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.