Sunday, November 16, 2008

What does hope look like for America's poor?

Throughout the last election, one of the recurring themes of both candidates was a concern for America's poor.  We heard countless stories told by either candidate about real people who were struggling to get (or keep) a foothold in the ongoing race to pay the bills, own a home, and generally get on with the kind of life most of us take for granted.

In recent years, the conversation within the church has turned toward a greater focus on helping the poor that are all around us.  Rightly so, the church brings the words of Jesus to bear on the comfortable, the selfish, and those who make an idol out of riches and security.

Along these same lines, I recently ran across a provocative question:  is the American dream still alive?  Can someone who is poor go from nothing to a comfortable living by the old American virtues of hard work, determination, and discipline?  I have to admit that when I was posed the question, I didn't have a ready answer.  The culture around us seems to be telling us that the American dream is no longer true--and perhaps it never was.  A sobering thought for those of us who care at all.

But how does one actually begin to find out the answer to the question?  Certainly not by listening to our culture or breathing in the sensationalism of our media.  Then how?

What if somebody just plain tried it?  Take an ordinary person, give them $25 and a backpack.  In one year, can they work themselves up to an apartment, a car, and a steady job?

This guy did just that.  And then he wrote a book about it.  Let me be clear--I haven't actually read it, only surfed around it and flipping through it.  But you can't beat the back cover copy:

Adam Shepard graduated from college in the summer of 2006 feeling disillusioned by the apathy he saw around him and incensed after reading Barbara Ehrenreich's famous works Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch—books that gave him a feeling of hopelessness over the state of the working class in America. Eager to see if he could make something out of nothing, he set out to prove wrong Ehrenreich's theory that those who start at the bottom stay at the bottom, and to see if the American Dream can still be a reality.

Shepard's plan was simple. Carrying only a sleeping bag, the clothes on his back, and $25 in cash, and restricted from using previous contacts or relying on his college education, he set out for a randomly selected city with one objective: work his way out of homelessness and into a life that would give him the opportunity for success. His goal was to have, after one year, $2,500, a working automobile, and a furnished apartment.

But from the start, things didn't go as smoothly as Shepard had planned. Working his way up from a Charleston, South Carolina homeless shelter proved to be more difficult than he anticipated, with pressure to take low-paying, exploitive jobs from labor companies, and a job market that didn't respond with enthusiasm to homeless applicants. Shepard even began donating plasma to make fast cash. To his surprise, he found himself depending most on fellow shelter residents for inspiration and advice.

Earnest, passionate, and hard to put down, Scratch Beginnings is a story that will not only inspire readers, but will also remind them that success can come to anyone who is willing to work hard—and that America is still one of the most hopeful and inspiring countries in the world.

I have to buy this book just because the guy deserves the money for trying it.  What about you?  Do you think this is just propaganda?  Do you think the American dream is dead?  Alive?  Just a myth?  What do you think is truly the hope of the poor?


Big Mike Lewis said...

This is a premise I have thought to be true. If this guy truly did it, and I will have to read it to know, then my opinion would be confirmed: this is the best country in the world and anyone can become something great with hard work.

That or he wrote a fiction story in order to get to his goal of not being homeless by selling books. Wouldn't that be funny if that's how it ended?

Anonymous said...

Jason...great post and thanks for pointing people to this book (hmmm, another good read to add to this year's list...).

I'm probably to cynical to say that the "American Dream" really ever existed, but your post is asking great questions and I think points to the reality that there simply are tons of opportunities in this country.

peace bro.