My reactions to Barbara Ehrenreich’s famous book Nickel and Dimed, in which she purposely lives on low-income jobs for a couple of years, weren’t very lofty. First, I’ve had some pretty unpleasant jobs in my life, so I felt simultaneously bad for people who had these jobs, and glad that I didn’t. Second, I was confident that in that situation, I would find a way to get out of it over time. It seemed clear to me that she was making stupid choices. Would you really live in hotels for a sustained period if you worked for minimum wage? Would you really “eat fast food, or the hot dogs and Styrofoam cups of soup that can be microwaved in a convenience store" as your primary diet? Would your reaction to the possibility of a telemarketing job really be that it “can be dismissed on grounds of personality”? (Really you, not some imaginary person that you think is “not prepared to make intelligent choices” or whatever)
A 2006 college graduate, Adam Shepard, apparently had a similar reaction, and decided to put this to the test. He says that he showed up at a homeless shelter in Charleston, South Carolina with $25 plus the clothes he was wearing, and set himself the following goal: have a car, a furnished apartment and $2,500 in savings within one year without using either his credentials or connections. After 10 months he had the car, the apartment and $5,000, and ended the project to deal with an illness in his family. He has written a book about this experience, and described it in a recent Christian Science Monitor article, as well as a more detailed email interview.
What was his “secret”?:
Sacrifice was the name of the game delaying gratification and I recognized that early on. I had immediately eliminated wants versus needs. Immediately.
Cable? That’s $50 a month and it’s not that difficult to find some good shows on network television.
Cell phone? $100 a month back in my pocket. If I had a business to run, I would need one, but as a mere laborer, it was easy to go without.
Clothes were bought at the Goodwill, and all of my household products were generic brands.
Food was my kryptonite, and I had to pay special attention there. I used to love going out to eat, and when I eat, I eat like a horse. Couldn’t do it, though. Chicken and Rice-A-Roni dinners were substituted for trips out to simple bars and grills ($20 a pop at a minimum). To be honest with you, though, it was more fun to concoct various meals than it was to go out. I bought a book on cheap, easy meals from the Thrift Store and it was like a Bible of sorts for me while I was in Charleston.
Interestingly, he didn’t see himself as unique:
Of course it’s easy for me to say it was easy. I had a goal. I was out to prove a point. I had the mentality and I knew what I had to do to get the results I wanted.
But what surprised me most, and what makes my story so fascinating, is that so many people around me were doing the same thing.
Now, of course, Shepard was a young, white, healthy male with no dependents. He also had the accumulated social capital represented by his upbringing and education. But unless you think that his ability to get ahead was created primarily by the reactions of other people to him based on his immutable characteristics (which seems pretty implausible), then you have to ascribe it primarily to his behavior.
Even if you don’t think that it is fair to demand that other people without his advantages behave this way, it does tell you some important things about contemporary poverty. Human agency matters. Many people have it within their control to improve their economic standing. Policies should recognize that much (not all) poverty in America is created by behavior rather than insurmountable circumstances, and should therefore focus on changing behavior rather than changing external circumstances.