Has Class Trumped Race? Part 3.5 – An Aside

by Racialicious Special Correspondent Latoya Peterson

The blog SavvySugar recently posted about a college grad who did an experiment to prove the American Dream – he voluntarily went into “poverty” to see how quickly he could climb out.

Adam Shepard’s experience has – naturally – netted him a book deal. ABC summarizes:

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.

The effort, he says, was inspired after reading “Nickel and Dimed,” in which author Barbara Ehrenreich takes on a series of low-paying jobs. Unlike Ms. Ehrenreich, who chronicled the difficulty of advancing beyond the ranks of the working poor, Shepard found he was able to successfully climb out of his self-imposed poverty.

He tells his story in “Scratch Beginnings: Me, $25, and the Search for the American Dream.” The book, he says, is a testament to what ordinary Americans can achieve.

Fascinating. I mean, everyone loves an American Dream story, don’t they? The interviewer from ABC News was excellent, asking really targeted questions about the validity of the experiment and how Shepard came to the conclusions he outlines in the book. By directly asking about privilege and his upbringing, the interviewer tries to shed some light into the thought process of this young man.

Shepard’s answers to the interviewer’s questions are interesting, to say the least.

Becoming a mover and living in a homeless shelter – that hadn’t been part of your life before. How much did your lifestyle actually change?

Shepard: It changed dramatically. There were simple luxuries that I didn’t afford myself. I had to make sacrifices to achieve the goals that I set out. One of those was eating out. I didn’t have a cellphone. Especially in this day and age, that was a dramatic change for me…. I was getting by on chicken and Rice-A-Roni dinner and was happy. That’s what I learned … we lived [simply], but still we were happy.

[...]

Do you need a college education?

I don’t think so. To be honest with you, I think I was disadvantaged, because my thinking was inside of a box. I have the way that I lived [in North Carolina] – and to enter into this totally new world and acclimate to a different lifestyle, that was the challenge for me.

Still, there was that safety net. Were you ever tempted to tap your past work, education, or family networks?

I was never tempted. I had a credit card in my back pocket in case of an emergency. The rule was if I used the credit card then, “The project’s over, I’m going home.”

[...]

Would your project have changed if you’d had child-care payments or been required to report to a probation officer? Wouldn’t that have made it much harder?

The question isn’t whether I would have been able to succeed. I think it’s the attitude that I take in: “I’ve got child care. I’ve got a probation officer. I’ve got all these bills. Now what am I going to do? Am I going to continue to go out to eat and put rims on my Cadillac? Or am I going to make some things happen in my life…?” One guy, who arrived [at the shelter] on a Tuesday had been hit by a car on [the previous] Friday by a drunk driver. He was in a wheelchair. He was totally out of it. He was at the shelter. And I said, “Dude, your life is completely changed.” And he said, “Yeah, you’re right, but I’m getting the heck out of here.” Then there was this other guy who could walk and everything was good in his life, but he was just kind of bumming around, begging on the street corner. To see the attitudes along the way, that is what my story is about.

Now, on one hand, we can understand what Shepard is trying to get at in the book. Social mobility is possible in this country with hard work and determination. To Shepard, he was able to apply himself and lift himself out of poverty – a simple function of implementing and executing a plan.

However, Shepard’s analysis is flawed for many reasons. One of which is that he does not take into account any of his privileges which may have worked in his favor. Being an able bodied male – and being considered for the more lucrative, quick cash turn around day labor jobs – is one of them.

The second is that Shepard is able to enter a form of poverty that isn’t real. It’s poverty without the baggage – knowing you have a warm home to return to, good credit, and a college degree in the event that you can’t hack it on the lowest levels of society. As a person newly out of poverty and into the middle class, he just doesn’t have the baggage I carry. Most notably, he doesn’t have that fear that comes with being poor and knowing how close you are to being on the street. That fear is what drives me – and that fear manifests in the form paralysis to many of those who I knew that did not make it out of poverty. Being free of the emotional baggage of poverty is an amazing thing. I hope to be free of it myself someday.

Finally, the comparison to Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickled and Dimed rings a bit hollow to me. Ehrenreich took on a number of jobs in a few different areas and provided her own experiences and the experiences of the other workers. She accurately documents the fear that comes from being in poverty and the financial constraints that leave people trapped into a certain position. I will go and check out Scratch Beginnings whenever my library obtains a copy, but it appears that Shepard set out to quickly throw down roots and eke out an existence – he was not concerned with what most people want, which is a quality life of their own choosing.

I am currently working on the last part of the Race and Class series, but in the meantime, what do you think of Shepard’s experiment? Do you think he would have been able to do this so easily if he was a different race or gender?