I recently interviewed Adam Shepard, author of Scratch Beginnings: Me, $25 and the search for the American Dream.  I had several questions for Shepard, who was gracious enough to pull himself away from his busy book tour to answer them.

INTOO: Would your experiment have been as successful had you tried it in a state with a higher tax burden like New York, Illinois or California?

Shepard: There’s no way to say for sure because I didn’t go to those states, but I think although finding a job may have been harder I would’ve had the same attitude towards reaching my goal that I did in South Carolina.  Besides, in a state like Illinois or California I would’ve been paid more.

I think the better question is, would my experiment have been as successful if I had tried it in Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe or South America?  This is the USA, and we’ve got it good here.  I doubt I could’ve reached my goal had I tried this in Central America or anywhere else.

INTOO: Of all the people you met, who disappointed you the most and why?  Who surprised you the most?

Shepard: I think BG disappointed me the most.  He had resources and his cousin Derrick was like a mentor to him, but he was too busy to listen, He spent his extra money on women and night clubs,  He was a great guy to live with and work with on my truck, but he just didn’t get it [about responsible spending and saving] and that really bothered me.

The person who surprised me the most was Phil Coleman.  I didn’t expect such good job advice from a homeless guy.  He taught me that you have to approach everything with an open mind because you never know who you’re going to meet and where you’re going to meet them.

INTOO: In your time living in the homeless shelter, you not only observed but also participated in the local hustling network, a bartering system almost identical to that in prison.  What about this informal network of constant trade surprised you the most?

Shepard: I never even thought anything like that existed.  Until I came to the shelter I only saw dollars and Visa as a form of currency.  That whole trade fascinated me.  It truly was a brand new experience for me.

INTOO: How would you respond to someone who felt the experiment was easier for you because you were white and male?

Shepard: Well, I’m single and young, too.  You have to play your advantages to the best of your ability. You can’t focus on the things about you that you can’t control.  I can’t control being white and male; the only thing I can control is my ambition to get out of poverty.  There are plenty of healthy, single white males who are not living the American Dream and make excuses for their own failures.  Look at who’s living the American Dream in record numbers right now: Hispanic immigrants who come to this country and start with nothing.  Every demographic is enjoying the American Dream right now.

INTOO: How much did your friends and family worry about you during your experiment?

Shepard: My friends weren’t really worried; they figured it was just another one of Adam’s crazy adventures (laughs).  My parents were nervous, though.  My father said he didn’t sleep the first night, he was so worried.  But my parents created this independent person that I am today, who wanted to prove something and went out and did this.

INTOO: What resource played a bigger role in helping you reach your goal and how, welfare benefits or discount stores?

Shepard: No doubt about it, the discount stores.  As a single employed male, I didn’t receive much welfare benefits, and as I earned more money the benefits decreased.  I achieved my goal because I was frugal; if I had gone to higher-end stores I would not have made it.

INTOO: I understand you had a credit card in your back pocket throughout the experiment but did not use it once.  At any time during your experiment, were you ever tempted to use it, even a tiny bit?

Shepard: Never.  When I started my project, I had made up my mind that if I were to use my credit card, it would be to buy a train ticket to go home.  The resources from the shelter were so fantastic that I didn’t really need to dip into any of my own funds to survive.

INTOO: What would you say is the most common misconception middle-class Americans have about the working poor and why?

Shepard: We generalize the working poor, and I think that’s unfair.  Are some of them lazy?  Sure.  But I’ve also met some of the hardest working people among the working poor.  I think Derrick was the best representation of that.  He came from a poor background, spent his money widely and saved up until he was able to buy a house for his family.

INTOO: Have you ever been confronted or contacted by Barbara Ehrenreich?

Shepard: I e-mailed her when I first published the book and told her what I was doing.  She never responded the first time, probably because at the time my book was self-published and she didn’t take me seriously.  But after I sold the book to Harper-Collins and got some press I e-mailed [Ehrenreich] and this time she wrote back.  I suggested that she and I have a televised debate about the American Dream, and she agreed that it would be a good idea.  So far we haven’t been able to have a head-to head debate, but John Stossel interviewed us, separately, for a 20/20 segment on the American Dream.  It’s scheduled to air February 13 on ABC.

INTOO: Would you ever want Scratch Beginnings to be required reading on a college syllabus someday?

Shepard: Actually, it already is.  There are a number of high schools and universities that are using Scratch Beginnings as part of the required reading.  My book is not a simple answer; it raises a lot of questions and more importantly, it gets the issue out and allows it to be seriously discussed.  So far Scratch beginnings is used by Midwestern State University in Texas, Syracuse University in New York, Jacksonville State University in Alabama and Kennesaw State University in Georgia.  At Midwestern State, the incoming class of 400 freshmen were required to read Scratch Beginnings, and I’ve already spoken there about my book.  A high school near Houston had their entire 10th grade class of 1,100 read my book.  I’ll probably go down there in May to speak.

I really don’t care if Nickel and Dimed is  required in more classrooms than Scratch Beginnings.  I think both books should be offered to the students to expose them to both sides of the same argument.  I hope Barbara sells more books because of me.

INTOO: Tell me about your next book.

Shepard: I’m working on this book for college freshmen called “The Best Four Years” that encourages them to make the best out of their time in college.  University tuition is a huge investment, and too many parents have e-mailed me complaining that their kids are spending their college experience partying and on extracurricular activities and not focusing on their studies as much as their parents would like.

Priced with the working poor in mind, Scratch Beginnings is only a mere $15 and change, and each chapter will have readers nodding their heads in agreement until they experience neck pain.

5 Responses to “My Interview With Adam Shepard”

  1. hfm says:

    Hardly an experiment, more like a whim of a rich, bored kid trying to prove how he is right.
    White privilege & great health were factors that he could unconsciously rely on, if he were a PoC this entire ‘experiment’ would be written differently. Of course, they are beyond his control, but they are dismissed too quickly by the author as though they are of no significance. He obviously hasn’t contemplated on how t is for PoC who have no net to begin their journey with, let alone $25.

  2. 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.
    Mr. Shepard I call on you to apologize to your country for your frivolous, foolish, and insulting actions. You have much to answer for.

  3. john says:

    first of all fuck the shit about him not being black. Just because youre white doesnt mean your priveledged.So fuck all of you with that mentality. Secondly it pisses me off how this guy couldnt just read barbaras book and say ” That makes sense working at minimum wage is an impossible situation” Instead he is another brainwashed bastard who was taught that ” you can pull yourself up by the bootstraps” and “wealth comes by hard work” and whatever other bullshit lies he believes in. Here he goes off and lives on welfare and gets by on his young healthy body and barbara was trying to make it WITHOUT USING WELFARE. That was the whole fucking point. First of all here are some reasons why this kid made it 1 good looking 2 fit 3 got a moving job because of his strengh and fitness and was probably getting paid LIVABLE FUCKING WAGE which again is what barbara was trying to get at in her goddamn book for christsake! 4 with livable wage was able to get apartment 5 with livable wage in 3 months able to save a couple grand for a cheap car and yes 6 after 4 or more months at LIVABLE WAGE able to save a couple grand. So all he fucking proved was he was able to secure a decent job through his looks and youth and bingo. All of this was discussed by ehrenreich in interviews where she explains its about looks and being LIKED much more than any skill you can sell. This kid pisses me of because he downplays how hard it is for people. I am 30 years old and i work 2 $9 dollar and hour jobs and it is downright unbearable and IM FUCKING SINGLE and i would love to see how much he saves when his life is consumed with barely getting by and living a life of constant work and sleep work and sleep nothing else. He may think he proved something at 23 lets see what he thinks if he was 65 and had made no more than 10 an hr for 40 fucking years lets see how carefree and easy it is then. This kid is a good example of why america and its society is completely useless and why we have poverty in the first place. Narcissistic mindsets like this kid who no matter how hard you work if you dont make it its because you didnt try hard enough fuck that and fuck him.

  4. Not The Only One says:

    Wow, you three certainly have a chip on your shoulders. All of these arguments you’re spouting here were addressed in this post:

    John, as someone who has actually worked for minimum wage, I can tell you that you don’t stay at that wage for long. You stay at the same job long enough, and in a few months you get a raise. In many cases, new hires go through a probationary period where they are paid the minimum, and once that period is over, their wage rates jump. Long story short, if you’re making minimum wage, you won’t be for long. If you’re earning minimum wage at the same job a year after you began, something is seriously wrong with your job performance.

    Barbara set incredibly unrealistic parameters for her experiment to specifically fail and prove her argument. She didn’t use welfare programs, like many working poor do, owned an automobile, which many poor people often do not have, and stayed in motels. I’ve known people who have lived in their cars, so the idea of working for minimum wage, driving your own car and paying extra to sleep in a motel is ridiculous.

    Shepard also achieved and surpassed his goal because he lived within his means, even when it meant skipping out on creature comforts that he would’ve liked to have enjoyed. Are you living within your means, John? Also, Shepard conducted his experiment in a state with a low tax burden, meaning he got to keep more of his paycheck and lower corporate taxes translated to lower prices when he went out shopping. A lower tax burden also means that people are more charitable and can afford to donate more, another thing he benefited from. Can the same be said about where you live, John? If not, perhaps you should considering relocating.

  5. Tony G. says:

    This is an old link, but oh well. You think someone has the same life as someone else because they temporarily emptied their pockets? If you grow up in a really rough environment, it has an enormous impact on you. I will give you just one tiny hint at why this experiment is incredibly limited in its value: the impact of stress and trauma and the release of cortisol into the young brain. Human beings are deep, so be careful when you think you have people all figured out (and judged).

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