Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Anti-Ehrenreich

My college, like quite a few, once chose Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America as a common text that all freshmen were required to read. The author tries to find out the lot of poor women in the US by living like one for a year. She gets several very low-wage jobs waiting tables, working in a nursing home, etc. She finds she must get two jobs to survive, that most aspects of a decent life are unattainable, that she must (in the words of the Amazon description) suffer “the humiliation of a urine test” (which professional athletes, truck drivers, law enforcement personnel and both civilians working for the military and military personnel themselves routinely undergo despite the “humiliation” contained therein).

In 2004 our faculty and staff were electronically discussing the campaign, and the plight of the poor – whether they are doomed to their fate by American social rigidity or whether they can become successful by making intelligent choices – came up. Someone invoked Nickel and Dimed as evidence for the cruel-America hypothesis, and a staff member replied that it is not clear whether Ms Ehrenreich ever tried to better herself, by seeking to get promoted, for example, or whether she went out of her way to go to the most miserable jobs she could find..

Now, a book has come out in which a person conducts the same experiment with much different results. It is by Adam Shepherd, and is called Scratch Beginnings: Me, $25, and the Search for the American Dream. Here is some description from The Christian Science Monitor:
Alone on a dark gritty street, Adam Shepard searched for a homeless shelter. He had a gym bag, $25, and little else. A former college athlete with a bachelor's degree, Mr. Shepard had left a comfortable life with supportive parents in Raleigh, N.C. Now he was an outsider on the wrong side of the tracks in Charles¬ton, S.C.

But Shepard's descent into poverty in the summer of 2006 was no accident. Shortly after graduating from Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass., he intentionally left his parents' home to test the vivacity of the American Dream. His goal: to have a furnished apartment, a car, and $2,500 in savings within a year.

To make his quest even more challenging, he decided not to use any of his previous contacts or mention his education.

During his first 70 days in Charleston, Shepard lived in a shelter and received food stamps. He also made new friends, finding work as a day laborer, which led to a steady job with a moving company.

Ten months into the experiment, he decided to quit after learning of an illness in his family. But by then he had moved into an apartment, bought a pickup truck, and had saved close to $5,000.

Mr. Shepherd to be sure had advantages, but he strictly refused to use the ones Ms Ehrenreich and her acolytes might assume are the most important ones, the material advantages. Instead, he traded on his cultural advantages: an ability to postpone gratification, to plan for the future, to aggressively seek help from others, who are often glad to provide it.

To be fair, Mr. Shepherd did initially rely on food stamps (although he got off them quickly), and a poor person living a life rather than an experiment does not have the choice to end the experiment to cope with a family illness (although such a person might have options that Mr. Shepherd didn't, e.g. other family living nearby). It would’ve been an equally interesting experiment to rely entirely on private charity, although I’m not sure that that kind of libertarianism was what he wanted to test. But his experiment certainly provides at least modest evidence for a proposition reinforced by the data on poverty (a poor American now lives as well as a middle-class American in 1970) and by the huge wave of truly poor people pouring into this country from elsewhere, eager to take advantage of the incredible opportunities it offers. This proposition is best summed up in a remark I once saw from an immigrant cab driver in a newspaper article in New York: this is a country where it rains money; all you have to do is build a basket.

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