I just finished reading Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America for the third time. In this book, the author chronicles three one-month stints working as one of the American poor. Her goal is to demonstrate that it's difficult to succeed as a waitress, or a maid, or a Wal-Mart employee.
This is a book that I wanted to like — I sympathize with the author's motives — but what could have been an interesting project (and an interesting book) is instead a bizarre Marxist screed about class warfare. Ehrenreich enters her experiment with the end in mind — failure — and she seems to do everything she can to make this end come to fruition.
Nickel and Dimed could have been so much more. I wanted to hear about the people Ehrenreich worked with, wanted to hear their backgrounds and stories and dreams, but very little of that comes through in the book. Instead, we learn about all the little ways in which Ehrenreich sabotages any chance at success.
Though Nickel and Dimed has its fans, I'm not the only one who thinks Ehrenreich's approach was flawed. A young man named Adam Shepard recently published a book called Scratch Beginnings: Me, $25, and the Search for the American Dream that chronicles his own time spent living and working the low-wage lifestyle.
Shepard — who is the first to admit that he has advantages that many of the working poor do not — started from scratch in Charleston, South Carolina, with $25 and the clothes on his back. He lived in a homeless shelter while looking for work. His goal was to start with nothing and, within a year, work hard enough to save $2500, buy a car, and to live in a furnished apartment.
It wasn't easy, but Shepard succeeded. In ten months, he had his car, he had his furnished apartment, and he hadn't just saved $2500 — he'd saved twice that. Was he lucky? Did he get good breaks because he's a young white male? Probably. But I think much of his success also came from setting goals and working toward them.
In this two-minute video, Shepard describes his aims:
Last Friday, two Get Rich Slowly readers sent me a Christian Science Monitor story about Adam Shepard. Intrigued, I contacted him, and he agreed to be interviewed by e-mail.
An interview with Adam Shepard
Tell us about your day-to-day life. How did you live? How did you pay for what you had? What financial sacrifices were you forced to make?
That was the greatest challenge for me. I was getting paid peanuts, but I want to keep as many of those peanuts in my pocket as possible. In the [homeless shelter], it was easy, because I didn't have rent or a hefty food bill (breakfast and dinner were provided at the shelter). Once I moved out of the shelter, though, was when I really had to buckle down.