Sunday, November 14, 2010

On "Scratch Beginnings" by Adam Shepard ****

Intrigued by an NPR interview a year or two ago, I placed this book on my list as something I had to read. I've read quite a few books about poverty in the past few years; I'm not sure what has drawn me to the subject. Perhaps, it has been the economic downturn; perhaps, I have a lingering interest in the welfare reform law that passed under Clinton.

This is the third book about someone choosing to live among the poor that I've read. The first was Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed, to which Shepard's book is at least partly a rebuttal. The second was Jack London's People of the Abyss. Shepard's work was different from both of those, chiefly because he had a plan, a goal. He wasn't going to just live like the poor and among them. He was going to work his way out of poverty. His was also different in that he didn't give you the feeling that he had a back-up (sure, he could have gone scraping back to his parents, but he didn't--as London did--have a rented room he could go back to when tired or needing to write out some notes). This was his life for close to a year.

Shepard starts out moving to a new town where he knows no one. All he has is a sleeping bag, twenty-five dollars, and the clothes on his back. He shows up in town late at night, after the homeless shelters are closed. Not much of a plan, considering; a few years ago, trying to help out a homeless guy here in town, I came to understand that shelters close pretty early in the evening--you better be lined up there well before sundown much of the year if you want a spot. Lucky for Shepard, a police officer finds him on the street and forces him inside. Not all shelters are so forgiving.

The shelter is where he lives for the next six to eight weeks. The shelter is where he looks for a job. In the midst of this, he works quite a few day-labor jobs and usually makes less than minimum wage for his time (after taxes and "fees" from employers). But without rent to pay, he is able to put away money. He also manages finally to get a regular position as a mover. He manages to do so by giving the potential employer a lecture on how hard he works, by playing cocky. It's not something that would come natural to me, and though I suspect maybe it would help get a few dates, I doubt I'd ever be gutsy enough to use it in either situation. As one who himself occasionally has to hire, I have come to be pretty unmoved by such speeches: I usually have so many people vying for a position that how hard they say they work is hardly enough of a motivating factor for me to hire. If I have only one position, I can't hire a person--and certainly not an extra person--just because he or she gives an impressive speech.

Watching Shepard move from the homeless shelter into a rented room and then into a shared duplex, watching him buy a car, watching him save money--it's impressive. It makes me a bit sad and frustrated that I don't manage to save as much money as he manages to do on a much smaller salary; by no means am I a free spender, so why I don't manage to save more, I'm not sure (though lately, it's been economic troubles of others that have been my downfall--and an inability to downgrade my own lifestyle--which has only made me more anxious about my own state [it's much easier to start out at a lower standard of living than to downgrade back to it]).

What Shepard has reminded me is of how important it is to set goals. It's the goal setting and the drive to achieve that goal that leads in many ways to Shepard's success. There is not a lot of stumbling around feeling sorry for himself or feeling angry that no one has handed him a better life. He's going to make the better life for himself. And he does.

On the whole, Shepard's book, to me, seems a keen rebuttal to Ehrenreich's book, which I found too simplistic in its proposed solutions and a bit ridiculous in some of its complaints. A higher "living" minimum wage (I know this from experience, having been one of those employees who got to experience a raise in minimum wage and thus a raise in my wage) is not really the full solution that some want it to be (higher wages means higher prices, which often puts people at the minimum back where they started). Not having time to make a real meal between multiple job is a problem, but with prebaked bread and with peanut butter and the like, one can make do without resorting to eating out, and being so tired one doesn't feel like cooking is just part of working two jobs. Likewise, having to compete against other employees for management jobs with higher wages is simply how things work. Shepard's solutions, in his closing, seem a bit more practical, which are largely about giving people more opportunities.

But of course, they aren't and never could be a complete solution. There's a certain amount of luck involved with any move away from poverty. The thing that gets me a bit about the book is the way that Shepard's project--and all these projects really--and some of his writing seem a bit condescending. We who are better off descend among those who aren't and show what's wrong with the poor or with the system created to help the poor. If Ehrenreich or London, we live by our higher expectations and get angry that, when living in these poorer conditions, we no longer are able to sustain those qualities of life. If Shepard, we think more positively about our personal ability to surmount the obstacles to a better life amid our surroundings, but we talk of how even though a person isn't special he or she can still make a difference. I cringed when he handed such a note to a bus driver. Who's to say the bus driver isn't special? Some have jobs that come with more fame or power or prestige, but that doesn't make the people who hold them any more special. In the end, we're all just people.

I'm also a little curious as to how Shepard's project would work now, amid the more dire economic conditions, when a lot of those days jobs--often in construction--he worked early on no longer exist. Could one still wander out of a homeless shelter to a day-labor employer virtually every day of the week? Is the system that worked so well for Shepard now broken? Shepard himself sees some of the troubles in trying to extend his experience to all: Guatemalans have fewer opportunities in their own poorer country than we do in our rich one; parents with two children to support or an old man with chronic back problems can't be as flexible about working and living conditions and saving as a young single guy. But Shepard's point is also well taken--that attitude, planning, and drive can make a whole lot of difference no matter what the situation. Maintaining that attitude and drive, for many beaten down by circumstance, however, can be an issue. And when those good traits aren't taught early on or aren't maintained amid overwhelming trouble, circumstances then often become a self-fulfilling spiral.

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