“Scratch Beginnings”

February 9, 2009 at 5:43 pm | Posted in Nonfiction | 8 Comments

I have a love/hate reaction to the book Scratch Beginnings: Me, $25, and the Search for the American Dream.  I love the idea that Adam Shepard decided to cut himself off from his privileged background and work his way up the ladder from the bottom rung.  I hate the idea that he really thinks he succeeded in doing this, and that people who may not even read the book will walk away with the same idea.  Worst, Shepard has the nerve to take on Barbara Ehrenreich, and believes, at 24 years old, that he has refuted her work.

Books about life experiments are my favorite things to read.  For example, I really enjoyed Under the Overpass, by Mike Yankoski, a Christian who wanted to understand the experience of the homeless and to learn about altruism.  So when I heard about Scratch Beginnings I was excited.  Adam Shepard leaves home with nothing but $25 in his pocket, to prove that he can start over in a new city and, within a year, have a job, a car, a roof over his head, and money saved.  He’s a good writer and his experiences are vivid.

Here’s the problem.  Shepard insists that he is setting out with no political leanings, that his project is to test his own limits, yet he also says he’s tired of listening to people “whine” about their circumstances.  Essentially, what he’s setting out to do is to prove that poor people are poor because they are lazy.  Let’s see what he actually proves.

I’m going to give you a college-educated, blonde, Caucasian man of 24.  He’s physically fit, has good posture, clear skin,  beautiful orthodontia, and no addictions or health problems.  He’s highly articulate (in English!), mentally healthy, and best of all, has no dependents or, vitally, any debts, including student loans.  Now, let’s gamble.  Do you think this boy can get himself a job and get “back on his feet” in under a year?  Let’s add in that he has a “secret credit card,” family connections, and his degree to fall back on if he gets bored.  He’s also going to start out with a sleeping bag with a built-in inflatable pillow.  Any takers?

What Shepard does is to find his way to a homeless shelter within a few hours of hitting the road.  Here’s his first stroke of luck.  Not only does the shelter let him in after hours, but they have space for him – and they continue to have a bed for him for the next 70 days.  I worked at Transition Projects in Portland – a homeless shelter – and let me tell you, this experience is not replicable at all shelters in all cities, especially those with cold climates.  (Shepard performs his experiment during warm weather, in South Carolina).  Shepard is able to build his nest egg because the shelter covers all his housing and most of his food expenses for over two months.  Next, when he gets set up in an apartment, he brags that he has furnished it exclusively with free furniture he picked up from his job contacts.

Shepard gloats that he has grown his seed money of $25 to over $2500 in only a few short months.  Sure, but he did it on charity; he didn’t exactly invest it.  He proves that altruism is available to help the needy.  He blames others for taking handouts that he himself relies on to “prove” his point – a bizarre circular logic.

The book’s subtitle mentions “the American Dream.”  If the American Dream includes doing backbreaking physical labor without a health plan or retirement benefits, well, then we’re all doing just fine.  Sure, it’s possible to work one’s way from destitution to a somewhat reliable blue collar job – I know because my dad did it too.  What does this teach us about poverty, though?  As long as there is a low-paying job with poor conditions, somebody is going to have to work it.  One person working his way up to management does not mean that everyone can do it, because every general needs soldiers.  Conservatives seem to believe that it’s okay to provide crummy working conditions for the majority if at least one or two people can “work their way up” to managing those workers.

Shepard concludes his book by talking out of both sides of his mouth.  He says that people need to go out of their way to help give the poor a leg up, but he also says he thinks they’re there because they’re having a good time.  What he doesn’t say is that roughly 70% of homeless people are mentally ill, and that about the same percentage are drug-addicted.  This works out to roughly 20% with addiction, 20% with mental health problems, 50% with both, and only 10% with neither.  Homelessness is a very complicated problem with many root causes, and it’s an entirely different beast from the problems of the working poor.  Poverty tourism can only teach us so much about how to conquer these pressing social problems – and I say social because I believe it is the responsibility of the haves to do something about it.  The challenge is for the haves to recognize their own privilege and how it leads to and supports their comfortable rung on the ladder.

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