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March 03, 2008


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Shepard was young and healthy - he started with a moving job - and didn't have student loan debt. He lived on chicken and Rice-A-Roni (TM).
His sacrifices included foregoing dining out and (not) havi ng a cell phone.

I'm not young and healthy. My idea of dining out is two double cheeseburgers at McD's when I have to work a double shift because my work relief isn't coming in. I've never had a cell phone. I live on pasta, potatoes, and rice - chicken or Rice-A-Roni would be a treat for me.

Who is this guy kidding?

And speaking of excuses...see comment above.

Shepard was also articulate, well groomed, well mannered, etc., all a product of decades of investment in child rearing and an Ivy League education. Heck, he was even well fed, had good teeth, had recently bathed, etc.

He also had no baggage. It's not just that he started out debt-free, young and healthy, but he also had no dependants, no criminal record, no substance abuse problems, no disfunctional relationships, etc.

Hardly his least advantage was that he was fully documented, a certified citizen with social security number, government ID and all the rest.

Yes, his accomplishments are remarkable, but not a pattern for replication for the masses. His example used to be called "creaming" in sociology, an instance of what the most advantaged can do in a difficult situation.

Let's evaluate that. I'm not young and healthy - I have high ongoing medical expenses. I also have high-interest student loan debt I cannot consolidate to a lower interest rate. I'm no longer young, so I face all the usual obstacles faced by older workers, PLUS I lack the valuable career-related experience possessed by most of them.

That's reality - how is that an excuse?

MW --

As others have previously suggested, if you took the time you spend commenting/complaining on blogs and simply applied it to doing something productive -- your life would be much better off.

An idea: start writing your own blog. For reference:

The start-up costs are zero. ANYTHING you earn would be additional income. And you'd have no additional time if you quit whining on this and other blogs.

Your life is up to you. Make something positive happen!

I would be impressed if this guy came from an improvised background. Yes he did accomplish something but he had built in safety nets, he was an educated clean-cut white guy and was a child of privilege. Coming out the gate he had significant advantages over lesser-educated laborers.

IMO he and his story is pretentious. He was 'pretending' to be poor knowing very well he could leave at any time and start a professional career.

This story might have some meaning if he was a single dad with no education and working with a disability.

I wouldn't have expected anything less from a man in his position.

I'm looking at a man, healthy, able-bodied, and young. You can get a day-labor job or feel a little safer sleeping in the shelters or rough on the streets, knowing you don't have kids with you that need to be safe as well.

And although he didn't put down his education on any resume -- I would say he didn't need to. Most of us can ballpark the exposure to (if not the level completed of) an education. All you have to do is open your mouth. He's spent his life in an environment that has not only given him the tools to succeed, but has made sure he uses them. This is a solar system away from the background of someone in cyclical poverty.

While I agree that motivation is a key component of success and that's the problem I have with this guy's story: coming from privilege and slumming it to prove a point isn't the same as starting from scratch.

Because while I can appreciate what he did for himself, I don't like the way his story is used: as a mirror to say, "he could do it, so why not all of you"?

And the answer to that is -- if people who have always been poor have the environment, education and tools to not only create wealth but keep it, then they probably would too.

Motivation is a factor, but it's not as large as accessibility to jobs (not just for 20something strapping men) health or the effect of children. And I will also say that if you come from an environment where even the motivated, hardworking still can't find their way out of poverty (or to get "punished" for trying to rise out of it), then you're probably not going to see the point of delayed gratification -- you're going to see life as a set of limited resources that you'd better grab while you can. I'm talking about where poverty lives full-time, not as a social-experiment, where people can and do get taken down a peg for trying to rise out. Or where all that money you saved puts you in the position of family bank, or where focusing on your education gets your butt kicked on the way home from school.

Or when you do "move up", the people up there don't really want to share a neighborhood, and when they fly out to the 'burbs, the social class you left moves in next door to you. Saying that a person can't shake poverty because they're not motivated enough isn't true. His story is going to be motivating for some people, and that's great. But poverty is too complex to crush under the heel of individual motivation.

And it really bothers me that this guy took up a shelter bed and those jobs from someone else who wasn't playacting. And I'd like to (gently) submit that the ability for him to even take those resources at the homeless shelter might not have been there without the government intervention that has been denigrated on this blog.

They discussed this on Get Rich Slowly, and the comments are really interesting:

"He also had no baggage. It's not just that he started out debt-free, young and healthy, but he also had no dependants, no criminal record, no substance abuse problems, no disfunctional relationships, etc."

Most of which are choices. You have to choose the right time to have kids, to go into debt, to do drugs, to do crime, to have a relationship before you are ready, etc.

Even if he didn't mention his education it still plays a role. Education will always shine though.For him it worked , but for others it may not for reasons mentioned above. I know were I live if someone is willing to work hard they can make good money in time. For example, my Father is in the Roofing industry and his inexperienced guys make $10/ hour. They have the ability to learn a trade and can make much more if they are willing to work hard.Some guys are making $30/hour, not bad for no education.

@ Ryan : you're right. They're choices. But the point behind the book is that you can start off from nothing and bring yourself up. If "nothing" means the clear-slate kind of nothing, instead of the "you're in deep doo-doo and you've got to fix it", then you've reinforced No One Important's point that success depends not just on motivation, but where you're starting from.

And possibly the corrollary -- that there situations that motivation alone can't fix, and you might really be stuck. Circumstances aren't excuses then -- they're realities.

I've read about this kid on a gazillion blogs at this point, and find the idea that Ehrenreich's (whose book I didn't read) story is being used to make a political point, but this guy's story isn't, quite funny.

Everybody is entitled to a HS diploma....for free. It's a personal choice to accept it or not.

It's also entirely possible to get the equivalent education of certain college degrees just by reading a bunch of books at the library. Self-education accounts for far more of my skills than does my college education.

I find it disheartening that the people speaking out against Shepard imply that the poor can't do anything to better their situation. If, like Ehrenreich, they hate hope, than so be it. But anybody has the ability to better themselves, and their situation. Nobody said anything about it being easy, but to borrow a quote, "Hard is not hopeless."

Both of my inlaws came from such poverty that my father-in-law only owned one pair of blue jeans. They put themselves through college while working, ate bread and canned tomatos, and used whatever public assistance was available.

They abstained from alcohol, tobbaco and illegal drugs. They never wasted a moment. They never paid for soemthing they could do themselves. Most of all they worked hard every day.

Today they live in a 1/2 million dollar home. I guess they were just lucky in the lottery of life.

The American dream is still alive for those who want to work for it. My grandfather came straight out of Appalachia. We're talking tin roofs, dirt floors, and (during my grandfather's time) no formal schooling to speak of. There were no jobs (still aren't any), so he went to work in a factory in a different state. His family lived a lower middle class lifestyle, but they were able to afford to send my dad to college for an associate's degree. My dad and mom lived a middle class lifestyle, and all three of their children obtained undergraduate and graduate degrees. When my father and I talk about poverty, I usually take the more liberal view that people need some help in order to leave poverty. Dad can't stand that because he remembers grandpa's stories of going down to the welfare office to "beg" and "look poor" for a government handout. My grandfather did not want to live that way, so he did the best he could as a seventeen year-old father. He certainly had the deck stacked against him, but he sacrificed and worked hard to overcome his circumstances and provide more opportunities for his family.

There are so many exuses for his success. It is discussed as if these other unfortunate homeless people are not employable and should just sit back and take subsidies. Well maybe they make themselves unemployable. MW would not do well at my organization with the current lose/lose attitude. Some people are not worth the money unless they make it so.

I agree with Anna, Richard, MW, and anonymous above... to make his experiment more realistic he should have 1) dropped out of high school, 2) developed a drug and/or alcohol addiction, 3) committed at least one felony and gone to jail, 4) caught hepatitis, 5) smoked several packs a day, .... then let's see him try to make ends meet.

I think I'm very qualified, but can't get the job in the first place.

What's with Skott?

I didn't drop out of high school. I've don't use drugs. I don't have an alcohol problem. I have no criminal record. I don't have hepatitis. I don't smoke.

Good grief.

According to a Business Week cover story (3/31/04), close to 10 percent of college graduates work in low-wage jobs.

What is the "conservative" explanation for this?

MW --

You're proving my point with all your rambling.

Re: accessibility to jobs.

Conservative talk show host Lars Larson has many times cited some study (he'll send you a link if you ask - he reads his email) showing that having a car (and thus access to many jobs) does more to increase your income than getting a high school diploma.

There are many money-making opportunities on Craigslist that you can't use if you don't have a car, and many jobs you can't get to without a car.

Recently I found some great janitor jobs at Intel, but they were swing shift and the shift ends too late to get home by bus.

I'm replying to specific comments - that's rambling?

MW --

The point is that if you'd reallocate your time to something productive (and income producing), you'd be able to do what I and others are saying. You simply prefer to whine and be in your situation -- if the situation is true in the first place.

You're getting back into your same old "woe is me" series of comments, and you know what happens when you do that, so be careful.

Yeah, I'm very depressed about my job and my living situation and am having a hard time doing more than snarling.

Skott was talking about homeless as opposed to low wage earners. There is a big differnce.

@ Skott: when I say education, I mean college. And when I say "able-bodied", I don't mean "non-addicted". And I also didn't bring up the job prospects of the formerly incarcerated, although it's an excellent point to bring up.

But what I said, and what I stand by is this: I think that people should make the most of what they have.
So I expect that an average person should leverage the resources they have available to them. But that tells me that the more resources you have, the more you can do. But it also tells me that if you've got negative resources -- things that take away, then you've got a different situation on your hands.

What I don't like about the use of Shepard's story is that it masks the positive resources he started with, and says he started with nothing. Notice I say "the use of", not the story itself.

Just a lack of $$ in your pocket doesn't make you resourceless. It makes you broke. Like people have said, his health, youth, appearance, gender and upbringing ARE resources -- the most obvious ones, actually, so should I be surprised that he uses them?

There are other resources as well -- I agree that just because someone doesn't have what he has means they have nothing. But I think that some attributes are better able to get you out of a tight $$ patch better than others, and there are some life-situations that are going to cut you off at the knees...and you may not really have the ability to fix it. To reduce it down to sheer willpower misses the fact that there are some situations that require more help than what motivation alone can provide.

This doesn't mean a handout, although Shepard did need that to get him going (which should really make you worried.) It can mean better access to transportation (voting for your city bus system) working to keep jobs in your cities, affordable housing, health care, better schools, day care, less crime, or etc. Even some things that have already happened, like the more efficient ways of getting child support, or some businesses making an initiative to hire the elderly.

I'm saying this: if an able-bodied, single, fresh-faced smart, well-spoken young man is out of work, it's not surprising to me that he can fix that. I'd expect nothing less. But it doesn't mean we as a society have a well-oiled mechanism to get people out of (and keep them out of )the underclass, and there's nothing wrong with pointing out where the rusty parts are and trying to fix them.

To any one of you complainers who isn't young, white, male, educated, or able-bodied:

I challenge you to do the same experiment. If you have the attitude that it is possible then I guarantee you will succeed. Then you can write a book and make money and be featured on PF blogs everywhere. You'll get even more attention than this guy because you "didn't have an advantage"

In fact, you do have an advantage, because rather than starting with a gym bag and $25 at a homeless shelter, you assumingly already have someplace to live, a chair and a desk and a computer and enough money to afford luxuries like internet access. All the education that this guy actually used was the common sense of living on a budget, all the same things that you have access to on this very blog.

I'm looking forward to hearing all the excuses as to why it can't be done, but I'll be really impressed if someone actually does it.

I'm in the middle on this one, as I am in most things. There are a lot of bums out there who won't work, there are a lot of fools out there who repeatedly make bad decisions, and there are a lot of thieves out there who.....well, they do what thieves do.

But there are a lot of people out there who have bad luck, bad health, grew up in bad circumstances.....all sorts of things.

It's likely with one person I might judge them unworthy of my sympathy or help because they won't help themselves. I'm also just as likely with another person to see a real need and to realize "there but for the grace of God, go I".

It might be good for people to try and get past their prejudices before passing a blanket judgement on every person that hasn't lived the perfect FMF existence.

I don't need the challenge.

When I moved back to the US, I had 2 suitcases, 1k in savings and the offer to sleep on a friend's couch. I'd been looking for work for months before I came back but no one wanted to hire until I came back for interviews. I got a tempjob in a week and and a place in about a month, and all my furniture was goodwill or hand-me downs. And I have worked two or three jobs at times -- and I'd do it again.

But you know what? Each time I felt like I'd hit the lottery. Because I knew that things might have worked out differently. I know that I got a job once because of how I sounded. Merely from how I spoke, compared to other applicants. It was a night job, with insurance, so I could work there full time and still pull a day job somewhere else. And it was in a safe location so I could sleep in between shifts. Those jobs positioned me for later, better employment in my neighborhood. Not positioned as in skills, but by access. I even got a job offer once because I happened to stop in a store, and the shopkeeper was ringing me out and liked my attitude. I just happened to be in an upbeat, chatty mood, which was why I was treating myself to a store visit in the first place.

Did I have to work? Obviously. But I'd be a stone-cold liar if I said my outcome was because of my willpower and then looked down on someone else who was struggling.

should have wrote: sleep in my car.

Anna, you have proven my point. You may feel like you got lucky a few times, but those opportunities are all over, but if you're too busy commenting on blogs about how miserable your life is, you are never going to stumble upon those opportunities. (I'm not talking about you... MW are you listening?)

Your comment about how you got the job because of "how [you] spoke, compared to other applicants" isn't really luck, but most likely your positive attitude and work ethic showing through.

The people I'm talking about are the ones who accept it when one company says they can only work 30 hrs/wk and refuse to look for a 2nd job or a diferent job where they can work overtime. Then they spend their extra time complaining about how "the system is holding them down" when it's their own laziness and depressing attitude.

What I really liked about Alan's story isn't what hardships he did or didn't have but the fact that he started at the bottom. He was poor - he had nothing. He made ends meet starting from scratch and he took a job as menial labor rather than what he could have with a degree.

Well, I think what Alan did is beautiful.

Anybody can, if they clean up their act and are willing to do what it takes, work their way out of being backed into the proverbial corner.

Granted, he had some "advantages" that he couldn't leave behind, like being generally articulate where perhaps those he was seeking to be like aren't.

But, the truth is that nobody HAS to accept that they grow up in a situation that would predict they end up inarticulate. Every poor child still has the ability to attend public school and get a public diploma. And yes, I know public schools can really suck. BUT -- you get from them in proportion to what you are willing to put into it. I bet a lot of poor students would really make a struggling teacher's day if they cleaned up their attitudes and went into their school day looking to make the absolute best out of the resources that were there. If a poor student takes the task of becoming literate seriously, there is no library in the country that will turn them away from a vast selection of materials to help them learn even more.

A poor person can, with care, go to Goodwill and buy some second hand garments that will look nice enough to get a job interview (I know, I routinely give them a good selection of clothing that would fit the bill.) There are other resources besides Goodwill -- for example there is a woman's organization that provides free suits for women who can't afford to buy a suit for job interviews.

Most of all, a poor person can take pride in themselves. Regardless of whether they are sleeping in their car or in a borrowed bed, they can take the time to keep themselves clean. They can learn to speak well. They can learn to carry themselves with dignity. They do NOT have to stay trapped in stereotypically poor behavior.

In this country and this society, it's their choice and the fire in their belly that will make all the difference for them.

I just disagree. I think that it's too easy to blame the poor for actions that, when we do them, are just as bad, but effect us less.

instead of shepherd's book, take a look at this one (amazon link, shortened through tinyurl.)

What if you are missing a front tooth? What good are Goodwill clothes going to do you then?

And if internet access is a luxury, is a daily newspaper a luxury? (Don't tell me to read the newspaper at the library - one time I got the paper every morning and found housing by calling a new ad before 8 am - 15 minutes later and I would have been too late.)

If a daily newspaper is not a luxury, what's wrong with substituting internet access at the same (dialup) cost to obtain the same or more information?

It is neat that this guy did this BUT

Isn't one of the key advantage of having an education the ability to advance and prosper? Isn't that WHY WE GET AN EDUCATION?

Who cares if he didn't mention it or put it on a resume. The assumption here is that an education is only valid if put on a resume or otherwise made known to other people. How silly! Of course, that would be the only value of an ivy league education over State U (i kid, i kid).

After living in Chicago for a couple years, I realized something. Countless people on the street asked me for money, but no one ever asked me for advice. Go figure.

Charleston, SC? Not exactly the average metro area, is it?

It would be great if we could all move to a small, miniurb like Charleston and replicate his success.

But if we did, we would quickly find it a lot harder to pull off than he did.

Next time, try a place that people actually are willing to live.

"Everybody is entitled to a HS diploma....for free. It's a personal choice to accept it or not."

It is true that everyone can get a HS diploma in this country for free, but the differences in quality of education can vary drastically. Before someone claims that I am putting down teachers in urban or rural areas, I am not. I myself have had experience teaching in urban schools and I can tell you that the educational system in these areas often fail the students. Even if you have an excellent teacher, their hands are tied by the system that "jukes the states" in order to continue to receive federal money. Often, even studious student who are motivated are limited by what their environment has to offer them. This is the biggest failure of our American social system. People want to believe that all it takes is motivation and hard work, but there are so many factors that continue to oppress a significant portion of our citizens.

Shepard may have started with only $25 dollars, but he lacked the emotional and physical baggage that comes with growing up in poverty. I taught elementary school, and already at the young age of 10 and 11, most of my students had to deal with issues that wouldn't plague a suburban student until they were well into highschool. Even if an urban or rural student managed to graduate from highschool, the caliber of their education would not equal that of a middle class suburbanite.

In addition, a middle class suburbanite with only a highschool diploma would be able to enter the working field with quite a few advantages. First, he would probably be able to enter with no dependents. An urban worker would probably have other people he or she would have to help support, even with no children of their own. Remember that the suburbanite had parents who could afford a middle class lifestyle, they probably don't need his additional income. Whereas a whole family working probably still needs to pool their money since most do not have a steady salary. Also, the suburbanite has access to minimum wage jobs (think walmart, malls etc), while these minimum wage jobs are usually not located in urban or rural areas and one would require a car or bus fare to reach these locations. Most importantly, the environment can hinder many opportunities. Do you usually see a check n' the cash in suburban areas? No. these predatory lending practices do not exist where individuals have been educated financially about credit, APR etc. Again, this is not taught at many schools because it has nothing to do with No Child Left Behind. Well reputed banks do not usually operate in these areas either and motivated hard-working individuals do not have any where to safely store their money where it can earn interest. They usually do not have access to credit and everything is paid in cash. Shepard didn't have much cash to start with, but he was educated financially. You need credit in order to save money, buy a home or (as was Shepard's goal) start a business.

K --

Like where? NYC? LA? SF? Are those "average"?

As an immigrant I have a very hard time having sympathy with anyone born in this country and then whining about their circumstances. I didn't have a social security card (which means no work permit) for a long time. Any bum on the street has that magic number to fill out a w4.

A lot of comments are disregarding Shepherd's accomplishments because he had an education- even if he didn't place it on his resume. That may be so, but he was having a lot of difficulty getting a job until one of the other guys at the shelter told him: You gotta go down to these managers and be like, 'Look here, homeboy. You need me. I'm the best worker you're gonna find, so hire me or not.' And if it don't work, hell, it don't work. You got like a million other places to go and give the same speech to." He went back to the moving company gave that speech and got hired.

In the book there are also a lot of other characters that don't have his educational advantages. For example one of the other movers, Derrick purchased a house through hard work and savings, and he did have a family to support.

-Rick Francis

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