Scratch Beginnings by Adam Shepard

America, where a young man can raise himself up from poverty with only the sweat on his back and the smarts in his noggin!

No, I haven’t read Adam Shepard’s Scratch Beginnings, but blogger Frugal Dad has, and his article is an interesting review and view of hauling yourself up by your bootstraps by spending only on survival.

What got my attention were the comments that followed Frugal Dad’s review, which is angled more toward the spending aspects (his blog is about frugality) than the sociological aspects. But that’s covered starting with comment #5, and that’s where gender politicking strikes, and strikes hard. I tend to agree with IRG at #8, and Pamela at #10.

A huge motivation for Shepard’s self-imposed poverty was Barbara Ehrenrich’s Nickled and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America. After he “graduated from college in the summer of 2006 feeling disillusioned by the apathy he saw around him and incensed after reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s famous works Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch—books that gave him a feeling of hopelessness over the state of the working class in America. Eager to see if he could make something out of nothing, he set out to prove wrong Ehrenreich’s theory that those who start at the bottom stay at the bottom, and to see if the American Dream can still be a reality.” (from the Amazon page describing Scratch Beginnings)

It worked for him, as a young, college educated white kid in Charleston, SC, where he stayed for the duration of his experiment. It didn’t work so well for Ehrenrich, who moved from city to city, presumably to get a more global view of the working poor.

Have any of you read either or both of these books? What do you all think?


  1. Fraser says

    I have read Nickel and Dimed and I find the criticism on Frugal Dad missed the point: Why didn’t she try day labor? Why didn’t she work more than a 40-hour week? Why didn’t she take three jobs? Why didn’t she room with someone else? Why didn’t she relocate to places with better job?
    The point was to find out if she could sustain herself on her own working a 40-hour minimum-wage job (IIRC). That’s not an unreasonable test (and I’d say that if it takes working three jobs to survive, that does indicate a problem in the system).
    And it’s not that easy to just up and move, trust me.

  2. says

    I read Nickeled and Dimed in college, and it radically changed the way I viewed the “working poor” class. As a white, cis, currently-abled, upper-middle-class woman, I grew up sheltered from a lot of class issues and what poverty really meant. Also my dad’s a ginormous Republican – sexist, racist, classist in the extreme. He’s the kind of guy who shouts “Just get a job!” at transients and complains about the mythical “welfare queens”. And up until college, I’d had no reason to question that. Reading Erenreich’s book…hugely opened my eyes. “Just” getting a job and working hard isn’t enough to do it alone.

    And something occurs to me. This man was focusing on spending ONLY on absolute necessities. But how many people can do that? He could do it because he knew he was living an experiment, and it would be over at a certain time. It’s much easier to sacrifice all entertainment and little pleasures when you know it’ll be over soon. But living like that, day in and day out, as far as the eye can see? Not quite so easy.

    Also in comments, it made me grind my teeth to see people dismissing the author’s male/white/currently-abled privilege, particularly the commenter who said he “didn’t seem to use those” to get by. That’s the nature of privilege, dammit. That you don’t have to *deliberately* use it, it works for you without you ever noticing.

  3. says

    Also, young Adam up and quit his experiment when the going got tough – which is signally not an opportunity available to most of us who actually are working poor, not playing at being a milkmaid in Versailles.

    I guess it’s not quite as bad as Megan “Jane Galt” McArdle claiming that she now understands what it’s like to be a refugee after having to wait hours in line and have her credit checked to buy an iPhone, but still…

  4. says

    I’ve only read Nickeled and Dimed, but it’s awesome. Yes, it’s an experiment and not a real experience, but if nothing else, it provides some amazing descriptions of what’s actually required to do some of the jobs we are conditioned to assume a trained monkey could handle.

    This one made me grate my teeth: “Gender does not entitle a person to a higher level of privacy and security (that is, to a higher standard of living) than her income will support.”

    Gender DOES entitle men – who are far less likely to be victims of violent crime – the privilege of taking insecure apartments for cheaper than secured ones cost. Gender entitles men to work in parts of town where a woman will be called stupid if she takes a job and is victimized. Gender entitles men to a lot of money saving options that would, at least supposedly (and the society which conditions us to believe these things cannot then turn around and throw them in our faces), put women in harm’s way.

    The other commenters on FrugalDad that really bug me are the ones who talk about the bad choices poor people make. Ah, yes, if it was all just about the choices you make, then wouldn’t rich people who make the same damn choices also end up poor? Hmm, for some reason they don’t. Interesting.

    I have actually subsisted on jobs like the ones both authors talk about, and I did not have the option of just dumping the po’ lifestyle whenever I’d had enough. That lack of security does something to your mind that I doubt either author experienced. It’s a constant low-grade panic that does not radiate the most reassuring vibes to potential friends or employers. You tend to find yourself very isolated and alone, as if people are afraid your bad luck will rub off.

  5. Charles RB says

    I wonder how the experiment would’ve gone if he’d gotten really sick partway through, and had to rely on a poor person’s health insurance to get through?

    I bet the experiment would’ve been cut short.

  6. says

    Charles, as I understand it, someone else in his family got sick (his dad, maybe) and so he cut it short – which, again, not so impressed because yanno, no boss ever gives me (or any of my friends) money or breaks just because I have a family emergency – but I suspect he’d have stopped just as fast as if it had been him, or faster.

    –Jennifer, how heartless – I bet you don’t feel at all sorry for poor Jake DeSantis, either! Or all those smart guys at Enron, or the owner of Tyco, or the late Ken Lay, or the kool kids who crashed-and-burned their Kozmo (so what if they just Failed Upward? … class warfare, I tell you!)

  7. says

    How short did he cut his experiment, Bellatrys? I think his original plan was to do it for a year. After that, I have no idea what his plans were.

  8. Charles RB says

    I’ve got no problem with him quitting due to family illness – shit happens, after all – as long as he makes damn sure to note “I worked hard and saved frugally and family illness completely fucked everything up anyway“.

    I am amused he thinks having an education didn’t have any impact. Sorry mate, that does give you a leg up and specific mental training that comes in handy, that’s why you went there.

  9. EB says

    I’ve been meaning to read “Nickle and Dimed” but haven’t gotten a copy yet. It’s never available at my local library and I’ve yet to find it at a used bookstore. I’d’ve bought it new but being unemployed due to medical reasons, raising a child and unable to find work, it puts a damper on such things. I’m one of the fortunate ones in that I have family and friends who are able to help me while I try to come up with a viable solution to my situation.

    Both books sound interesting, but for different reasons and it seems they both missed an important point: both of the authors were single and only had to provide for themselves. Ms. Ehrenreich’s experiment strikes me as being far more in line with what a single parent has to do (except for the moving around) to try and provide for her or his children. I wonder how Mr. Shepard’s experiment would have gone had he assumed a child was in the picture.

    For example, I would not be living where I currently live, except I want my child in the best public school I can find. I want my child living in the safest environment I can manage. (And before anyone says anything, I based my safety evaluation on police calls to the area before I ever set eyes on the place. The information is available online here.) Once she goes to college (which will have to be on scholarships, grants and loans), I’ll then be free to move to cheaper accommodations. As long as I can manage here (and thank goodness for my better-off support network), I *have* to stay to help secure her future. It’s all I can offer at the moment, as much as it kills me every time I have to ask for help.

    As someone in one of the comment threads remarked, there’s an emotional component that it’s unlikely either author experienced: the low-level hum of panic and fear that keeps you awake at night and haunts you through the day. How many times did either one of them lock themselves in their apartment/room to avoid a management lockout because the rent was late (and then there are the resulting late fees that add up very quickly). Did either of them worry about having their lights turned off (or actually have their lights turned off?). Did either of them stop being able to buy prescription medications for chronic conditions because they couldn’t afford a doctor’s visit when the prescription ran out? How about the inability to buy school supplies because the money just wasn’t there? I’m lucky because my child gets gifts of clothing from both sides of her family. That’s been a huge boon.

    Both books seem to provide interesting views from different perspectives. I’d love to see someone try an experiment that more closely mimics the bulk of the working poor: families with minor children.

  10. Charles RB says

    From what people are saying about Ehrenreich’s experiment, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of those things HAD happened.

    The medicine thing might be hard to replicate though, as you’d need a chronic condition to start with (and how long could you advisably keep that experiment up?).

  11. says

    There was some rage expressed on Frugal Dad’s comment section about this healthy kid taking up very needed space in a shelter when he really didn’t “need” it, and using up resources for people who legitimately could have used it.

    Any responses to that?

  12. says

    Absolutely, I have a response to that. And that response is, they’re very, very right. He was doing an *experiment*. By definition, he did not actually *need* those services. And services such as soup kitchens and shelters are already chronically underfunded and limited in the number of people they can serve. Sadly, public assistance programs like that ARE usually a zero-sum game. So by his using the service, he denied some other person that service. He, who could have gone home to his credit cards and his stuff and his family’s homes, who was only doing this as an experiment, used up services intended to help people who don’t HAVE the kind of opt-out options he had. Talk about privilege and entitlement. The fury, it burns.

  13. EB says

    Don’t forget that he was also on food stamps, funds for which are also in short supply. One of the things he proved is that if you come from privilege, and have no one but yourself to take care of, you can manage. Maybe. If you’re not handicapped by the fear of what happens if you fail. Another thing he seems to have proved is that our safety net isn’t designed to help those truly in need, it’s only designed to aid those who need temporary help. If you have long term problems, you’re sunk.

  14. EB says

    Oh, and also. Mr. Shepard wasn’t suffering from the aftermath of whatever would normally send someone from his background into a shelter.

  15. says

    I know for our household, when money was tight (thank privilege this is not our situation anymore), we had long tough talks about whether we could afford Don’s meds. You know, those ones that would allow him to function, having a chronic pain condition. Even now, a significant amount of our income goes to Don’s health.

    But hey – I’m sure that this is totally something that was taken into account!


  16. says

    Actually, before I forget – Anyone here read “Pay the rent or feed the kids”? I think the author is Mel Hurtig. It’s a Canadian book on much the same line.

  17. Gloria says

    I did write a comparison of “Nickel and Dimed” and “Scratch Beginnings” on What people don’t realize is that Ehrenreich was probably around 60 when she did her experiment, and Shepard was around 22, 23. BIG difference. And when was the last time you hired a moving crew and saw it staffed with 60-year-old women. Fact is, there are some jobs you can get when you’re young that may pay more than jobs you get when you’re 50-60. I have a degree in English, yet decided to get my commercial driver’s license, because even though I’m good at writing (I’ve been writing professionally for 17 years) the local dailies will not hire me. So I decided to become a truck driver. Actually, a few mishaps and an illness messed me up and now I am a delivery driver for a large box store chain. I have to deliver heavy appliances and know that is not what I want to do for the rest of my life (I’m 42). I am making the most I’ve ever made in my life, but I’m still not making $15 an hour during my day job and will be teaching part-time at a community college to bring in some extra cash. That IS a good paying job (around $29 an hour) but it doesn’t offer benefits. The day job does, which is why I’m there, having had to address a medical condition I’ve had for at least the last two years, if not more. The world is definitely a different place for a young, white educated guy from an upper middle class family, as Shepard is.

  18. Ron F. says

    I do not believe that social mobility is impossible. It is very possible. But still the reality for most people in this country is that they will not escape the economic class into which they were born. For every hip hop artist from the ghetto who becomes a multi-millionaire, there are a thousand equally talented artists who will not escape the ghetto. For every poor immigrant family that arrives in this country and achieves success, there are a thousand families just as hard-working that do not achieve success. Much of social mobility has to do with education and work ethic, but even moreso luck and circumstances. Being in the right place at the right time to take advantage of an opportunity, if indeed an opportunity presents itself to you, has much to do with social mobility.

    I side more with Ehrenreich than with Shepard because she gets this and he does not. She understands the difference between situational poverty and generational poverty. She knows that she is only playing a game, but Shepard thinks his game is real. Shepard is an idealist and a dreamer who is not grounded in reality, which is due in large part to his youth and privileged background. Ehrenreich brings a journalistic integrity to her project, while Shepard has no journalistic integrity, and is not a gifted writer like Ehrenreich. Note that Ehrenreich refuses to lie to anyone, although she omits details about her privileged background. Shepard concocts outright lies to achieve his goals and to get a job, and is a dishonest human being. He lies to get into the shelter, thus displacing someone in genuine need. He lies to get the government to cover his rent, food and clothing expenses, and banks the money, rather than donate it back to the shelter. He lies to his friends about his made-up life. His work should not be compared to Ehrenreich, even though I disagree with her left-wing politics. Also Shepard is dishonest in thinking that he does not have a political viewpoint, which is decidedly conservative (and there is nothing wrong with that). I am neither liberal nor conservative, I am a realist. I do not walk through life with rosy-colored blinders on, as Shepard does. He is blind to the benefits of white privilege, youth, good looks, financial literacy, having an educated demeanor, physical and mental health, and having a proper upbringing in a supportive, nurturing environment with loving parents.

    It is false that you compare Ehrenreich’s project with Shepard’s project. She was not trying to do what he did. She only stayed one month at various menial jobs to highlight the plight of the working poor to stay afloat financially. She did not have the capitalist goals that Shepard has been indoctrinated to have. I also do not believe that Shepard’s goals are entirely healthy from a spiritual perspective. One cannot pull oneself up by the bootstraps when one does not have boots or straps. One does not need to share Shepard’s capitalistic views or Ehrenreich’s socialist views to be successful in life.

  19. Julie says

    Ron F., I’d like to point out that it was Shepard *himself* who said he used Ehrenreich’s project as an inspiration for own, and his goal was to *refute* her results.

    He’s the one who opened that door, not realizing what a barrel of worms was behind it.

  20. Patrick says

    My father, who is normally quite a sensible person, today had commented that one of the reasons poor people remain poor is because they buy $1500 flatscreen TVs.

    He also did the “because they don’t get an education” argument. I pointed out how many people drop out of school because they have to get jobs to support family due to illnesses and the like, and he responded “That doesn’t actually happen.”

    I think my subsequent yelling and cursing might have made an impression on him.

  21. Charles RB says

    How could someone believe people never drop out of school to support family with jobs? It’s known to happen, and it’s not a ludicrous suggestion even if you don’t know that.

  22. says

    Patrick, I didn’t know we were siblings! 😉

    Seriously, thank you for the yelling and cursing, because I personally know people who dropped out of high school or college, or lost promotions at work or stalled out their careers, to care for sick parents. It certainly does happen, and it’s a really challenging situation. You can’t put an ailing parent on your insurance plan at work or get dependent tax breaks for ’em, for instance. Unless they’re 65, no Medicare either.

    I also have known a LOT of poor people who are very frugal and would never consider paying for cable, let alone a fancy TV. Pray tell, how on earth do they remain poor?

  23. says

    How could someone believe people never drop out of school to support family with jobs? It’s known to happen, and it’s not a ludicrous suggestion even if you don’t know that.

    I don’t know, but it seems to me… well, you know how most children who get scared in their beds at night make up some ritual to fight the monsters? I.E., if I’m completely covered by my covers, they can’t get me – that sort of thing. I think some people just never stop. If they can’t fit a particular reality into their reality, they just make something up to wish it away.

    I’ve heard people explain that homelessness doesn’t really happen, that child abuse is all lies by selfish kids… it’s ugly stuff, because it always tends to fall on the most painful realities – for someone else, that is.

    Or maybe we should be talking about Douglas Adams’ “Somebody Else’s Problem” field. 😉

  24. Patrick says

    I discussed exactly this with my father once I got him to understand how absurd he was being.

    I definitely think that a lot of the motivation for blaming people for their own poverty is to convince ones’ self that “It can’t happen to me, because I won’t make those mistakes.”

    I remember reading somewhere that, in trials where a man is on trial for raping a woman, female jurors are statistically more likely than male jurors to buy into victim-blaming defenses. Same thing: “That is why it happened, and it won’t happen to me if I don’t do that” is a lot more comfortable than “There but for the the grace of X go I.”

  25. Charles RB says

    I’ve seen the same thing where right-wing Americans argued against healthcare reform and in favour of the existing US insurance system – lots of “they should take better care of themselves!” and “they could afford it REALLY!”. Magic words that’ll mean the problem will never happen to you.

  26. photondancer says

    I have not read Scratch Beginnings (haven’t even seen it) but it sounds naive, to put it charitably. I found Nickeled and Dimed depressing. It wasn’t just the shifts she had to resort to to scrape by on such low wages, it was the fact that she felt the need to write the book at all. That there are people out there who don’t believe these things when the poor say them, but will when a comfortably-off journalist says them.

    Gender DOES entitle men � who are far less likely to be victims of violent crime

    That's interesting: it's the other way round in Australia. See . As far as I can tell at a quick look this remains true even if you add sexual assault to assault, unfortunately their figures for this are incomplete.

  27. says

    That’s interesting: it’s the other way round in Australia

    My understanding with these studies in the US is: they ignore unreported crime. When people try to revise the numbers with a realistic estimate to include unreported domestic abuse and sexual assault, it changes things considerably. Unfortunately, I’m not finding a link and therefore can’t say with confidence that my stat was correct (or that there even IS a truly comprehensive reliable stat available – I’m not finding any I’m impressed with just now).

    What I should’ve said was: I never hear about someone breaking into a man’s unsecure apartment and raping and/or killing him, but we do hear these stories almost regularly about women in the L.A. area. That makes me feel like I need to live in a secured apartment, while guys I know are content to live in unsecure buildings that cost up to several hundred a month less.

    And the other issue, of course, is that if a woman is raped or killed, everyone looks for what she did wrong: why was she in that part of town? Why didn’t she live in a better building? If it happens to a man, no one looks to blame him.

    Not your fault on the tagging, Photondancer – the XHTML thing is actually lying. I’ve fixed your post and will fix the instructions. Sorry!

  28. Julie says

    Jenn, I don’t know if you heard of these cases of male-on-male rape in Texas, but they made a splash in the news a few years back: here’s one case–

    This might have been the same guy who broke into the apartments of several lighter-weight men and raped them in their homes/apartments. So it DOES happen. The statistic at the end of the article is interesting. I think there are MANY more male-on-male rapes than were officially reported (duh) in that article. The reaction of the 17 year old rape victim was interesting, but not surprising.

    I apologize if this is derailing. Your point is true enough; but I think guys pooh-pooh the situatin more than they should.

  29. says

    (The thread is old – let’s let it derail a bit, since this is a great topic for the site in general.)

    That was very interesting to read – I’ve never heard of anything like that, and would be curious to know what the odds really are of a man being stranger-raped like that. If this particular crime is something no one in law enforcement can recall ever having happened before, then I don’t agree that guys “pooh-pooh the situation more than they should” because the statistical likelihood of this happening to anyone else would be so low.

    The victim’s reaction is *fascinating* because it’s the reaction of someone who has no cultural script for what’s just happened to him. Nothing from the news, from horror movies, from even urban legends has ever suggested to him something like that could happen. He lives in a world where women are raped all the time, and he knows it, and women are expected to consider “Will I get raped if I do this?” when making all sorts of decisions, and the very possibility is so far from his mind that he didn’t have an immediate reaction.

    But I do believe male rape happens more than men admit or report (or even recognize as such).

    Well… men finding out what the constant low-grade terrorism of sexual assault is like is not the form I was hoping to see equality take. But if crime keeps up the way it’s trending, that may very well be what happens.


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