Playing at poverty

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
  • $25
  • 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.

21 thoughts on “Playing at poverty

  1. Sounds like this guy will be “good enough” to date in about A YEAR!
    Thanks for the post. I know it wasn’t meant to be funny :-)

  2. *clap*clap*clap*clap*

    When Barbara Ehrenreich did her similar undercover journalist deal, she had a decent start up fund (I think $1000?) and a cheap car, so more than this guy started with. Even with that, it was very difficult for her, and she stated strongly in the book that she had huge advantages over her fellow workers simply in having a lifetime of health and dental care behind her, the benefit of her education,and not having children to support.

  3. Yeah and all Ehrenreich wanted to prove was what she already knew, that you can’t live on minimum wage without a net. Her experiment was about experiencing and then eliciting some compassion for the poor, not proving that compassion misguided. This guy was an amateur compared to her. I don’t have to torture myself with the reading to know that, especially if he set out trying to prove that you live for a year in a college aged body without any extra amenities. Heck I did that at environmental centers and camps and didn’t consider it any big feat. I bet he had no dental problems either. I’d like to see him do this when he is 50 and get back to us.

  4. I saw part of the interview with him on the Today show yesterday — whoever was interviewing him did try to point out the fact that he indeed took many things with him at the begining including his education and privilege but he generally refused to acknowledge that those as well as his white privilege (which I dont’ think was mentioned) influenced his ability to get along in the world.

    I was frankly horrified that he was holding himself out as an example of how all people can start from scratch and make it.

    It reminded me of a lecture my roommate and I went to in college, she wanted to start her own business and it was on a woman who “made it” from scratch. Only the first sentence was after her father gave her $20,000 she did all the things she did to make her business successful.

  5. From

    —Urban and suburban high school students are equally likely to have had sexual intercourse, with suburban students having had sex at an earlier age, on average;

    —Suburban students are more likely to have commitment-free sex, and there are no real urban/suburban differences in rates of contracting sexually transmitted diseases, or rates of pregnancy or abortion;

    —Suburban students are more likely to smoke cigarettes regularly and drink alcohol, and they tend to start drinking younger than their urban peers.

    —The two groups are equally likely to use drugs, roughly equally likely to have been alcohol or drug-impaired at school, and suburban students are more likely to drive drunk;

    —There are no substantial differences between urban and suburban students in terms of whether they have been in a fight, shoplifted goods, or damaged property; and finally,

    —Suburban students are slightly more likely to sell drugs than their urban counterparts, and there are no major differences between urban and suburban students in terms of bringing a weapon to school, mostly because so few of either group ever do so.

    Now, which group is making more unwise choices that reflect bad attitudes and which group is suffering more from poverty?

  6. I think you made a very crucial point….so many people start at BELOW having zero. It angers me when someone assumes that because they can “make it” everyone should be able to also.

    Regarding the cost of medical care for the uninsured…..I remember hearing a stat that this was either the biggest (or maybe second) cause of bankruptcy in the US.

  7. This chump’s stunt is a joke and an insult, with its ridiculously vain thesis, “Anyone could make it out of poverty — if you were as cool as me!”

    Society’s institutions of power — banks, police, schools, landlords, government offices, healthcare facilities, placement agencies, employers, etc — are already structured to accommodate this guy’s conditioned behaviors and facilitate his journey. There are so many profound, persistent, external factors beyond simply plucking credit card boy away from his cell phone; the fact that these structures are invisible to the dude, while he centers his winning inner mental/emotional state, is a glaring example of white male normativity and ignorance of others.

    Now, I know lots of people who have beat the odds and built successful lives from humble beginnings, but this “experiment” sheds no light on the challenges and difficulties such people face and overcome. This is simply a shallow exercise in self-congratulation, victim-blaming, and denial.

  8. Pingback: A shallow exercise in self-congratulation, victim-blaming, and denial at Hoyden About Town

  9. Also, this guy had

    * MALE privilege. I can only imagine that being homeless and female must be “a bit” harder.

    * no addictions

    * mental health

    In short, a deluded moron who bought in to the idea that the “American Dream” is a perfect system. I’m ashamed he belongs to my generation.

  10. I agree wholeheartedly. I also find voluntary “freegans” fit into this category. Reducing personal comsumption is good, but when they eat acceptable food from dumpsters instead of leaving it for or taking it to less fortunate people I think they cross the line.

  11. As one who has lived most all of my life with no safety net, and as a former throwaway street child who has overcome homelssness and never oversome poverty, i ahve some piquant 9is that the right word)observations.

    first, this fellow had the inner knowledge that he was not doomed for life but that at any time he could pack it in and return to comfort. there is no substitution for the absolutely huge gap between that and inescapable (unless a miracle happens) poverty.

    secondly, having a suppot system that can resue him at any time, and is already solvent, successful, and numbering among society’s winners, makes him invulnerable to the despair occasioned by those who are hopeless, many fo whom have also been beat down in etrms of their life hopes and expectations because of the kind of violence emotional physical and sexual that obejtifies one into learned helplessness.
    ther is a reason the 1 out of 2 foster children ends up in jail. it is not genetics, but the oppoertunities to survive (albeit never to prevail) that crime offers compared to starvation.
    i think that the whole premise is similar to the premise that children of gated communities who have been playdated and had every aspect fo rhtier life supervised without risk can readily really understand what it takes to live life on the high wire…or on the street.
    things have gotten so very much more difficult from when i cam up. now women andgirl and boy children tsell themselves, objectification from sexual abuse is rampant and is followed by a life time of acting out or exploitation or victimization…

    anyway this is certainly an interesting and important discussion.
    i would say. that those who take the risk to be honest and accountable on their jobs and stand up to corruption, and advocate for their clients and the general public without sellig out to the social darwinism in the marketplace;that those folks have authentic survivor stories (if they survive the truth telling) that would make really important and valuable social outcomes worth reading about…

  12. Thanks for this. I read the financial blogosphere a lot because I didn’t get good financial ed growing up and I have a lot of catching up to do at 34. But they’ve been all over this story like it “proves” something and it really makes me angry. I’m not a person of color but I am still a thirtysomething woman with a child and I know damn well I’ve got somewhat of a deck stacked against me. It is pretty messed up when the quickest way out of one’s predicament is to marry a guy who has a clear track record of treating his partners like garbage. (I won’t.) Whereas your standard healthy twentysomething childless guy can just go to Labor Ready.

  13. Panracial: And that’s nothing on what rural students get up to. The rural people look at city folks and shake their heads in wonder, all the time you look in the paper at the police blotter report and see drug bust… drug bust… drug bust. Mostly meth and pot. Rural kids get bored. Bored kids get up to trouble. But it’s the cities that are a hotbed of crime. No, one just notices it more because they’re not *your* kids and they’re living closer together.

  14. I know somebody mentioned it before, but I just wanted to add in that mental health plays a huge part in this guys privileged stance. Our healthcare system is so broken when it comes to this aspect that anyone without the safety net of insurance who suffers from ANY mental disease has the deck stacked against them as well. And there are more of us than anyone knows, considering the stigmas attached to even dealing with the problem when you do have the resources.

  15. Oh, I would love to see this guy try to do what he did with a kid, or several kids, or taking care of a relative’s kids as many people in poverty do. Or if he were a woman and had gotten pregnant and had to pay for prenatal care and deal with trying to find a job THEN. What a stupid asswipe.

  16. What a clueless moron. In addition to white privilege, he has male privilege too. From what I understand, for homeless women, it’s not a matter of if one gets assaulted, but when.

    I’d say more, but the band Pulp has it covered:


    She came from Greece, she had a thirst for knowledge
    She studied sculpture at Saint Martin’s College
    That’s where I caught her eye
    She told me that her Dad was loaded
    I said “In that case I’ll have rum and coca-cola”
    She said “fine”
    And then in 30 seconds time she said

    “I want to live like common people
    I want to do whatever common people do
    I want to sleep with common people
    I want to sleep with common people like you”
    Well what else could I do?
    I said “I’ll see what I can do”

    I took her to a supermarket
    I don’t know why
    but I had to start it somewhere
    so it started there
    I said “pretend you’ve got no money”
    but she just laughed
    and said “oh you’re so funny”
    I said “Yeah
    Well I can’t see anyone else smiling in here
    Are you sure

    you want to live like common people
    you want to see whatever common people see
    you want to sleep with common people
    you want to sleep with common people like me?”
    But she didn’t understand
    she just smiled and held my hand

    Rent a flat above a shop
    Cut your hair and get a job
    Smoke some fags and play some pool
    Pretend you never went to school
    But still you’ll never get it right
    ‘cos when you’re laid in bed at night
    watching roaches climb the wall
    if you called your dad he could stop it all

    You’ll never live like common people
    You’ll never do whatever common people do
    You’ll never fail like common people
    You’ll never watch your life slide out of view
    and then dance and drink and screw
    because there’s nothing else to do

    Sing along with the common people
    Sing along and it might just get you through
    Laugh along with the common people
    Laugh along although they’re laughing at you
    and the stupid things that you do
    because you think that poor is cool

    Like a dog lying in a corner
    they will bite you and never warn you
    Look out
    they’ll tear your insides out
    ‘cos everybody hates a tourist
    especially one who thinks
    it’s all such a laugh
    yeah and the chip stain’s grease
    will come out in the bath

    You will never understand
    how it feels to live your life
    with no meaning or control
    and with nowhere else to go
    You are amazed that they exist
    and they burn so bright
    whilst you can only wonder why

    Rent a flat above a shop
    Cut your hair and get a job
    Smoke some fags and play some pool
    Pretend you never went to school
    But still you’ll never get it right
    ’cause when you’re laid in bed at night
    watching roaches climb the wall
    if you called your dad he could stop it all

    You’ll never live like common people
    You’ll never do whatever common people do
    You’ll never fail like common people
    You’ll never watch your life slide out of view
    and then dance and drink and screw
    ‘because there’s nothing else to do
    I want to live with common people like you…..

  17. Olivia (post number 14) I don’t understand your comparison of this guy with freegans.
    Freegans eat food with a stigma attached to it. I think a lot of people would be very insulted if they were offered food from a dumpster on the understanding that the person who had got it out of the dumpster thought they were too privileged to eat it themselves.
    I don’t understand how their waste-not-want- not behaviour compares to this guy’s purblind attempt at a moral lesson.

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