Is The American Dream Still Possible?

by Katy on May 14, 2013 · 51 comments

Scratch Beginnings

I just finished reading Scratch Beginnings: Me, $25 and the Search for the American Dream by Adam Shepard. In this book, the young author chronicles a year spent in Charleston, South Carolina as he rises from life in a homeless shelter to a comfortable existence with $5000 in savings, a functional car and a furnished apartment.

Shepard’s foray into immersion journalism was prompted by Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On Not Getting By in America, writing that:

“My story is a rebuttal to Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch, the books that speak on the death of the American Dream. With investigative projects of her own, Ehrenreich attempted to establish that working stiffs are doomed to live in the same disgraceful conditions forever. I resent that theory, and my story is a search is a search to evaluate if hard work and discipline provide any payoff whatsoever or if they are, as Ehrenreich suggests, futile pursuits.”

And although I really enjoyed Ehrenreich’s classic investigation into America’s low wage workers, I too had problems with it. I remember wondering why she never pursued group housing options (she always lived alone) or why she never bought a thrift shop slow cooker to prepare her own meals from dried beans. (I recall that she ate at Arby’s a lot.)

Shepard was laser focused on meeting his self-set goals, and was smart about pursuing paying work, keeping expenses down and working hard even when that work was wholly unpleasant. (Think picking up dog poop during a hot South Carolina summer afternoon.) And while American policy makers comfortably debate the theoretical issues of poverty, Adam Shepard took the pragmatic approach and put himself, body and soul into his investigation.

Opposite spectrum politicians want you to believe that America’s poor are doomed because they’re set up to fail, or conversely  that America’s poor are that way because they’re not working hard enough. Of course, the answer is never so black and white. The answer lies left of center for some and right for others. There is no single answer. Not to mention the issues of layoffs, medical bills, divorce and life’s other unexpected goodies. And yes, Shepard is a healthy young white man, but that doesn’t mean that his experiment can or should be discounted.

Shepard was able to go from homeless with $25 to housed with $5000 in savings within the span of a single year. And he also writes about a fellow co-worker who at age 25 was able to buy a brand new house employing the same techniques of consistent hard work and sacrifice. He’s showing how the American Dream is still possible. It’s not easy, but it is attainable.

This is the kind of book that I love, that swirls around in my head after I read the very last word, challenging my assumptions.

I am curious to hear from others who have read this book, (it was published in 2008) or from those who also read Nickel and Dimed and felt that Ehrenreich went in with a defeatist mindset.

Do you think that hard work and sacrifice can still lead to success in life or do you feel that the decks are irreversibly stacked against America’s working poor? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Katy Wolk-Stanley

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

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{ 51 comments… read them below or add one }

Dian May 14, 2013 at 10:46 am

It all depends…if you are educated, have available resources for help and know how to access them, etc….plus a college education (even though he says he didn’t use it), it’s a lot different than someone who is uneducated, lacks access to resources and lives in poverty. After Hurricane Katrina, I was unemployed, homeless, with only a backpack, a granddaughter, a dog and my vehicle to my name. I was technically poor and yet…I had family members to live with, a post college degree, and access to resources. I spent a full year getting back on my feet and still live very close to the bone, but am not poor.

So yes and no….I think the decks are still stacked against some and always will be, unfortunately.

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Heidi S May 14, 2013 at 11:32 am

I also lost a lot in Hurricane Katrina. I came to Oregon with three outfits, my laptop, my car, and my grandmother with dementia. I was “poor” before Katrina and still am, but I am grateful for my family and college degree as you said, which very likely kept me from becoming homeless.

I’ll definitely read this book though. If he was able to save $5,000 in one year, I should have been able to do this in the nearly 8 years I’ve been in Oregon. I have a new goal to work on!

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Lindsey May 14, 2013 at 10:52 am

I think that some people can acheive the American dream the old fashioned way, but I believe that an overwhelming majority of the working poor do have the cards stacked against them. For one thing, a person has to make up their mind to WANT to work hard and scrimp and save, and most working poor I’ve met don’t have that mindset. Another issue I’ve seen is the working poor do not have the skills to make the American Dream happen. They may be plauged with health care issues, poor money management skills, or poor time management & planning skills.

Basically, if someone is down on their luck, they can make the American Dream happen. But if they were raised in the working poor cycle, very few will rise up and acheive their American Dream.

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bella May 14, 2013 at 11:31 am

I am sorry I have got to be a bit naughty! If he (the man on the cover) came to my door asking if he could do some odd jobs.. I would fling that door open! 😉

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Reese May 14, 2013 at 12:36 pm

I laughed so hard I nearly choked on my coffee. Thanks for this. I had a similar brief thought 😉

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Pippi May 14, 2013 at 2:21 pm

LOL, but it’s a valid point. He is a young, hot, white male. It is so much easier for him to ‘make it’ in today’s world than for others. I also think his American dream is different than the one most people refer to. Education is important, but so is age, looks, race and gender – even today. After having said all that, I still think it is possible for one to achieve their own personal idea of the American dream – it will just be a much harder road for some.

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Carla May 14, 2013 at 5:01 pm

*Choke* ROTFL!! Wish I’d read that without food in my mouth! Haha!!

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dusty May 15, 2013 at 3:32 am

I agree, I think I have a couple of bucks he can have, he’d have to work for it of course!!

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Annie May 14, 2013 at 11:33 am

I haven’t read Scratch Beginnings, but did read Nickel and Dimed. While she did allude to building the American Dream life, I don’t think Ehrenreich was really trying to show anything more than how life is for the working poor day to day. It showed me why so many of them get discouraged and find it really frustrating and difficult to try to do more with their lives. I disagree that she went in with a defeatist attitude, I think she developed one quickly because it’s easy to do so in that situation.
Shepard shows it’s not impossible to reach those kinds of goals, but a large portion of the working poor have many additional cards stacked against them. Many are in poor health due to the inability to afford good health care, are raising families, and have to work several jobs just to make ends meet because one minimum wage job is not sufficient. That also limits the time one has for furthering an education. They may also have language barriers if they are recent immigrants and that can make hunting for better jobs more difficult.
Thanks for today’s entry, Katy. I’m adding Shepard’s book to my “must read right away” list. I’m really curious to see his point of view, and I hope it inspires me as well.

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Katy May 14, 2013 at 11:42 am

I agree that Ehrenreich was trying to shine a light on poverty rather than show how it can be beaten. However, I still wanted her to find co-housing and be somewhat creative against her financial barriers.

Katy

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Heather September 5, 2015 at 12:49 pm

Just a thought, but cohousing can be a disaster with the wrong people. You can end up paying their rent, having them steal from you, having a bad relationship with them. Some poor may not have access to sane, reasonable roommates willing to share a home with them.

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Linda M May 14, 2013 at 11:43 am

I just returned Adam’s book to the library today..what a good read! And I read Barbara’s book a few years ago. I could see the value of both….but sure liked Adam’s determination and outcome much better. I believe he saw the glass as half full and intended to take advantage of it. I was once told that if your glass isn’t half full, perhaps you need to get a smaller glass. I have held onto that thought when it comes to addressing challenges. There are always obstacles….there are always opportunities….but some of those require lots of work and sacrifice to come to fruition. I sure liked Adam’s results better.

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Jessie : Improved May 14, 2013 at 11:47 am

The fact of the matter is, the biggest indicator of your success in life is still the socio-economic position of your parents. Sure, working hard is usually the only way to get ahead, but it doesn’t GUARANTEE you’ll get ahead.

I also hate to be the one to point out the fact that the kid on the cover of that book is an attractive Caucasian male, and therefore probably has one of the easiest paths available in this image obsessed country of ours.

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Katy May 14, 2013 at 1:13 pm

Yes, he’s white, but that does not negate his message.

Katy

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Jessie : Improved May 14, 2013 at 4:49 pm

I never meant to imply his message was not valid. I agree with you, it is certainly not black and white. We need everyone’s stories to find a better path.

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wonderseeker May 26, 2013 at 4:58 am

It doesn’t negate his message, sure, but we have to allow that this book doesn’t speak to institutional discrimination the way that it might if it were by a person of color (or specifically, I’d say, a black man–who is often seen by default as a potential criminal than someone down on his luck).

I am, in general, skeptical of these social experiments of poverty that lack the formative context.

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Lindsey May 15, 2013 at 1:08 pm

My parents were immigrants, no education, yet one of their three kids has an M.A. and the other two Ph.D.s Overall, I think alot of American poor and American kids are plain lazy. My parents each worked two jobs until they could buy a house, then they got a duplex and we lived on one side and renters lived on the other. We had a huge garden, some on our plot and another on a neighbor’s yard where he got a cut of the produce for letting us use the land. We wore used clothes, lived on scavenged furniture until my parents slowly, slowly bought piece after piece of new furniture. We kids were expected to earn As for scholarships, and to work on weekend; 25% of our earnings went into a family fund to pay for things we would all be using around the house. My father and mother were not attractive nor were they white, yet when my father died he left an estate of nearly a half a million dollars. If you can’t make it in this country, something is wrong with you.

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Mary May 14, 2013 at 12:01 pm

I have read neither of these books, but am definitely interested in reading them. From what I have read about the U.S. economic situation (“Broke USA,” and “The Two-Income Trap” in particular), I would say that the deck is quite hopelessly stacked against the working poor.

And, as a recent college grad (2009), I also personally feel embittered about the supposed attainability of the American Dream.

My husband and I both worked hard in college and graduated with our bachelor degrees, high GPA’s, and glowing reccomendations from professors. . . .and no jobs. I eventually found work as a nanny. My husband put in literally hundreds of applications to any and every job, those in his field and not. He worked full-time as a waiter in a chain resturaunt for the first full year of our daughter’s life. It was only in the past seven months that he finally found a “real” job, and despite the underwhelming salary, we thank God everyday for it.

We did everything right, everything that we had been told growing up would guarantee us success. And yeah, not so much. There is not a doubt in my mind that the only thing standing between us and utter financial ruin was the fact that we didn’t have any consumer debt and the spectacular good health of our family. I cannot bear to ponder the financial hole we would be in if one of us had become seriously ill, or been injured.

The idea that simply working hard will inevitably lead you to the American dream is an old fashioned one. In today’s economic environment, the problem isn’t the lack of a willingness to work hard, but rather the shortage of opportunities to do so. It is beyond frustrating.

And all of this…my husband and I are from the middle class–I cannot imagine the how much more difficult it must be for someone coming from a working poor background.

Sorry for the incredibly long rant–this post touched on some raw emotions. I will definitely be getting both books from the library though, and look forward particularly to reading Shepard’s perspective!

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Katy May 14, 2013 at 1:11 pm

Shepard found that simply filling out applications did nothing towards getting him a job. It wasn’t until he followed the advice of a fellow homeless shelter resident to be more proactive that he was able to find work. He went to the owner of a moving company and gave a long speech about how he was the strongest and hardest working person out there, and that he’d work a day for free to prove himself. Both Shepard and the employer knew he was bluffing, but he liked the initiative enough to give him a chance.

I liked this, as those who passively apply for jobs will have a hard time finding employment in any economic situation.

When I was applying for jobs in the 1980’s and 1990’s and always took the time to send a thank you note that included a little extra information about me as a prospective employee. I rarely didn’t get the elusive second interview. And they always told me that the thank you note made me stand out.

Katy

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Mary May 15, 2013 at 6:46 am

We definitely did more than passively submitting applications–there were lots and lots of cold calls, stopping by offices to check the status of applications, requesting meetings with the bosses, …hitting “submit” on the application was the easy part!

I do like your suggestion about the thank-you notes, though. Particularly since the once routine thank-you note seems to be dying out. I love that one!

The big problem with the idea that if you work hard enough you can achieve the Dream (which for us was simply having healthy insurance and a reliable source of income!) is the implication that if you are in a less than ideal circumstances, you just aren’t trying and are, in fact, lazy.

I do believe in working hard and being creative. My husband and I kept ourselves afloat financially and emotionally by never considering any job too demeaning, going without little luxuries (yep, l consider roach-free housing and and canned beans to be luxuries), and re-defining what our”Dream” was (a steady income! health insurance!).

But we were very privileged–because we were white, well-educated, and middle-class, I knew that as long as we kept at it long enough our break would eventually come. These are not reassurances that the disadvantaged can rely on. Therein lies the real danger in the myth of the “American Dream”–attaching yet another stigma to already stigmatized peoples.

Do I believe that hard work can lead to success? Absolutely! But I do think that it is one of many inter-working socio-economic factors, many of which are much more difficult to control.

Anyways, I’ve been lurking on your site for about 18 months. I love your thoughtfully-written discussion posts and your quirky tips for saving money! Keep it coming!

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Katy May 15, 2013 at 7:35 am

I am so sorry if I implied that your husband was being passive in his job search, that was not my intention. And I hope anyone who has been reading my blog over the past five years knows that I do not consider low income people to be lazy.

I have written extensively about the difficulties of poverty, as well as issues of judgment. For example, here:

http://thenonconsumeradvocate.com/2011/07/july-food-stamp-challenge-day-seven-judgement-day/

So funny that you write about canned beans being a luxury. I love my new (to me) pressure cooker, and lately consider bulk-purchased beans to be a luxury! 🙂

Katy

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Linda in Mass May 15, 2013 at 10:48 am

I really want to read this book. I did read Nickeled and Dimed. I think people still can live the American Dream. We still hear about people who come to the US without learning the language and within 5 years are millionaires, speaking the language and they have their own companies? Why can these people do that? It has something to do with their outlook, personality, willingness to do anything to get their dreams. Maybe I have rose colored glasses, but I still think we can do it…if we are willing to do what it takes.

I am in direct sales and have been successful in my field. Why, because I do not let the “no’s” stop me. I continue to plug on and look for the people who say “yes”. Too many people take “no” and just stop. I just look for the yes. I think that is the problem with the majority of people. They want the “old” America where you work a job and get paid. If you really want to make it big, you need to stand out and do something differently.

My sister is a writer and got a lot of rejection letters for years (10+ years). She kept at it. Enter e-publishing…now she is making a lot of money selling her books online. She just stayed with in and got through the no’s and found a way.

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Sharon May 14, 2013 at 12:56 pm

My husband did exactly the same thing. He decided staying on a dairy farm in S. Dakota was his father’s dream was not the life he wanted and set out at 19 with $200 in his pocket for WA state because he had become interested in coming here after seeing pictures of trees and mountains. He worked on a farm along the way for housing and a little cash for a month when his cash was depleting from the cost of gas & feeding himself and when he arrived here stayed a very short time with a distant relative, then stayed anywhere he could find. He took all the temp, service sector and odd jobs he could do until he was able to get hired on as full time manufacturing labor about 6 months later. He brought along reliable transportation but his challenge was to finally get and support a very cheap furnished apartment the first 6 months. After that he was able save, and ending up with his goal of affording college classes as well as supporting himself. I didn’t know him until 4 years later and definitely more comfortable but I would say a very strong work ethic, willing to do anything to stay afloat, plus the ability to save and live very minimally was his success and I’m sure the same with the book author. I live with proof it can be done but I think the difference then compared to now is the current economic times. There aren’t the jobs available. It was easy for my husband to find all sorts of work and more easily to eventually find full time work with a living wage and benefits.

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Kailey May 14, 2013 at 1:13 pm

A past boyfriend of mine was Polish and his parents were immigrants. They showed up with nothing and their education wasn’t relevant here plus the language barrier and existing prejudice. Both of them worked and worked at odds jobs and slowly moved from apartment to apartment until they ended up in a beautiful 4 bedroom corner lot in a rich suburb of Toronto. They got their North American Dream. Both of them still work almost non-stop at non-glamourous and menial paying jobs but they would say “if I pick up this job, this pays for gas this week” “If I pick up this weekend shift it will pay for groceries.” They make everything from scratch, work hard but literally have zero down time, they never sleep in, never nap, RARELY watch TV. They have to keep the jobs to keep the dream……so is it still ‘the dream’?
It takes a huge sacrifice, huge amount of time, and maybe even a revamping of what ‘the dream’ is. Is it JUST having a house, furniture, savings and food no matter the method or is it having all those things but having them easily?

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Katy May 14, 2013 at 1:22 pm

We all have different dreams. I would rather have thrifted and curbside furniture in order to have quality of life. But then again, I have nothing to prove. My sister’s Ukranian mother-in-law says “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”

It has to do with having experienced poverty of a kind that is unfathomable to most Americans.

Katy

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Kailey May 14, 2013 at 1:32 pm

I realized I shouldn’t have said they have to keep the jobs to keep the dream. I don’t know that they need ALL of them, or any for that matter.
Yeah listening to their stories from ‘the old country’ always blew my mind and then to look around and see what they were able to build for themselves (against the odds) was inspiring.
This was a very thought provoking post, I’m definitely interested in reading the book now.

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Katy May 14, 2013 at 1:43 pm

Please do read it. I think I’ll do another post in a month or so after everyone’s had a chance to read the book.

Katy

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anexactinglife May 14, 2013 at 2:22 pm

I read Nickled and Dimed too. I felt that the author was trying to put herself in the shoes of the working poor and do the typical things that she observed them doing, rather than trying to use her superior education and skills to “best” them at it and show them a way out of poverty. I will read the Shepard book too. I wonder how a young woman would have fared – a lot more sexism and personal safety worries, I bet – and less access to higher paying physical labour/construction work.

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greenstrivings May 14, 2013 at 7:28 pm

I can’t recall if Tracie MacMillan’s “The American Way of Eating” has been discussed on here; probably it has. I’m thinking now of the parts where she describes living on minimum wage, or less, in different areas of the country, and what her experiences as a 30-ish woman were working in the fields, in a Walmart, and at a chain restaurant. Of course she chose to work in those particular low-paying industries to show what the human cost of the food we eat is, but it does speak to your point about women’s experiences being quite different from men’s.

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AFS May 14, 2013 at 2:33 pm

I live a sheltered life. My eyes were opened by Nickeled & Dimed. I too saw lots ways the author could have lived more frugally. I’m going to put Scratch Beginnings on hold at the library.

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AnnW May 14, 2013 at 3:09 pm

To achieve the American Dream you have to know how to do something. You have to have skills, a little more than the ability to work hard. It is a mindset. You have to know how to sacrifice, or delay gratification. It IS possible. People do it every day.

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cathy May 14, 2013 at 3:36 pm

Inspired to read both Ehrenreich’s and Shepard’s books. I put them on hold with the library, though it took a search with both the City Library system and the County system to get both.
I’ve only been truly poor a couple of times in my life, and both for fairly short periods. I’d say that an education is a huge asset, though not for everyone. Sometimes what is most advantageous is being pragmatic. I’m always amazed at things to do to earn or save money that I think are no-brainers that plenty of other people never even think of. So, if you don’t know how to go about getting benefits/services for the best price, it’s probably really hard to move ahead.

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Katy May 14, 2013 at 3:49 pm

Being a doer instead of a thinker has certainly helped me though some rough times.

Katy

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cathy May 14, 2013 at 4:07 pm

You may think of yourself as a “doer” but your nursing degree says you’re also a “thinker.” I used to work at a non-profit and I was always surprised at how many people had no knowledge of even the most basic (free) services available to them. I suspect that even if you didn’t know what services were out there, you’d think of a way to research it!

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Katy May 14, 2013 at 4:57 pm

I did learn that qualifying for free and reduced price school lunches meant that full-day kindergarten would be free. This was when my husband was in school full-time, and the $255/month (?) savings made a huge difference for us. And since the language immersion programs are mandatory full day, we had to do it.

Katy

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Lisa May 14, 2013 at 5:02 pm

Katy,
This post is very timely for me. I work at two low paying jobs, one 19 hours and one 15 hours a week, was a stay at home mom for 15 years, am divorced now, with little secondary education (some classes at a junior college) and just last week lost my child support and alimony because of a stupid choice on my ex’s part. Started looking for something more right away, but not very much available in this rural part of No. CA that I am in. Luckily I work in a library so will be ILLing this book!!

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Barb May 14, 2013 at 9:40 pm

It’s late and I have not read all the other comments. Having been a single mom on the border of that place (there but for the grace of god a friend and some food stamps), I’ll say that for many people the deck is stacked. This young man is white, educated and from a stable family (while he may not have used his degree to get a job, he has all that college experience). He has no dependents relying on him. Even in todays society he was willing to do things that many women cannot safely do. He has the health and skills learned from a lifetime.

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Jo@simplybeingmum May 15, 2013 at 12:07 am

Being a Brit, the American Dream isn’t something I was exposed to as I grew into an adult. But the principle of hard-work and making the most of opportunities was most certainly key facets of my work ethic. The book by Shephard sounds really interesting! On the book list it goes!

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Diana B May 15, 2013 at 1:50 am

I picked up Nickel and Dimed a few years ago at a yard sale (of course!) and was very moved by it. As an upper-middle class white woman, it really helped me understand the poor and what it’s like to work at places like Walmart, making minimum wage. I agree with the posters above–that it must have helped this guy to be young, healthy, single, good looking and college-educated but it’s still helpful to understand that the American Dream is still alive and kicking.

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Jessica May 15, 2013 at 4:13 am

My problem is with the central premise behind both books – the idea in which the author spends a year doing ‘x’. It is MUCH easier to have a “laser focus” on a goal when in the back of your head you know that suceed or fail, you get to go back to your old comfortable life. He says that he did not use his degree but at any point in his life he CAN and there lies the huge difference. It is easier to see an end goal or big picture when that goal is easily attained through other means.

That said I will counter that the ‘American Dream’ was created in the later half of the 20th century and more of a blip than a tried and true notion. It did not exist for most people before and will not exist for most people in the future. I study history and am always astounded that people seem to see the last forty to fifty years as a kind of tradition. Anyone looking critically at history will recognize the extraordinary result of two world wars that wiped out any competition for the US through no extra special effort other than the fact we border two oceans (thus making us a geographically difficult target).

Please realize that we are all living in the best of times and that nothing good lasts forever.

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Mary May 15, 2013 at 6:04 am

Nickel and Dimed was eye-opening – it shows how difficult it is for a person being paid below a living wage. I haven’t read Scratch Beginnings but I do think it’s imposible not to use your college education. Even if you don’t need the degree for your job you’re still using your skills and critical thinking.

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Kailey May 15, 2013 at 7:35 am

I don’t want to negate his message but I do agree with you on the notion of it being unlikley that his degree didn’t come into play at all. You mentioned the skills and critical thinking but also being well spoken and articulate. He probably sounded knowledgeable, trustworthy and “a good investment” to prospective employers which I’m sure helped.
That being said (and not having read the book yet) I think his message can still hold true for many.

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Jen B May 15, 2013 at 3:11 pm

I did read both books. I suggest a third book, Poor Economics: A Radical Way of Rethinking Global Poverty by Abjhit Banerjee & Esther Duflo. There is also a free MIT class online with this as the text. The book focuses on global poverty but does talk about the US as well, and it had some intriguing things to say based on research about why people are poor. Incidentally, the thing that most interested me about Shepard’s book was his description of life in the mission. I realized how much my local mission is a blessing to the people living there and my community, and I thought all city missions were run like it is. Apparently not so. (I am a volunteer nurse there).

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Denise May 15, 2013 at 4:45 pm

I read “someplace” that success depends on 3 factors: family background, IQ, and the ability to delay gratification. A severe deficit in one can be overcome by the surplus of the other two. So, going off that theory, if one is to overcome a deficient family background, both a decent IQ and a strong ability to delay gratification must exist. On the other hand, with a decent family background and a strong IQ, one doesn’t have to have such a strong will. I’ve liked that idea, the idea of the triangle to success, and I wonder what (if any) role public policy has in strengthening any of those three sides of the triangle.

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alex May 16, 2013 at 1:07 pm

Seems to me like there are a lot of minorities saying that the American Dream is very close to impossible, and then a white male publishes a book saying No it’s not! Well, of course that’s going to be a completely different story. It seems like he’s just really trying to ignore and negate the stories of so many minorities who did it right but can’t get anywhere, by just indirectly saying they did it wrong, ignoring the fact that a white male is going to have a lot more opportunities just because of his race and gender. We have to admit there’s a problem before we can fix anything, and a bunch of white men saying they did it fine, which is what keeps happening, isn’t going to help anyone.

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Katy May 16, 2013 at 2:50 pm

I recommend you read the book, as the author was not oblivious to these issues.

Katy

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Marci May 16, 2013 at 5:21 pm

I think these books are important reads for everyone, especially those people who are not really the “working poor.” I know many people with decent jobs who own their homes, have the disposable income to have hobbies and shop for all kinds of new and disposable stuff. And yet, they are always miserable griping about what they still don’t have and how someone else has more. These books are a bit of a reality check for how the definition of success has been distorted by many people who don’t know how fortunate they are and forget that many other people, even in their own communities are struggling for life’s basic necessities.

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Alice May 17, 2013 at 12:28 pm

My answer to your question is ‘yes.’ It’s absolutely possible for individuals to achieve a version of the American Dream, but under our current system, it’s absolutely impossible for everyone in poverty to do so.

I appreciated that Shepard’s book really showed what it’s like to succeed via hard work (and some luck). But I wish he’d been willing to include more information to put his story into context – more than a brief disclaimer about his privilege. I also really liked Ehrenreich’s way of showing how day-to-day life in a lot of ‘typical’ low-wage jobs for women makes success nearly impossible. But I wish she’d explored some possible solutions as well.

Great post – I hadn’t thought about these books in a while, and I really appreciate the discussion in the comments!

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Bonnie May 18, 2013 at 7:51 pm

Shepherd’s story strikes me as interesting, maybe inspiring, but not scalable. As an educator, I have this same response to many stories about passionate young school teachers, often those working in charter school settings. Yes, what they are doing is remarkable and worth our notice, but is it realistic to expect that anyone and everyone can follow that model?

As Alice said above me, it is impossible for everyone in poverty to do what this individual did. Not only do they not enjoy many of the advantages he does; I believe that our current economic system simply doesn’t have a place for everyone to earn a living wage under decent conditions.

I would not say that the decks are irreversibly stacked against ALL of the working poor. Certainly, there is room for some to work their way out of a deep hole. I am always afraid that these sensational success stories distract from the questions we need to be asking about how we as a country can do better for everyone.

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Laura's Last Ditch--Vintage Kitchenwares May 24, 2013 at 12:38 pm

I have read both books, and feel Ehrenreich had a terribly defeatist attitude. Simply having the attitude that you will do what it takes goes a long way–not wasting a penny, resourcefulness, hard work. NOT buying lottery tickets and otherwise looking for easy ways out. I scrounged, scavenged, foraged, Dumpster dove, and sometimes even went hungry when I was in college because I REFUSED to take out a student loan even though my parents weren’t helping me. This set me out on a good financial trajectory, and it was worth it.

I realize other people have their own hurdles, but I think it’s a matter of hope–knowing it’s possible, and then not letting immediate comfort and pleasure derail your goals.

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Florencia September 5, 2015 at 10:40 am

I read part of Nickel and Dimed as part of the coursework for my AP English class in high school. I honestly didn’t see the point in reading it. My family and I are immigrants(we moved to the US when I was ten for health reasons), and the kind of work Ehrenreich does as a waitress was not far from what my parents did and still do to support our family. Both my parents work multiple jobs and sleep little. My dad graduated from college back in Argentina but his degree is of no use here. My mom was not able to finish high school due to having to work to support her family. As an adult she would learn crafts, including how to make our school uniforms and sewing different things to sell. She takes ibuprofen daily to be able to work cleaning, even though she has fibromyalgia. In Argentina, I grew up watching my dad take community college classes, workshops and any professional development opportunity he could find, and also reading for personal enjoyment and betterment. My mom would always take me to dance, computer, sport and academic after school classes. She always encourages me to learn all I can, as she couldn’t. The high school I went to was in a more affluent part of the city, full of jocks and girls with Prada purses as school bags. Of course it was eye opening for them. For me it was a waste of time and a mockery, as it only reminded me of all the everyday sacrifices my parents did to allow me to work and save my minimum wage money for future schooling, as there was (and there still is not) a way for them to help me do that. My teacher wanted both my sister and I (we took the same class) to have our own book for annotation. I only bought one with my own money; I wasn’t going to make my parents waste their money like that. I was glad I did that as we didn’t really need the book as much as the teacher said and my sister ended up dropping off the class due to health issues. I agree with what many people said in regards to life experience and the will coupled with the will, desire and ability to learn. I will read Ehrenreich’s book again and also your new recommendation. 🙂

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