WTTO sent me this article: "Building a Life on $25 and a Gym Bag: College Graduate Leaves Comfortable Life for Poverty Experiment."
The story goes something like this: Adam Shepard, a young white guy who had just graduated from Merrimack College, decides to "test the vivacity of the American Dream," by leaving his parents' house with only $25 and a gym bag and the goal of "making it" on his own in Charleston, South Carolina. He lived in a homeless shelter and worked as a day laborer (keeping a credit card in his back pocket in case of emergency). After 70 days, he had saved enough money to buy a truck and an apartment. This proves, he said, "that anyone can do that." Then he wrote a book called Scratch Beginnings: Me, $25, and the Search for the American Dream.
Some choice quotes:
I had this great back story on how I was escaping my druggy mom and going to live with my alcoholic dad. Things just fell apart, and there I was at the homeless shelter. I really embellished this fabricated story and told it to anyone who would listen.
The question isn't whether I would have been able to succeed. I think it's the attitude that I take in: "I've got child care. I've got a probation officer. I've got all these bills. Now what am I going to do? Am I going to continue to go out to eat and put rims on my Cadillac? Or am I going to make some things happen in my life...?"
Obviously, this is fucked up. Here are some reasons I'm mad about it:
- I am sick and tired of rich people making poverty into a "game" or "experiment" that they can use to write a book and start a speaking career. These voyeuristic portrayals of the lives of the poor do no service to anyone. I think it says something about our society that we seem to prefer accounts of poverty narrated by upper-class white people who go "slumming" before returning to their comfortable lives to detail their "experiment" with poverty for other upper-class white people who can feel like they "know" what poor people experience. In her book, Without a Net: The Female Experience of Growing Up Working Class, Michelle Tea writes:
Poor people are always left out of the intellectual conversation, despite being the subjects of entire books. In Nickel and Dimed, Ehrenreich, a successful middle-class woman, speaks directly to other middle-class people. This happens frequently in books and articles about working-class people – it is assumed that none of us will be reading the text. It’s a decidedly creepy experience to read about your life like this, passed from one middle-class perception to another. It’s like being talked about in a room where you sit, invisible. It’s a game of intellectual keep-away, the words lobbed over your head, but worse – no one even knows you’re trying to get in on the game. It doesn’t even occur to them that you could play.
- I'm offended that Mr. Shepard would knowingly take up space in a homeless shelter when he was choosing to be homeless. Homeless shelters are underfunded, often overcrowded and certainly not meant to accommodate some privileged guy who doesn't truly need their services. I've worked with homeless women, and I've seen how difficult and painful it can be to find them a safe shelter that has space available. Shame on him for wasting that space and those resources. Ditto for food stamps.
- Here are some of the advantages Mr. Shepard possessed: His race, his gender, his English-speaking abilities, cultural capital and class privilege, a sense of security, literacy, U.S. citizenship, physical and mental health, a clean credit history, no criminal record, no children or partner to support, no domestic violence situation and no threat of violence for his sexual orientation or gender identity or expression.
- In the article, he never acknowledges the extent to which any of these advantages may have affected his situation, and brushes off suggestions that his situation might not be representative of most homeless individuals. Instead, he generalizes his experience to an entire group without considering the vastly different obstacles that members of this group might face, and uses that experience to promote a conservative "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" ideology (apparently, he never read The Meritocracy Myth or took a look at this graph). It's easier to say "poor people are lazy and can't spend their money right" than to address the real, painful, concrete reality of poverty in this country.