“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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  1. This sounds like a very interesting read, if only for the flaws you mentioned. I’m surprised, though, that there would be a comparison (or contradiction…) to Barbara Ehrenreich, whose book I have read. Ehrenreich attempted to succeed without charity – half of “Scratch Beginnings” (at least, as you describe it) seems to be taking advantage of charities, homeless centers, and people’s altruism. Kind of weird.

  2. …Because if you’re a single mother, you can’t make it in this horrible country of ours. Definitely not if you’re an uneducated Hispanic immigrant who doesn’t even speak the language. Hard work and frugality just don’t provide the payoff they used to. You have to be born into wealth or you’ll never have it.

    This is most certainly not a country where anything is possible. Uh-uh. No way.

    I’m kind of amazed that you read the book and missed the point. That’s actually a first from what I’ve read. Each one of us had advantages in life. Some recognize them and use them. Others are lazy.

    The power in “Scratch Beginnings” is not that I — a young, healthy, white dude — made it. The power is that this story is not unique at all; it is being lived millions of times over every day by people of all genders, races, and ages in this, the greatest country in the world.



    (Fact checking: Please cite your source for 70% being mentally ill. At the shelter where I stayed it was less than 50% mentally ill/addicted, but that is beyond the scope of “Scratch Beginnings.” Those people do, in fact, need a hand up from society, but even with addicts there is still a separation of the ambitious and the lazy.)

  3. Wow, thank you so much for this review. I hadn’t heard of the book but immediatly thought about about his background giving him a leg-up before you started talking about it. This is definitely going on the list, even if I happen to get angry as I go along reading it.

  4. Mr. Shepard!

    What a pleasant surprise!

    Fact checking: You are right, my statistics were off base. I got sloppy. I was citing from a report that went around the shelter when I worked there around 1996, from memory. Never a good idea. I still think my point is valid that mental illness and drug addiction are major, major factors behind homelessness, and it is disingenuous to ignore this when discussing the problem. This site (http://www.schizophrenia.com/szfacts.htm) claims that there are more people suffering from schizophrenia living on the streets than there are in mental hospitals. The seriously mentally ill are unable to care for themselves, and this represents a major failing on our society’s part. Do homeless people freeze to death on the streets in the Carolinas? They do where I come from.

    We agree that hard work and frugality can achieve a great deal. I come from a long line of hard-working, frugal people. It’s awfully easy to tell someone else to “work harder” without a deeper analysis of the problem. If you had started out with a low level of literacy and rotten teeth, do you think it would have been as easy for you? Have you ever looked at the literacy rates for the incarcerated?

    Surely you noticed, during your time looking for work while staying at the homeless shelter, that there were many applicants for each job. You had it pointed out to you that your approach wasn’t effective, and changed strategies. Poor job-hunting skills are just one result of substandard education, along with the poor budgeting skills you mentioned in your book.

    I have worked with the homeless, in a drug rehab center, and for social services in various counties for 15 years. I have spent my entire life living among the poor, and my entire career working with them. I can tell you, the vast majority of the poor are extremely highly motivated to escape their situations. They just don’t know how to do it. They lack education, they lack capital, they lack a network of people with more resources and better information than they have, their utility bills are higher due to their substandard housing, they pay more for medical bills because they are uninsured, and… It goes on. Anyone who manages to escape poverty is a hero in my book.

    There are plenty of lazy people in the world. Lazy people who have to hire others to clean up after them and do their scut work, for one. There may be plenty of poor people who are lazy (though being poor is a lot harder than it looks), but there are plenty of wealthy people who are lazy, too. It’s intellectually lazy to sum up such a complicated problem by attributing it to personal characteristics, leaving out economic, political, and historical factors.

    My interest in the problem of poverty comes from having grown up poor and hungry. At six years old, I used to dream about food at night. I grew up determined to do whatever I could to make sure other children didn’t grow up the way I did. Mr. Shepard, your interest in poverty appears to arise from the desire to shame and blame other people. Why, exactly, were the problems of mental illness and addiction beyond the scope of your book?

    With respect,
    Jessica Coleman

  5. Jessica,

    Mental illness and addiction are beyond the scope of my book for the basic reason that these are issues/problems that require professional assistance. Indeed, some people get help and some don’t, but the idea is that they might not be able to help themselves. My aim in “Scratch Beginnings” is looking at healthy Americans that are making the most of their opportunities. Or not.

    I definitely don’t think my interest in poverty rises from an interest in shaming or blaming other people. Well, definitely not shaming. Blaming, maybe. After all, whose fault is it that BG isn’t making it? And whose fault is it that Derrick is making it? Both are healthy, from the same broken homes, uneducated backgrounds, etc. Derrick has a felony on his record and yet he has a steady job and bought a house. Is that luck? No. I do “blame” BG for his laziness and lack of success and I “blame” Derrick for making it.

    Listen, my story is not about me. Of course I can make it. I have initiative. I have two loving parents that taught me the way–how to budget, work hard, etc. My story is about the spirit of those that are facing incredible odds and making it. The U.S. is unique in offering its citizens the opportunity for upside potential. Do you think I would have had the same results in Africa or Eastern Europe or Southeast Asia or anywhere in Latin America?

    I absolutely recognize that some people (me!) have it better than others. But that doesn’t mean that I’m not working my ass off to better my situation just as many of the poverty stricken I’ve met along the way are doing the same. And it doesn’t meant that I don’t have some “young, healthy, white, male” friends that are squandering their opportunities. (Full disclosure: I self-published initially so I could give away 4,000 copies of my book to those that can really use it and don’t necessarily have access to Amazon or Barnes and Noble. Why? Because I recognize now, more than ever, two things: 1) I got it good and some don’t. 2) We are responsible for our futures, and “Scratch Beginnings” helps some people get on the right track.)

    In any event, I do appreciate you taking the time to read my book and for posting about it. 🙂

    Cheers Jess,


  6. Hi Adam,

    Thanks for engaging with me on this issue, one very dear to my heart. I do commend you for helping to keep up awareness on poverty. I would look forward to reading another book by you on the subject.

    If you take a look at the reviews of your book on Amazon.com, you will find that at least some of your readers drew the same conclusion I did: that your book says poor people are poor because they are lazy. This is helpful for anyone who is poor and lazy and needs a kick in the pants, but maybe not as helpful for people who are not poor but could possibly be persuaded to help those who are.

    It’s a very fine thing to have given away copies of your book, especially in that quantity. Kudos to you, and my best wishes that your book will serve as an instruction manual for others who are having a tough time.


  7. From the above exchange, I’ve become very curious about reading this! I did read Ehrenreich’s book, and remember coming away from it feeling like she was rather condescending to the poor she lived/worked among, and had an unfair advantage, as well…

  8. Wow! This is my first time visiting your blog, and what a visit! Rarely do I click to comment on a review and see an exchange between the author and the reviewer. I was going to say, I wonder how well this experiment would’ve worked in New York City or San Francisco or Detroit, larger cities where the competition for beds in shelters is much higher (let alone other countries, as Mr. Shepard mentions above). I believe there’s value in Mr. Shepard’s experience and that it was probably as authentic as he could make it, but I also think it’s difficult to take that singular experience and make *too* much of a generalization about homelessness across the country. Still, the book sounds intriguing. Thanks!

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