Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Could You Pull Yourself Up By Your BootStraps?!?

Those who criticize the poor always espouse "The Bootstrap Theory", which essentially states that if you wanna rescue yourself from abject poverty, it's as simple as digging in, working hard, saving money, and staying focused. Am equal number of critics say that "pulling yourself up by your bootstraps" overly simplifies the multitude of reasons (health, generational poverty, poor education, the economy, lack of familial support) that cause folks to be poor in the first place.

I suppose I can see both sides of the argument. This is indeed a nation chock full of opportunity, with very few hard and fast obstacles that prevent one from succeeding. Even without a high school diploma, it is very possible to find decent employment (yes, even in this economy) and if you're disciplined enough, you can "make something of your life", by whatever definition you choose. We all know people like this.

On the flipside, your ability to succeed is often shaped by your environment. If the established norm that you grew up observing is living check to check, evictions, WIC, food stamps, dropping out of high school, etc., simply flipping a switch and changing your fate is hardly in minor undertaking.

At the behest of our resident Conservative (you know his name), I recently read the book[1] Scratch Beginnings by Adam Shepard. Shepard, who grew up not far from my hometown in Raleigh, NC, decided to skip the usual Corporate route post-college and conduct an admittedly flawed social experiment. 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." His words, not mine.

Shepard chose Charleston, South Carolina for no particular reason, and caught a train into town with just $25 to his name. He takes up residence in a run-down homeless shelter, gets clothes from Goodwill, eats courtesy of food stamps, and works odd menial jobs that pay next to nothing. His goal was to have a steady job, a car, a home, and $2,500 in savings by the end of the year. His mission would presumably be to prove that by merely working hard and wanting to succeed badly enough, he could reach his goals without calling home for help, and also without using his degree, his personal contacts, or divulging his middle-classed background.

I'm naturally skeptical, so I picked up this book expecting some ulterior motive. Is Shepard some guy with a Conservative bent doing this to decry gubb'ment programs and "European-style Socialism"? Not at all. The foreword of the book announces that Shepard has no political motive. Of course, this doesn't stop the usual suspects from trying to use this unique experiment to their advantage.

He admits the many flaws of the experiment. He knows that few people "start fresh" in poverty. Most have kids, health problems, debt, etc. He is "starting" at zero, whereas many people are "starting" at negative 4,000. He also acknowledges that the mental reality of having an "escape" at the end of the year makes his motivation different than most since this is only temporary, not his actual "life". With those disclaimers aside, it's much easier to settle in and read the book without your 3rd eye. I don't want to ruin the story for anyone, but I'll simply say it's an easy read that's worth a trip to the library.

It also raises a number of very interesting questions.

Question: If you had to "start at zero" with little money to your name, couldn't use you education, or Rolodex, and were dumped in a strange city, could you "make it"? Taking the whole "experiment" out of the equation, why do you think it's so difficult for people to "make it" out of poverty? How much to gubb'ment programs actually demotivate people to better themselves and "make it out"?

Scratch Beginnings [Official Website]

[1] Yeah, I read. A lot. Don't be fooled by all the TeeVee, cRap music, and Negro Nonsense. I get it in at the library.

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