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.