Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Book Review: Scratch Beginnings

While reading a review about Nickel and Dimed I learned that Adam Shepard, a college grad had responded to Ehrenreich's book with his own case study: Trying to make the American Dream happen with only $25 in a randomly chosen city. Starting his journey with a promise that he won't use his contacts, Shepard heads to Charleston, South Carolina. After one year he will be successful if he has a car, a furnished apartment, and $2500 in savings.

A few important approaches Shepard takes in contrast to Ehrenreich: Openness to take advantage of a homeless shelter (not to mention the ease with which he got in), thus putting more money aside for savings. Decent access to public transportation, while Ehrenreich kept her car. Shepard also thinks strategically when contemplating sharing an apartment with another roommate while Ehrenreich never seriously considers this option.

On the one hand I generally agree with Shepard on one point: People should take responsibility for their lives. Be ready to help themselves [Putting aside people with mental illnesses or physical impairments that prohibit them from functioning well on their own day to day.]

On the other hand, I'm well aware of the advantages and supportive backgrounds both Shepard and I have. It's not possible to hide a college education or 12 years of education regardless of saying you will. Significantly Shepard mentions at one point that he had people supporting him throughout his childhood through his early 20s. This likely had an immense positive influence on him that if a person doesn't get as a child, he doesn't get it. And of course, as a single male, a white male who's healthy, possibilities are typically easier, and Shepard admits in part to this. His argument remains that he's still proof that anyone in the US can make it because he did and that hopefully his characteristics (health, race) won't detract from his message. 

Yet if his situation was different (if he had a child, lacked a GED, was a minority) he would be at a disadvantage even as simply as in regards to finding work. Shepard grossly underestimated his advantages. What he does do though, is acknowledge and recommend ways US social systems (i.e. education) should provide support for people of less fortunate backgrounds.

Despite my critiques, I would recommend this book because I enjoyed reading Shepard's journey. His project took strength. I recognize Scratched Beginnings as a book that would be more easily accessible to people in their mid twenties from privileged backgrounds. 


Shep said...

Hey Anatolia,

Definitely a fair review (although I wouldn't call my background privileged). Thank you for taking the time to read my book. :)


oregonamy1972 said...

I will be seeking this book out...I liked "Nickeled and Dimed." I think it is very easy to not see our privileges. When we are faced with difficult turning points how you react is so much based on your life experience. Coming from a home where I was loved and cared for, physically and emotionally, has made me easily accept my worth as a human. Would I have that same ability had a lived a hand to mouth existence, or an existence where my parents were struggling with their own demons? Probably not.

Shep said...

oregonamy, I would say that 90% of the lessons I've learned in life have come from situations where I was the underdog, facing adversity. Some people learn lessons regardless of their existence and some people learn lessons because of it. What I mean is that someone who is coddled along the way (privileged, as you say) is at more of a disadvantage than someone who is left to fend for themselves. (I'll take my Street Smarts over my Book Smarts, but maybe that's just me.)

No matter what socioeconomic background we come from, this is America. And living in America comes with one advantage that some other countries don't have: choice. We choose our futures.

oregonamy1972 said...

I also meant to add that our societal bent seems to see monetary privilege as the only type of privilege that is real. If we aren't born with a trust fund and silver spoon, we're not privileged.

Anatolia said...

(I didn't have the opportunity to approve the last two comments when they were posted so they were OKed at the same time. Sorry about that.)

Thanks for visiting and taking the time to comment Adam. :)

I agree with what you're saying Amy. I try to keep that in mind when I'm working with clients -- it's not always easy.

Adam, re: my definition of privileged, I meant it not in terms of wealth but having support and love of people around you. In this regard, it sounded like that was your experience (based on your book).

While there may be more room to "pursue happiness" as it were in the US it's not that cut and dry. A trait as simple as race means your choices are much more or less plentiful. Studies show that a white person would more likely be chosen for a job than a black person though even if they're credentials are the same. This is just one small example.

Putting that aside, many American children (and I'm not saying they're only minorities) lack proper education, nurturing homes, access to health care, etc. Gap between wealthy and poor is quite significant and with it immense differences in opportunities. To truly be a place where there's choice there needs to be similar footing for people to start from and that isn't the case yet.