Chasing the American Dream with $25

How’s this for a crazy idea: a guy moves to a randomly selected city with $25 and plans to have a place to live, a car, and $2,500 in the bank—all within one year. Adam Shepard performed this exact feat and then wrote a book about it, titled Scratch Beginnings. According to Shepard, his experience proves that the American dream can come true.

In college, Shepard read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, which argues that only government intervention can rescue the working poor from what Ehrenreich portrays as a desperate plight. Shepard doubted her thesis and wanted to test it. So after graduating, he went to Charleston, South Carolina, with a sleeping bag, a change of clothes, $25, and a made-up tale of woe. He spent the first two months in a homeless shelter while he worked as a day laborer. He later found a permanent position with a moving company, which gave him a stable income. This allowed Shepard to buy a (very) used pickup truck, rent and furnish an apartment with a coworker, and start saving.

During this time, he was on a strict budget, buying clothes at Goodwill and lunching on peanut butter crackers and Vienna sausages. After ten months, he left Charleston due to an illness in his family. By that point, he had saved over $5,000. Along the way, he had met dozens of marginal citizens whose lives he found relentlessly fascinating.

Self-published earlier this year, Scratch Beginnings quickly climbed the charts on Amazon.com. Besides being a compelling story, it is a breezy read. Shepard excels at scene setting and description. Even readers who have never sweated through a Southern summer will feel the perspiration when he writes about manual outdoor labor in July. He also does a superb job of capturing regional accents and patois.

Shepard is an eternal optimist. But just when you worry that his tone is getting too Pollyannaish, he relates a sobering anecdote, such as the time a friend succumbed to the lure of drugs or the time Shepard broke his toe during a move and lost valuable work time. There’s also wry humor. Describing his neighbors, he writes that they are “Wal-Mart employees, welders, electricians, landscapers, people with their own car-detailing businesses—lots of people with their own car-detailing businesses.”

Scratch Beginnings is a book with an agenda: to disprove Ehrenreich’s argument about endemic poverty. In a recent interview, Shepard explained the differences between his approach and Ehrenreich’s: “She wrote about how tough and depressing poverty is. Really? Tough and depressing? Of course it is! I wanted to believe that there were people living in these tumultuous circumstances who weren’t living the life of cyclical misery that Ehrenreich was writing about,” he said. “The economics side of Ehrenreich’s story didn’t make sense to me from the beginning and she never proved her point. To me, anyway. She lived in a hotel, ate out, didn’t look for ways to really save money.”

In short, “She postured to fail, and she did. I postured to succeed, and I did.”

Critics have dismissed Shepard’s claims by pointing to the fact that he enjoyed an array of government services, from food stamps to bus rides to homeless services. But everyone Shepard encountered at the shelter and in the bad neighborhood he later lived in was already using the same services. It wasn’t the public services that lifted Shepard out of destitution—it was his own initiative. Indeed, if spending money on government services were the best way to cure poverty, it would no longer be a problem.

As the book shows, overcoming a harsh economic situation is really all about culture. Someone born and raised in a culture of dependency, failure, and dereliction will find it much more difficult to lift himself out of poverty than Shepard did. To be sure, Shepard denied himself his connections, his college degree, and his credit history when he went to Charleston. But he could not deny himself the behavioral and cultural instincts instilled throughout his life. Those instincts are what carried him through to success.

Meanwhile, the lack of those instincts hurt many of the people around him. Shepard offers repeated examples of friends who were paralyzed by their own destructive behavior. For example, his roommate, BG, was a half-hearted worker who would “borrow” Shepard’s car for hours at a time and then lie about where he was going. Rather than saving money, he would spend his earnings on booze, women, lottery tickets, and fast food. As Shepard left Charleston, he worried about BG: “Fifty dollars at a time, he had nearly emptied the account he had been keeping with [his brother] and was back to squeaking by, paycheck to paycheck.”

Ultimately, Shepard came away with the realization that “we are the product of our surroundings—our families, our peers, and our environment.” Fortunately, there is hope for those truly devoted to self-improvement. Of his main coworker, Derrick Hale, Shepard writes: “I knew that Derrick’s future was bright. I didn’t have to see his beautiful house or his whopping bank account to know that. He had that killer instinct, the hardworking aura emitting from him that showed that he was ready to meet, head-on, any challenge that stood in his way.”

When Shepard last sees Hale, they are at a housewarming party. Hale, who once spent two years in prison, had turned his life around, stayed faithful to his wife and daughter, worked hard, saved his money, bought a home, and tapped into the American dream. As his story shows, the United States offers far more to the working poor than mere nickels and dimes.

This review of Scratch Beginnings: Me, $25, and the Search for the American Dream, by Adam Shepard, was originally published on American.com on April 3, 2008

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