobs to highlight the plight of the working poor to stay afloat financially. She did not have the capitalist goals that Shepard has been indoctrinated to have. I also do not believe that Shepard’s goals are entirely healthy from a spiritual perspective. One cannot pull oneself up by the bootstraps when one does not have boots or straps. One does not need to share Shepard’s capitalistic views or Ehrenreich’s socialist views to be successful in life.

    Comment by Ron F. — April 7, 2010 @ 8:35 pm

  51. I got what I have from associating with higher income privileged people. I could never disagree or disapprove without losing my access. I’m somewhat like Shepard in that I can see how the privileged agree that cheating is part of the game, unless you’re part of the underclass. My highest incomes came from Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley after being given a job out of pity by the husband of an oil heiress when I was hospitalized for intestinal gangrene. Rich people do have pity, but they also exercise their power to put friends ahead of meritorious competitors. I failed as an actor (monetarily) and as a politician (not flexible enough) but succeeded as a suck-up. I’m trying to put the money I made to good use, but I probably can’t make up for the damage I did in displacing qualified people or serving oligarchic interests. I have come to believe our corporate capitalism is suicidal and demeaning of the human spirit.

    Comment by Grady Lee Howard — July 20, 2010 @ 7:48 pm

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    About Me

    A regular guy living in irregular times



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