If there’s one thing bloggers love, it’s a good rebuttal.  We’re constantly offering rebuttals of arguments, comments or news stories we don’t agree with.  For anyone familiar with Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (which has become required reading in many universities), Adam Shepard’s Scratch Beginnings: Me, $25, and the Search for the American Dream offers a well-deserved objection to her thesis that in America the poor stay that way no matter what they do.

While Nickel and Dimed is inherently flawed, I highly recommend checking it out (borrow it, don’t buy it) before reading Scratch Beginnings, if for nothing else than to gain a good chuckle at the former and a greater appreciation of the latter.  For those unfamiliar with Nickel and Dimed, the book is the result of a social experiment conducted by Ehrenreich between 1999 and 2000 in which she attempted to examine the lives of America’s working poor by taking whatever low-wage job she could find and living off her earnings. While some may deem Ehrenreich to be a better writer than Shepard, there’s little doubt as to which author has the better story to tell.

Ehrenreich’s experiment began with only $1,300, her car, a few belongings, a phony work history and only a high school diploma when applying to various blue-collar jobs.  She soon discovers that her low-paying jobs cannot support her hotel and automobile expenses, much less allow her to save up enough money to pull herself out of poverty.  It should be no surprise that Ehrenreich is a self-described socialist and frequently insists in her book that the government must step in to protect the working poor from the greedy, exploitative capitalists who employ them, going as far as suggesting the minimum wage be raised to $15 am hour.

Shepard disagrees with this view in his own epilogue, demonstrating his knowledge of economics by insisting that an increased minimum wage would only increase prices and that everyone including the poor should be responsible for their own financial security and make the right choices with what money they have.  But Shepard is by no means a conservative; his epilogue which summarizes what he had learned from his experiment insists upon increased government funding for affordable housing and that more money go to school districts in poorer areas.

Like many college students and even Shepard himself, I was forced to read Nickel and Dimed.  Ehrenreich continues her mistakes as she refuses to associate with her co-workers once her shift is over nor does she seek out any social services provided by local churches, as Ehrenreich’s prejudice against religion prohibits her from doing so.  One would expect someone with a Ph.D. to make smarter choices than these. Shepard on the other hand, had the good sense to fraternize with his fellow shelter residents and co-workers for inspiration and helpful advice, another factor that allowed him to succeed where Ehrenreich failed.

Her expenses further increase when she applies for jobs that conduct pre-employment drug screening, and Ehrenreich does not explain in her book why she needs to purchase expensive detoxifying beverages to help her pass the urine tests. Given that Ehrenreich is also a board member of the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws, one can’t help but wonder if the constant lack of funds during her experiment had anything to do with nightly dosages of reefer.  I’m surprised she didn’t add lottery tickets to her daily purchases.

Shepard’s experiment is far more realistic and challenging: start out with only $25, a sleeping bag, the clothes on his back and have a furnished apartment, an operable car and at least $2,500 in his savings account after one year without using his college education, family or friends.  Through aggressive saving and surviving on dollar stores, fast food value menus, and thrift shops to stretch his meager income, the author details how he struggles his way out of homelessness. Shepard’s 365 consecutive days without help from his middle-class background or college education and thrifty spending made for a far better experiment than Ehrenreich’s three one-month stints spent making all the mistakes that keep poor people poor.

Unlike Ehrenreich who could not survive without her own hotel room and refused to sleep in her car, Shepard, who was prepared to sleep on a park bench, instead checked into Crisis Ministries, a homeless shelter in Charleston, South Carolina where he laid his head every night for the first 62 days of his experiment with 90 other snoring men.  Shepard’s only mode of transportation was the Charleston public transit system, and through Crisis Ministries’ social workers was able to obtain food stamps, vouchers for the local Goodwill store and even a discount bus pass.

At the risk of spoiling the ending, Shepard’s experiment is a success. There’s nothing remarkable about Ehrenreich’s failed experiment, and attempting an experiment with the intention to fail to justify some ideological argument is even less remarkable.  What’s remarkable is Shepard’s gradual climb (with a setback here and there) out of extreme poverty.  Written in a conversational, narrative tone, Scratch Beginnings is an inspiring tale of self-sufficiency, camaraderie, common sense, economic self-control, and the message that the poor do not have to remain that way.  By the end of Shepard’s tale, readers should have no doubt in their minds that the American Dream is very much alive and as it always was, accessible to anyone willing to work for it.

22 Responses to “Review: Scratch Beginnings”

  1. I’m Not The Only One » Blog Archive » My Interview With Adam Shepard says:

    [...] Review: Scratch Beginnings [...]

  2. Ron F. says:

    Shepard’s “experiment” is just as fatally flawed as Ehrenreich’s. Both are middle-class white people who make a “game” of poverty like Monopoly, pass GO and collect $200. Poverty and homelessness are far more complicated than these short-term, temporary “games” make it out to be, “games” played by white people for too short a time in order for them to fully understand that poverty and homelessness are not “games” for the people whose lives are negatively impacted for the long-term. After Shepard and Ehrenreich quiclky return to the stable middle-class backgrounds from which they came, neither of them have gained the wisdom necessary to understand that most people will never become millionaires no matter how hard they work, scrimp and save, and that most people will never escape the class into which they were born. It takes more than a year to understand that reality–it takes a lifetime!

  3. Not The Only One says:

    Hi Ron,

    To an extent you and I are in agreement. However, you have to consider that in this country, white people attract the most media attention even when they fall victim to or do things that minorities have been doing or falling victim to for years. If Ehrenreich and Shepard were black or Latino and conducting these types of social experiments, their published accounts would not receive the mainstream media they are getting.

    Even if you view both experiments as flawed, you have to admit that Shepard’s is by far the more practical and realistic of the two. I mean, Ehrenreich started out with $2,500 and a car she couldn’t afford to keep with the meager wages she was earning, two things most low-wage earning people do not have. She was too spoiled to sleep in the car or to bunk with a roommate, so she wasted her money on a hotel room she couldn’t afford, and refused to use food pantries or other form of welfare. Given that she is on the board of directors of NORML, she probably spent a good amount of marijuana, and you know white people like to smoke the good stuff, unlike blacks and Latinos who often smoke cheap, low quality marijuana. She basically did everything she could to make the experiment fail and prove herself right. How Nickel and Dimed is so warmly embraced and accepted among liberal circles is fascinating.

    I disagree about your notion that America is no longer a vehicle of social mobility. While poor people living in blue states are more likely to stay that way, social mobility is not about being born here or coming to America in poverty and becoming a millionaire. It’s about having the chance to significantly improve your socioeconomic situation, and possibly make life easier for your children than you had it when you were a child in the hopes that perhaps their children may have a better chance at becoming rich.

    When my grandparents came to New York from Puerto Rico, they arrived in the airport carrying suitcases made of cardboard. Though they were raised on Caribbean sugar plantations and shanty houses, their children, my parents were raised in a city in buildings made of stone with electricity and indoor plumbing. I was raised in a less congested area of the same city, and while my parents often slept in the same room as my grandparents, my siblings and I slept in our own bedrooms. Are we millionaires? No. But I do believe that some social mobility was achieved over three generations, and that’s what this country is all about. That is the reason so many millions come to the United States, because those opportunities for social mobility simply did not exist in their home countries.

    Keep reading my blog, pal. And keep the comments coming.

    Peace.

  4. Ron F. says:

    Thanks for your commentary brother.

    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. 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.

    I admire your blog, brother, and I am deeply inspired by your family’s struggle for success. Upward mobility is possible, although rare.

  5. Aaron says:

    Ron, I’m very curious as to why you think that Shepard’s “lies” are inherently wrong. When conducting sociological research, one must often “lie” in order to properly simulate a situation. If I walk into a job interview and describe myself as a sociologist who is working on a book, I am going to get a very different reaction than if I describe myself as someone who is fleeing a home life full of drugs. The latter, though one of Shepard’s “lies” is far more likely to get an accurate and realistic response than would telling the truth. This is a basic truth of sociological and psychological research. Researchers often disguise or outright falsify their positions or intentions because it is necessary to fully model the situations being modeled. This does not in any way make these researchers, “dishonest human beings” as you say. In point of fact, it makes them competent professionals.

    I am also interested to hear you expound on this theoretical “white privilege” to which you allude, but for which you never offer support. Financial literacy is also uncomplicated: Don’t buy things you can’t pay for in cash. It’s something that is understandable to children in the 3rd grade. I’ve never known “good looks” to be a criterion for movers or day laborers, so I sincerely doubt your premise that Shepard’s looks gave him any meaningful advantage. Youth is indeed helpful in physical jobs, but the majority people remain capable of physical labor well into their 50s, or even longer if those people work to keep themselves fit and healthy. Physical and mental health are important things, yes, but there are institutions and programs available for those whose mental health is deficient and there are numerous unskilled jobs that remain available to those with physical limitations. It would take a substantial (and remarkably uncommon) infringement on one’s physical health to inhibit upward mobility. Having good parents is likewise not a reason to discount Shepard’s experiences. Yes, it can be helpful, but good parents are certainly not a prerequisite for the ability to think and work.

    To say that Ehrenreich, “was not trying to do what [Shepard] did” is disingenuous. She was attempting to live on the income from unskilled jobs and that goal is not at all far from Shepard’s goal of creating a life while working at unskilled jobs. Ehrenreich burdened herself with unnecessary encumbrances and refused to take advantages of programs that were readily available to help low income individuals. She set out from the beginning to show that it was not possible to live on that money and, because of that goal, she rigged her “experiment” (either deliberately or unconsciously) to get that outcome. Shepard, on the other hand, is actually willing to make the sacrifices necessary and to take advantage of the programs available to him and because of this is able to get by. In terms of the design of each experiment, Shepard’s is so far superior to Ehrenreich’s play-acting as should make Ehrenreich deeply ashamed. She may be a more engaging writer, but judging from the way she constructs her “experiment” we are forced to conclude that she is a very poor scientist indeed.

    I would also love to hear why Shepard’s goals are not, “entirely healthy from a spiritual perspective.” Is it a virtue, in your mind, to be unable to support yourself? Is it “spiritually unhealthy” to have a savings account in case something bad happens and you spend a couple months without income? Financial security isn’t evil.

  6. Not The Only One says:

    Aaron,

    Awesome rebuttal!

    You just earned a spot on my blogroll.

    Hope I’ve done the same on yours.

  7. icewater says:

    I don’t think Ehrenreich’s point was that a young, intelligent, physically healthy and culturally sophisticated man would be unable to graduate from a tarp to an apartment within ten months; rather, it was that those who find themselves in low-paying service jobs endure dire and demoralizing working and living conditions on a long-term basis.

    Of course, you’re free to judge whether they deserve this fate because they’re unable to compete their way out.

  8. Not The Only One says:

    Hey icewater,

    I totally get Ehrenreich’s point, and I can see you do as well.

    But she made her point by spending her money foolishly, and while some working poor can be described as spending their money unwisely, Ehrenreich goes even further and commits acts of stupidity I’ve never known any poor person to do…ever.

    Her first stupid decision was to get a hotel room when she had a car. Coming from a low-income background myself, my instinct would’ve been to simply save money by sleeping in the vehicle. I’ve never met a poor person who lived day to day in a hotel. The only people I’ve ever met who lived in hotel rooms were people whose jobs involved traveling. Most poor people look for a roommate to split the costs with (either a friend or family member), rent a room in someone’s home, or temporarily move in with family until they can save up for a deposit on their own apartment. Have you ever heard of a poor person living in a hotel room, especially when they had no job? This alone proves that the author is either shockingly out of touch with the demographic she is attempting to write about or she is deliberately trying to fail financially and prove her point.

    The other mistake Ehrenreich made was not accepting charity or welfare benefits like food stamps. She actually thumbed her nose like a snob at the free food available at the food pantry. Had she shopped at Wal-Mart or any dollar store, her meager paycheck would’ve been able to stretch much further.

    On a side note, there is one aspect about Nickel and Dimed I find to be very manipulative and dishonest: the drug testing of employees. I too have worked at jobs where my urine was tested for drugs. This is a result of the Drug Free Workplace Act of 1988, which mandates that any corporation that wishes to do business with any federal agency MUST test their employees for drugs, illegal and prescription. Ehrenreich grumbles about this drug test experience as if the “evil” corporations spend money to test new hires just for the fun of it. The drug testing is the result of Congress, not of corporations.

    And you’re wrong on another thing; poor people are able to work their way out of these low-wage jobs. Eventually workers either get a raise, are promoted to a higher-paying position, are given more hours, or find a better paying job. Too often these days, many Americans with little to no job experience, education or skills demand to start at the top and work their way up. I suspect you are one of these people.

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  10. Andres Kievsky says:

    I see what you mean — Shepard was able to succeed thanks to social programs like Crisis Ministries and food stamps. Obviously, we need to spend more money on those.

  11. GDog says:

    Firstly she made EXPLICITLY clear that her experience was NOTHING like poverty, something Adam Shepard not only ignores but specifically states. She says and I quote “I AM, OF COURSE, VERY DIFFERENT FROM THE PEOPLE WHO NORMALLY fill America’s least attractive jobs, and in ways that both helped and limited me. Most obviously, I was only visiting a world that others inhabit full-time, often for most of their lives. With all the real- life assets I’ve built up in middle age-bank account, IRA, health
    insurance, multiroom home-waiting indulgently in the background, there was no way I was going to “experience poverty” or find out how it “really feels” to be a long-term low-wage worker. My aim here was much more straightforward and objective-just to see whether I could match income to expenses, as the truly poor attempt to do every day.” She did this to garner experience drawn out as a first hand research journey to explicitly gather data. This is a FAR CRY from the idiotic nonsense that this rich, spoiled, entitled, self-absorbed little so-and-so EXPLICITLY said he set out to do which was to disprove poverty. I want you all to think long and hard about that, about this young man and it bothers me that no one in the “upper class” understands that this book never should have been published and that if our society, and the people running it, ever get their heads on straight his book will be seen as an embarrassing episode of his youth. As to those who complain about Barbara having a car and not sleeping in it, are you insane? In her book she wisely states that she will NOT put herself in danger for the sake of an experiment. Also unlike your little “hero” she would accept charity, buy the food herself using outside funds, then re-donate it. Why? Because unlike Adam she has integrity. That young man was selfish, stupid, and apparently entitled enough to needlessly enter into social programs and partake in them draining them of resources that should have gone to those that actually need them instead of a healthy young man that using them solely because he was bored. All of you who support this young man’s actions need to strongly reexamine your moral structure because it has been called into serious question.

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