Book review: Scratch beginnings


A little while ago, I read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and dimed and found myself unconvinced by her claim that the poor are forced to remain poor for life, and that today the American dream is nothing more than a myth. So, I was interested in reading another perspective on the same topic.

When Adam Shepard read Nickel and dimed, as well as one of Ehrenreich’s other books called Bait and switch, he had similar concerns to mine, and he decided to undertake his own experiment similar to Ehrenreich’s and see if he could do better. His book Scratch beginnings is his tale.

In fact, Shepard made his task more difficult than Ehrenreich had made hers. He started with $25 (Ehrenreich allowed herself a $1300 float), a sleeping bag, and the clothes on his back and headed to a randomly chosen city that he knew nothing about, with the plan of living there for a year (Ehrenreich only did her experiments for a month at a time). He had a few goals for his adventure: at the end of the year, he expected to have a suitable place to live, a car, a job, $2500 in the bank, and opportunities for future advancement. And he wasn’t allowed to use any specialized knowledge or skills he had acquired, especially his college education.

So, he headed to Charleston, South Carolina, with no idea of what to do. For a while, he lived in a homeless shelter and took any odd job that he managed to find but struggled to find any serious employment. In short, he encountered many of the same difficulties that plagued Ehrenreich.

His fortune changed when he found out about a moving company and decided that nothing would stop him from getting a job there. Rather than submitting an application, however, he waited around in the office for a few hours until he was able to talk to an actual person. His talk sufficiently impressed the manager that he was hired on the spot. (Shepard offered to work a day for free to demonstrate his work ethic. That’s apparently a sufficiently surprising offer that the manager didn’t even demand the trial day.)

Suddenly, he had employment at $10 an hour plus tips, which is certainly enough to live on, especially in a relatively inexpensive city like Charleston. While working at the moving company, he got to see his coworker buy his first house, after having saved up a substantial amount of money from years of hard work. Evidently, the American dream isn’t dead in all cases.

Shepard himself did better than he expected he would: after 10 months, he had already accomplished all the goals he had intended to fulfill, and he had saved more money than he had intended: he had $5000 in the bank, rather than the $2500 he had planned on saving. He then cut off his project upon hearing news of a serious illness in the family.

Even though Shepard and Ehrenreich undertook similar projects, their results were markedly different, with Ehrenreich struggling to make ends meet at all, and Shepard eventually doing so comfortably. The most obvious difference between the two of them is that Shepard had more time to work things out: after a month in Charleston, Shepard hadn’t made all that much progress either, but after two months or so, he was able to rent a reasonable apartment at a low price. Had Ehrenreich given her projects more time, she may have been able to gain a better understanding of the tricks of living on low wages.

Another reason for Shepard’s greater success was his (eventual) willingness to look for good opportunities and be assertive. I suppose common wisdom is that when a person is looking for a job, ey should fill out an application and wait to hear back. That may be the way to go when trying to work for Walmart, but if ey wants to make a bit more money than that, it’s better to be in the room with a potential employer; the odds are much better that way.

I didn’t think too much about this when reading Nickel and dimed, but now I suspect that Ehrenreich was so much more pessimistic than Shepard about the possibility of living the American dream is that Ehrenreich selected for failure, while Shepard at least sort of selected for success. By not figuring out how to make things work for herself, Ehrenreich was surrounded by a bunch of other people who also couldn’t do it. That doesn’t mean that one can’t do it; rather, it means that she had no natural avenue to meet more successful people in similar situations. By finding the moving company, Shepard was able to meet people who were a bit more successful, in addition to being more successful himself.

Okay, perhaps Shepard was a bit lucky with the moving company, and if that hadn’t panned out, he wouldn’t have been any better off than Ehrenreich or the people she talks about in her book. I doubt it, though. I suspect he would have found something else though, for he was determined to make everything work out well, in a way that Ehrenreich was not. Perhaps she didn’t care too much if things didn’t work for her because her projects were short and she was able to return to her usual comfortable life after the experiment was over. I didn’t feel that way when reading her book, but who can tell what subconscious thoughts run through one’s head and play out in important ways? Shepard didn’t really have any other plan, so perhaps he had more invested in his success at this project.

I suspect that it is possible for most people in the American working class to achieve success and lift themselves out of poverty, but it requires quite a bit of effort.

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About Simon

Hi. I'm Simon Rubinstein-Salzedo. I'm a mathematics postdoc at Dartmouth College. I'm also a musician; I play piano and cello, and I also sometimes compose music and study musicology. I also like to play chess and write calligraphy. This blog is a catalogue of some of my thoughts. I write them down so that I understand them better. But sometimes other people find them interesting as well, so I happily share them with my small corner of the world.
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3 Responses to Book review: Scratch beginnings

  1. Joshua Zucker says:

    I wonder how much his college education (and the speech patterns of educated people) was necessary for a successful sales pitch to the moving company boss.

    To a lesser extent, I wonder about gender and skin color and so on.

    I think a lot of the poor may have obstacles Shepard didn’t face.

    • Simon says:

      It’s possible. Actually, I think it’s not so clear whether having a college education is helpful in such circumstances. Of course, one learns certain things that can come in handy, and it might promote a better work ethic (although, having said that, I’ve seen tons of college students with shockingly poor work ethics). On the other hand, people who have college educations are usually (although not always) sheltered from blue-collar life and may lack certain tricks about how to get by. Presumably, most middle-class people don’t know very many or even any working-class people and thus don’t have a database of success and failure stories to help them model their decisions. Okay, that’s not directly related to having a college education, but at least it’s strongly correlated.

      Sure, many of the poor have obstacles that Shepard didn’t. But he had at least a few obstacles of his own as well, ones not shared by them. In particular, suddenly shifting into a completely different lifestyle doesn’t seem to be completely straightfoward.

  2. Adam Shepard says:

    Thanks for the great review Simon!

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