This story is about a college graduate who decided to “start from scratch” to test the American dream. Fed up with his peer group’s “bad attitudes,” he decides that he can prove that desire and motivation can overcome poverty:
Here’s my premise:
I am going to start almost literally from scratch with one 8’ x 10’ tarp, a sleeping bag, an empty gym bag, $25, and the clothes on my back. Via train, I will be dropped at a random place somewhere in the southeastern United States that is not in my home state of North Carolina. I have 365 days to become free of the realities of homelessness and become a “regular” member of society. After one year, for my project to be considered successful, I have to possess an operable automobile, live in a furnished apartment (alone or with a roommate), have $2,500 in cash, and, most importantly, I have to be in a position in which I can continue to improve my circumstances by either going to school or starting my own business.
Sounds good, right? Up from homelessness in a year or less.
Only Shepard didn’t start “from scratch.” Here’s what he had:
- A tarp
- A sleeping bag
- A gym bag
- A full set of clothes
And let’s not forget the intangibles:
- Good health
- College education
- Secure middle-class background
- White privilege
So he claims that he didn’t use his education to his benefit. But he couldn’t set it aside, could he? What about his privilege? Remember the study that found black men with no criminal records were less likely to be hired than white men with criminal convictions? What about the study that found having a “black” name was harmful?
There’s a scene in the book where he threatens an employer who treats him shabbily. He has no fear that he will be arrested because he expects the police to take the word of a good-looking white man. Yet we’re supposed to believe that truly underprivileged people are supposed to follow his example.
And even the tiny things are privilege. His clothes were undoubtedly clean and without holes, rips or tears, allowing him to present a better image.
Additionally health was to be a huge advantage for him. He was an ex-college athlete and well-nourished, with no physical problems mentioned. Would he undertake such an experiment were he diabetic? What about if he had some other kind of chronic ailment? If you want a very graphic demonstration of one way the homeless suffer, go to a shelter and ask some of its residents to take off their shoes and socks. Shepard doesn’t know about this. On his way to his experiment, his brother dropped him off at the train station. Then he took a bus to the homeless shelter.
I think that many homeless people would have been happy to start “from scratch.” But the problem often is that they don’t start at zero. They start below zero and have to climb from there.
Shepard also notes that he carried a credit card for emergencies. To me this suggests that on some deeper level he knows that there are some situations you can’t escape by dint of hard work or good attitude. Because he was able to bail at any time. In reality, he probably didn’t even need that credit card. One call to his mom or dad would have sufficed. Such is social capital.
He talks about delaying gratification as if it’s a new concept that he’s invented. But the reality is that many, many poor people have been delaying gratification for a long time, and not just by choosing not to buy those fancy rims (the author’s example). Some poor adults delay their gratification by giving their food to their kids. And they lie and tell their kids they ate already.
Some poor adults make really good choices. But those choices aren’t necessarily rewarded. Neither is fate a kind mistress. Some poor adults are getting by, saving money, delaying gratification, holding off on buying those fancy rims for their 20-year-old car, and then they find somebody in their family has a life-threatening illness. The savings are gone after the first hospital visit.
I know these things to be true. But nobody would consider these stories to be a daring adventure and a hopeful promise for the future.
I read this crap so you don’t have to.™ But no need to take my word for it if you’re a glutton for punishment.
Make poverty the fault of lazy victims, and it’s easier to be a little less humane. The ironic thing is that this book and its author will undoubtedly be used by people who want to cut social services and force other people pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Forgetting that the author didn’t earn his own boots, and that he saved the money he did on the charity of an organization that fed and sheltered him. From groups that supported the soup kitchens. From the people who gave him clothing and rides. And those resources were used by a privileged college graduate.
And the food that he ate was taken from another’s mouth.