Economics

When Poor People Save

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Adam Shepard read Nickel and Dimed and got ticked off at Barbara Ehrenreich's suggestion that the American Dream was dead. So he decided to try an experiment/publicity stunt. He'd write his own book about another way of being poor: starting with nothing and winding up with savings in the bank and prospects for the future. The prose isn't terribly impressive (a fact the author cops to in the intro). But the story is pretty compelling, and rather relevant in these days of declining markets and rapidly increasing savings rates.

I am going to start – almost literally from scratch—with one 8′ x 10′ tarp, a sleeping bag, an empty gym bag, $25, and the clothes on my back. Via train, I will be dropped at a random place somewhere in the southeastern United States that is not in my home state of North Carolina. I have 365 days to become free of the realities of homelessness and become a "regular" member of society. After one year, for my project to be considered successful, I have to possess an operable automobile, live in a furnished apartment (alone or with a roommate), have $2500 in cash, and, most importantly, I have to be in a position in which I can continue to improve my circumstances by either going to school or starting my own business.

He skipped out after 10 months because of an illness in his family, but by then he had a job, an apartment, a pickup truck, and $5,000 in the bank.

I missed the resulting book, Scratch Beginnings, when it came out a while back, but noticed a mention in an interesting BoingBoing post about life as a Wal-Mart employee recently.

NEXT: What Booker T. Washington Can Teach Barack Obama

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  1. This just in: guy who went to college can get job.

  2. I loved that BoingBoing post.

  3. joe,

    I know plenty of college graduates incapable of getting a job. 🙂

  4. Yeah joe,

    ‘Cause as you and a bunch of the commenters on Boing Boing point out the huge advantage a business degree gave him as a day laborer/moving company worker.

    *Truck pulls up to break corner, eyeing selection of day laborers employer yells “Who has a business degree!” over-privledged white boy jumps in the truck*

  5. This just in: joe can live on his mommy and daddy’s money.

  6. To make his quest even more challenging, he decided not to use any of his previous contacts or mention his education.

    He didnt use his degree. He probably used his education, in the sense of actually using skills learned, but it wasnt like he got hired to a position requiring a degree.

  7. He also made new friends, finding work as a day laborer, which led to a steady job with a moving company.

    There are plenty of non-college graduates with that kind of skill. Or better.

  8. I know plenty of college graduates incapable of getting a job. 🙂

    Sure, but this guy didn’t have a humanities degree.

    ‘Cause as you and a bunch of the commenters on Boing Boing point out the huge advantage a business degree gave him as a day laborer/moving company worker. Probably a lot of help in knowing how to manage your money, and plan ahead.

  9. She came from Greece she had a thirst for knowledge
    She studied sculpture at Saint Martin’s College, that’s where I caught her eye.
    She told me that her Dad was loaded
    I said in that case I’ll have a rum and coke-cola.
    She said fine and in thirty seconds time she said, I want to live like common people
    I want to do whatever common people do, I want to sleep with common people
    I want to sleep with common people like you.
    Well what else could I do – I said I’ll see what I can do.
    I took her to a supermarket
    I don’t know why but I had to start it somewhere, so it started there.
    I said pretend you’ve got no money, she just laughed and said oh you’re so funny.
    I said yeah? Well I can’t see anyone else smiling in here.
    Are you sure you want to live like common people
    You want to see whatever common people see
    You want to sleep with common people,
    you want to sleep with common people like me.
    But she didn’t understand, she just smiled and held my hand.
    Rent a flat above a shop, cut your hair and get a job.
    Smoke some fags and play some pool, pretend you never went to school.
    But still you’ll never get it right
    ‘cos when you’re laid in bed at night watching roaches climb the wall
    If you call your Dad he could stop it all.

    You’ll never live like common people
    You’ll never do what common people do
    You’ll never fail like common people
    You’ll never watch your life slide out of view, and dance and drink and screw
    Because there’s nothing else to do.
    Sing along with the common people, sing along and it might just get you thru’
    Laugh along with the common people
    Laugh along even though they’re laughing at you and the stupid things that you do.
    Because you think that poor is cool.
    I want to live with common people, I want to live with common people

  10. At $2500 per year (his minimum) saved and a 9.7% RoR, that is $1M after 40 years.

    Doing $6000 a year (he had $5k saved after 10 months), you would only need a 6.3% growth rate.

  11. This just in: joe can post the lyrics to an old Pulp song.

  12. The Pulp version sucked. The Shat’s version, on the other hand, ruled.

  13. I’ve known more than a few people who were less employable after getting a degree. An inflated sense of entitlement is a serious burden, especially when combined with an aversion to work one considers beneath one’s station.

    Short, short story: I was raised by an unemployed single mother and orphaned at 13. I’m now an attorney. Care to guess my opinion of anyone who claims they can’t make a buck in this country?

  14. Having worked as a day laborer during and after college the only employment advantage my educational background provided was an ability to score the boss high quality weed on short notice.

  15. Neither Steve Jobs nor Bill Gates completed college.
    Thomas Edison did not have a college degree, nor did NIkola Tesla.
    Nor did George Foreman nor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
    All these people are successful businessmen.

    Most of the millionaires I know did not graduate, although some did after they went back to school in middle age, after making their fortune.

    A college degree is neither necessary nor sufficient to being a success in life.

  16. With you on that, ProL.

    joe,
    What was his degree in? Obviously, a degree in something like engineering would confer useful knowledge that could help him in the working world, but much of the opportunity to use that knowledge often depends on some sort of certification that one is trained in that field (like a degree, which he didn’t use in applications).

  17. Plus, joe, this guy wasn’t going for “poor chic”. He was trying to show that one can go from being poor to being not poor.

    Big difference.

  18. I’m now an attorney.

    See what happens to poor orphans?!? It’d be kinder to just harvest their organs instead.

    Via train, I will be dropped at a random place somewhere in the southeastern United States

    His friends should have pranked him and dropped him off in the Everglades.

  19. ‘Cause as you and a bunch of the commenters on Boing Boing point out the huge advantage a business degree gave him as a day laborer/moving company worker.
    Probably a lot of help in knowing how to manage your money, and plan ahead.

    Sure does!

  20. “Probably a lot of help in knowing how to manage your money, and plan ahead.”

    joe, 90% of it is common sense. I started saving for college, applying for scholarships, and comparing possible school loans when I was 14, largely on my own (it occasionally involved asking my parents for a ride or the use of their car, but that was about it).

  21. Is there anything we can’t do?

  22. “His friends should have pranked him and dropped him off in the Everglades.”

    That reminds me of the time my friends thought it would be funny to leave me on the side of the road in the middle of when I was urinating (they let me catch up a mile down the road. We were all young and stupid back then).

  23. Boston,
    “I’ve known more than a few people who were less employable after getting a degree. An inflated sense of entitlement is a serious burden, especially when combined with an aversion to work one considers beneath one’s station.”

    A friend and I once decided to help the local kids who were on the verge of dropping out of high school. My friend is a professional auto body tech, and I’m pretty handy with tools, so we figured that by creating a free class that introduces the kids to the trades via showing them how to do car customizing like they see on TV might just do the trick to keep them in school, then into the trades.

    While every teacher and administrator we contacted LOVED the idea, the kids weren’t excited at all. As one kid put it “I don’t like to get dirty.”

    I wished him luck, knowing full well that he was likely going to drop out, and that things would get worse from there.

  24. One of the useful things you learn in college is that the existence of a anecdotal case isn’t very good evidence of anything.

    I started saving for college, applying for scholarships, and comparing possible school loans when I was 14 Where did you get that idea? Where did you learn that was a responsible, intelligent thing to do?

  25. Dello,
    That kid’s going to have a tough life. How many jobs require neither a high school diploma nor getting dirty?

  26. joe,

    Knowing how to save your money and plan ahead not only does not require a college degree and really has nothing to do with a college degree and pretty much anything you learn in college.

    Your initial off the cuff line, “guy who went to college can get a job” is fairly indefensible. You might want to back off it, before you start looking foolish.

  27. Educated White Guys –
    Is there anything we can’t do?

    Score with hot left-wing black chicks?

  28. joe,
    From my parents, who weren’t terribly wealthy (not poor either) and who both came from lower-income backgrounds.

  29. That reminds me of the time my friends thought it would be funny to leave me on the side of the road in the middle of when I was urinating

    Ahh, the days of teabagging and gorilla masks…

    Mac: You put your balls in my mouth while I was sleeping?

    Dennis: Yeah, man. Twice.

    Mac: That’s rape! That is borderline rape!

  30. Well Mom always saved her trick money for the large economy size crack rocks.

  31. “Score with hot left-wing black chicks?”

    You’d be suprised….

  32. joe,
    On average, I would say that 50% of the advantage a college degree gives in economic fortunes derives from the perception intelligence and skill rather than any intelligence or skill it actually confers. This goes doubly for the humanities.

  33. You might want to back off it, before you start looking foolish.

    New here?

  34. Episiarch,
    I probably had a little too much fun in college with various pranks and tomfoolery.
    I failed to mention the driver in the aforementioned car was getting revenge on me for one of my prank calling schemes.

  35. This just in: joe accepts only those anecdotes that confirm his prejudices.

  36. The author’s point that anyone can get ahead by using commons sense, working hard, plannning and saving is so stunningly obvious and true, you wonder how it could possibly be contentious.

    Unfortunately, this notion undermines some of the precious and vital notions that modern liberals have regarding the downtrodden and why they are that way. Prepare for a lengthy thread.

  37. Well, of course it’s easier for us to get jobs, we’re more intelligenter!

  38. Most of the great fortunes in the U.S. were made by people from modest or poor economic backgrounds.

  39. One of the useful things you learn in college is that the existence of a anecdotal case isn’t very good evidence of anything.

    Didn’t stop me from writing my book.

  40. economist –

    50% of the advantage a college degree gives in economic fortunes derives from the perception intelligence and skill

    What you are talking about is confidence, which can’t be overestimated. How one gets confidence isn’t important – just that they have it. I got mine from going to college, somebody else might get it from having a skill, their family, the military or any number of things.

  41. I failed to mention the driver in the aforementioned car was getting revenge on me for one of my prank calling schemes.

    Revenge…that’s the rub. You want people to know you were the brilliant joker, but then they know who to go after.

    Mac: Hunting is awesome, Dennis!

    Dennis: Yeah.

    Mac: You get to wear sweet clothes and get wasted all day!

    Dennis: Yeah, it’s just like our normal lives, except at the end of it, we get to put our nuts in some dude’s mouth.

  42. This isn’t just a rich-poor thing. There are subcultures within our society that push for education or, at least, some form of life in the merchant class, regardless of ones initial financial position. For instance, a poor Chinese-American kid is much more likely to find some way of being in business for himself than a poor kid from many other American subcultures. Why is that? It might be worth trying to replicate that sort of ambition than to deride it as something bourgeois.

    Sadly, this kind of insane work ethic and ambition are no longer necessary aspects of our culture as a whole.

  43. This just in: guy who went to college can get job.

    This just in: guy who didn’t go to college can get job, too.

  44. “What you are talking about is confidence, which can’t be overestimated.”

    Are you kdding? I was scared shitless when I went to interview for jobs after college.

  45. I went out to higher some day laborers, and naturally the first thing I asked was if they had a college degree.

  46. joe,

    If your point is that a lot of people who grow up in straitened circumstances are often demoralized and hence at a disadvantage, I’m not sure that that’s all that contraversial here.

    But if you think that people like Barbara Ehrenreich and you continually telling them what a bunch of fucking losers they are helps in any way, I’m fairly sure you’ll find a lot of disagreement.

  47. We sure as hell wouldn’t hire Mr. Shepard.

  48. Isaac Bartram,
    To be fair, joe thinks that most people are born losers, and only their advantages in education, upbringing, and connections determine their future success or failure.

  49. New London PD,
    What…the…fuck?

  50. Nickel and Dimed is shit. I was forced to read it in college. Can’t imagine how far removed from working society a reader must be to enjoy that book. She frequently makes absolutely insane financial decisions, making her experiment worthless. And her contempt for the working class seeps through every page. The book is basically a test – can a rich middle aged bitch with no marketable skills (and no desire to earn them) and no work ethic survive in the working world? The answer is not surprising.

  51. MAX HATS,
    Did you just say something that I agree with? First NM, and then you? Perhaps I’m hallucinating. I should get a CT scan.

    And Barbara Ehrenreich is a bitch.

  52. “almost literally from scratch”

    That’s a crock of crap-o-la right there. As joe pointed out having a college education is hardly scratch (it’s worth quite a lot in fact, look at tuition lately). That’s human capital. And then there are all the things like social and cultural capital which some people get from their parents and others don’t.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_capital
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_capital
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_capital

    This kills me about the hard core rugged individualist libertarians here, they always say “well I didn’t have any advantages and look where I got, so stop complaining.” But social scientists (and don’t look but now that includes economists) have been talking about how hugely important advantages in these areas are for a loooong time.

    Not that Nickel and Dimed isn’t overdone itself.

    And what was up with quitting because of a family illness? Dude, that’s one of the major reasons why families fall into poverty from what I hear.

  53. Having your parents and friends teach you self-control, how to use proper English, give you confidence building experiences like enrolling you in little league and taking you to practice, having books in the house and encouraging the reading of them, etc., all convey huge, huge advantages.

    And since kids don’t get to pick their parents this gives many people advantages out of the sheerest chance.

  54. Where did you get that idea? Where did you learn that was a responsible, intelligent thing to do?

    All it takes to know that saving your money and being responsible is a *good idea* is to look at the worth around you and not act like a complete fucking retard.

  55. And to close your tags.

  56. NPR did a segment recently on delayed gratification in children. They put a 5-year-old in a room with a researcher and gave the kid a marshmallow. The researcher tells the kid he has to leave, and if he gets back and the kid hasn’t eaten the marshmallow yet, he can have another. Many kids couldn’t wait 10 seconds, but others could sit it out for 20 minutes and then put the 2nd reward marshmallow in their pockets to eat later. Fast forward 30 years and the researchers interview the same kids. Turns out that the kids who were good at delayed gratification are the most financially successful ones today.

    My sister was a halloween candy hoarder. I figure I ruined her ability to delay gratification when I rifled her stuff, found her stash, and ate the whole thing. That’s what big brothers are for.

  57. “it’s worth quite a lot in fact, look at tuition lately”
    Now, MNG, you aren’t confusing price and true value, are you?

  58. Granted, prices usually reflect value, but given the amount of demand-side subsidy that goes into the higher education system, as well as rather inefficient practices, I tend to doubt whether the price of college tuition reflects its true value.

  59. For one thing, most accreditation standards for colleges look at inputs (like professor to student ratios) rather than outputs (like whether or not their graduates are particularly skilled at whatever they majored in).

  60. You can think of its worth by looking at how much income and wealth it tends to add to the average person who gets one compared to the average person who does not.

  61. “not act like a complete fucking retard”

    A lot of people have as role models growing up complete fucking retards, or rather people with insane values and behaviors.

  62. economist
    Granted your points are good ones…It’s hard to figure out how good at their majors graduates are. You could have some kind of standardized tests, but there are problems there. You could track them down after they graduate and find out how they are doing, but basically what you’ll find there is that they are doing “lots better” than people who don’t have a college degree and that often they are not even working in the field of their major (which kind of shows that some of the most important things you learn in college has nothing to do with what goes on in the classrooms). And demand side subsidies and their effect on college prices is certainly got something to it.

  63. The researcher tells the kid he has to leave, and if he gets back and the kid hasn’t eaten the marshmallow yet, he can have another.

    Hmm, so my daughter will be wealthy enough to take care of me in the twilight years.

    brag
    My kid is awesome at delayed gratification. I mean really, she can do no wrong.
    /brag

  64. A lot of people have as role models growing up complete fucking retards, or rather people with insane values and behaviors.

    Right, and to ape their behavior and thereby achieve the same results, is to *also* act like a complete fucking retard.

  65. Another criticism of Ehrenreich is that she didn’t stick around at any job and try to work her way up.

    Regarding college degrees, having one can be a negative for a lot of low-end jobs. Employers often want someone who’s going to stick around, and not leave for something better.

    I was skipped over for promotion from dishwasher to fry cook in a summer restaurant job between high school and college, and that’s what they told me. They admitted I’d have been better at it, but knew this wasn’t a career for me.

    I did have some satisfaction watching the guy who did get the promotion. It took him the entire first day to learn how to use tongs to get fish out of the deep fryer without dipping his thumb in the hot oil. He did it at least four times. By the end of the day his thumb looked like a sweet potato.

  66. Probably the most important thing you could possibly teach your kid is self control (delayed gratification, anti-impuslive tendencies).

    And a crap load of parents are really, really terrible at that.

  67. Graphite
    We are talking about KIDS and the surrounding ADULTS in their life. Kids tend to ape these people, whether they are complete fucking retards or not. Is this amazing to you?

    I mean, are you a complete fucking retard?

  68. Read the article but haven’t read the book. One question; did he have a driving license or other “official” ID (he did mention that he had an emergency credit card)? It seems like that would make a big difference.

    And I know that it is probably blasphemy on this forum to mention it, but I saw many, many young people go from nothing to a future by joining the Armed Forces.

    .. “USAF” Hobbit

  69. So, what helps the poor the most, being like Barbara Ehrenreich, joe and MNG and harping on what a bunch of fucking losers you think they are, or taking a different approach?

  70. We are talking about KIDS and the surrounding ADULTS in their life. Kids tend to ape these people, whether they are complete fucking retards or not. Is this amazing to you?

    When anyone, a kid or not, observes two people, one of whom is an unemployed loser, and the other a successful professional, and chooses to follow the example of the former rather than the latter, yes, that is amazing to me.

    There’s no such thing as a kid who grows up without *any* successful examples. What it takes to succeed in this country is quite clear to everyone with eyes to see. At some point people are accountable for the role models they choose and the paths they follow.

  71. Isaac
    You’re missing me and joe’s point.

    The problem is that for a lot of people “taking a different approach” is nigh impossible because they are really, really lacking in some basic things that many of us get from our families and this makes them simply unable to do basic things like control their impulses, focus, delay gratification, plan into the extended future, speak in semi-correct English, realize the importance of certain things, make correct causal connections about everyday things, etc.

    Sitting around preaching to such people to “take a different approach” is a lot like singing to deaf people.

  72. Holy shit Graphite, I think you may in fact be retarded.

    How in the world is a 5 year old going to be able to reliably tell who is a loser in their life and who is a success? How about a 2 year old? How about an infant?

    Because a lot of the hard wiring for future capabilities has already been done before two.

    You act like a fucking infant is supposed to, when it is learning speech, think to itself “fuck, my mom is an unemployed loser, I’m not going to pick up her speech patterns and accent.”

    Jesus!

  73. When I was five I thought my loser older cousin was the coolest guy in the world because he could fart really, really loud, and I thought my hard working and rich ass uncle was a boring sissy.

    I also wanted to a “space-man” as a future career, or super-hero.

    I mean, have you run into these things called “children?”

  74. As the study cited above suggests, by five years old those kids either had been taught self control, or they had not. And it had a big effect on their future.

    And it was not because of their “choice” of who they were going to model themselves after! Bwahaha!

  75. The main advantage that the college degree would have given this guy was an ability to talk the language of those who are likely to hire him, promote him, etc…

    Subtle social norms make a bigger difference than people appreciate.

  76. Holy shit Graphite, I think you may in fact be retarded.

    At least I’m not arguing that all our abilities for impulse control and delayed gratification have to be acquired by the age of five.

    I mean, aside from an egregious case like a child being turned into something like “Nell” and shielded from the world by his parents, pretty much everyone naturally develops the ability to reason inductively and perceive cause and effect, which is all we’re talking about here.

    If things like “controlling their impulses, focus, delay gratification, plan into the extended future, speak in semi-correct English, realize the importance of certain things, make correct causal connections about everyday things, etc.” are all hard-wired into us by our parents, it’s truly remarkable that human beings ever figured out how to do any of these things at all.

  77. “And then there are all the things like social and cultural capital which some people get from their parents and others don’t.”

    No argument there. I’ll admit, if I had been raised by profligate criminals, I might not be the upstanding and responsible *snark* citizen I am today.
    Of course, what, if anything, could government policy affect positively in this case. Even if I thought the government should try to “change the culture”, it would be unlikely to work,especially when any criticism of certain cultures either gets you called “a damned Yankee troublemaker” or a racist, depending on which culture, exactly, you are criticizing.

  78. Uh, graphite, I’m pretty sure the “semi-correct English” thing does in fact have something to do with upbringing.

  79. If you ever want to know just how incredibly important and valuable these little things done within families are, and if you want to know how everybody actually agrees with me when it comes to their lives, just imagine, how much money would someone have to give you to not do things with your kid like read to her, make sure she eats right, restrict the amount of food she eats and when she can eat it, go to the doctor for vaccinations and check-ups regularly, restrict the amount and the content of television they can view, supervise the child most of the time, correct it when it does impulsive things, buy books fo her, take her to the library, tell her she is smart and such.

    I mean, if it’s just a matter of someone choosing to follow the good role models on tv and anybody with any sense can do that, then you should be willing to not do these things for a very low price, right?

    But no sane person would do this for almost any amount of money. Because those little things have a tremondous effect on how your kid turns out.

    Oh my God, not everything happens with little wholly autonomous reasoning monistic human beings rationally choosing the most utlitarian choice among those available to them at every step and meaning that everyone is simply a sum of their own choices and efforts, what a shock!

  80. I am no big fan of capitalism, but…

    It’s easy as hell without a college degree to make a good living in this country.

    All you have to do is be responsible, show up, and apply yourself.

    Places like Wal-Mart take people who got off on the wrong foot and give them a way to move up.

    Yeah, we all dislike the appearance of the corporate state… but what gives it its power is the incompetence of most people. Of course they complain — what else are they going to do, admit their own fault in the matter?

    We like to think there are flawless workers versus soulless corporations, but reality is much more complex, starting with the fact that anyone who even marginally has their act together is going to do well in the USA.

  81. economist
    That’s a great question, and most of the time I think “not much.” In fact, that is kind of what Charles Murray has said at times: the reason why these government programs are bogus is that if you have a kid raised in this environment, no amount of later government programs is going to help.

    And there are tons of kids, like in the inner city, who are raised nearly as badly as Nell was. Elijah Anderson’s “Code of the Streets” is a good ethnography on such places. A kid like that, unless they luck out and get a good and unusually influential uncle or something, really has no chance.

  82. It’s probably a good thing I don’t have kids. I’d probably teach them to refer to ordinary objects with variations on curse words.

    “Junior, the proper way to greet someone is to say ‘Hey f***tard!'”

  83. “All you have to do is be responsible, show up, and apply yourself.”

    Holy shit, it is deafness isn’t it?

    Look, again: it’s not easy as shit for a lot of people to be responsible, show up and apply yourself. They were never introduced to that. Their moms ignored them while they smoked crack and entertained their ever changing boyfriends. The boyfriend probably abused them. From toddler age on they ran free in the neighborhood. They were fed irregularly and badly. They were never put on a schedule (other than that their moms just happened to periodically come down from whatever high they were on and maybe woke the kid to change their long soiled diaper). Etc.

  84. I agree, you’re never going to “change the culture” in these places.

    We can provide help for those who for whatever reason have some good sense, and many government programs do that. But many are throwing money at a problem that they will never touch (like how Americorps pays inner-city kids to do service work, many are so high or violent that they have to be sent home within hours).

    And while it may sound bad, the criminal justice system will deal with many of the rest…

  85. economist,

    Of course, what, if anything, could government policy affect positively in this case. Even if I thought the government should try to “change the culture”, it would be unlikely to work,especially when any criticism of certain cultures either gets you called “a damned Yankee troublemaker” or a racist, depending on which culture, exactly, you are criticizing.

    The public educational system functions in large part as a mechanism for forming a shared culture. It is an imperfect tool, but when people talk about the importance of an education, it is not really about the reading and rithmatic as much as it is about access to this shared culture.

    This is one of the reasons segregated schools are problematic, they do not provide access to the shared culture that is so essential to success.

  86. Believe it or not, I’m a BIG fan of capitalism.

    Hell, even Marx had to wonder at the amazing ability of capitalism to change the world in never before heard of ways in mere decades. The productive capacity, the smashing of the locked roles and castes of “rural idiocy”, the moving of mass goods and services from around the world to diversity the possible commodities one can choose from to make their life better…Capitalism is the closest thing this athiest has seen to a frigging miracle.

  87. In 1983 I was coming off of 15 years of wasted living, no degree, no social skills and broke. I decided to change my life and got a job as a nurse’s aid making minimum wage in a private speciality hospital dealing with alcoholism and drug addiction. I was married and we had one child. I worked my way up, went to college and in 5 years I was a Clinical Director managing 8 therapists, all with Master’s degrees. I’m just saying…that doesn’t mean anyone can accomplish anything they want to accomplish by just buckling down — but it does mean that hard work and desire can make a big difference. Without the effort it’s pretty much certain little will change.

  88. Neu Mej-
    Just for the sake of being contrarian-

    Public education has always been, and still is to a large exent, atomized so the only ‘culture’ that is shared is at a community level.

    And from one prespective the segregated schools actually helped with ‘shared culture’ as high achieving blacks (more motivated? I’m likely not using the right words, but you know what I’m trying to say) were forced to stay in the same schools as other african americans. When they were allowed to go to whatever schools they wanted, the high achievers left both literally and figuratively, everyone else behind.

    With a less racial (but possibly as classist) slant, you see the same thing with ‘tracking’ in public schools. There’s a conflict with keeping ability groups together to optimize teaching effectiveness and efficiency while avoiding ‘ghettoizing’ the middle and the low and possibly (likely?) reinforcing bad behaviors. This conflict is also the reason why public schools are generally good for very bright kids, (and paradoxically for kids that need a lot of help, but of an easily identifable type), but generally fail the middle and esp the low middle.

  89. You know what really shared the culture? WW2. I’m convinced that an underrecognized feature was that throwing a bunch of men from diverse parts of the country into the same group and in adverse circumstances put to bed permantly a critical mass of regionalism that in turn led to a lot of the legal and cultural changes of the post ww2 era.

  90. A kid like that, unless they luck out and get a good and unusually influential uncle or something, really has no chance.

    I for the most part agree with you up until this point. That kid does have a chance. Maybe not nearly as good a one as someone else, but human behavior is not all environmentally determined. Some of it is genetic, some of it is blind luck (you have no idea what the right thing to do is so you guess and maybe you guess right and maybe you guess wrong) and some of it is simple timing.

    I know three siblings: one with a high paying corporate job, one with a low paying job and a litter of kids and one who was dead of a Heroin overdose at 32. Same environment, same parents, different results.

    As far as public policy goes, government is no better (almost certainly worse) at dealing with the fickleness of fate than individuals are.

  91. And I know that it is probably blasphemy on this forum to mention it, but I saw many, many young people go from nothing to a future by joining the Armed Forces.

    Fopr multiple reasons I won’t go into, I daresay that the military is the most successful social program for moving children of poverty into the middle class. I was, with a roomate, living a solid middle class life, apartment, auto, spending money and some pretty damned decent weed after a mere four years in the navy.* I wasn’t even very good at deferred gratification. I partied my ass off. Of course you do have to go to work every day, even when you don’t feel like it. You do have to do what the boss says, even if it’s stupid and he’s an asswipe. You do have to study on your own for promotion exams, even though it’s boring as hell.

    Basically, the assertation that moving out of poverty requires more than hard work and discipline is, for the vast majority of folks, complete and utter bullshit. If you wish to discuss the psychology of lifetime poverty inducing behavior, we can. The lack of a sheepskin does not factor into that at all.

    * Also had visited ~10 countries and lived in four different states.

  92. The Shatner version of “Common People” really is way better than the Pulp version, though. Either way it wins this thread.

  93. As joe pointed out having a college education is hardly scratch (it’s worth quite a lot in fact, look at tuition lately).

    Hold on there. It does not follow that because you pay a high price for some service, that it is in fact worth quite a lot. I’ve certainly met plenty of idiots with degrees in my time.

    -jcr

  94. it’s not easy as shit for a lot of people to be responsible, show up and apply yourself.

    My problem is the use of the word “lot”. Its a tiny fucking percentage of Americans.

    Really, what percentage of kids have crack-whore moms?

    And, has already been mentioned, that is what the military is for. We probably need more of the judges pushing juvies towards a military career.

  95. While I wouldn’t disagree with the fact that a college degree can confer huge socio-economic advantages on the holder of the degree, I think how the degree itself is leveraged counts for a lot. And if you can’t leverage it properly it ain’t worth the paper it’s printed on. While it’s hard to rise up from the bottom, it’s all too easy to sink very quickly to the bottom.

  96. And, has already been mentioned, that is what the military is for. We probably need more of the judges pushing juvies towards a military career.

    just a side comment on this; like any other rehab program, it only works if you want it to. Fundamentally, even with all the external structure and pressure, you still have to take the initiative to help yourself. If your a dirtbag before, *and* a dirtbag during, you’re going to still be a dirtbag afterwards.

  97. Joe and MNG’s vaginas hurt when they think about poor people.

    They can’t accept that some people have more will than others. They somehow want to magically legislate this level of will. It does explain their love of high taxes…they want to sap everyone’s will by beating them into submission with the use of force.

    Liberals are all about equality…making everyone equally miserable. The only equality is death.

  98. JB,

    Relax, bro. People always forget that society is heirarchal. There is ALWAYS gonna be a top and a bottom. People used in the context of dirty hippie liberals of course. 🙂

  99. The fact that Ehrenreich shared all of Shepard’s advantages apart from gender has bizarrely gone unmentioned in this thread. For those who have read both books (I’ve only read Ehrenreich), what would you say was the key determinant driving their respective outcomes? Why couldn’t Ehrenreich make it in the nickel and dime end of the economy while Shepard could?

  100. “MNG, it might behoove you to read the arguments in the orginal post before posting a response to it.”

    Yeah JB, that’s why I basically said there is nothing the government can do for this underclass other than lock them up. I mean, you can read right? Then use the thing on the right hand side and scroll up and do so.

    Are you retarded or something?

  101. Sean, that was addressed. Ehrenreich set out to fail, while he set out to succeed. She job-hopped instead of trying to move up from the bottom. You could have stopped reading before her first anecdote: she started by getting her own apartment in Key West.

  102. Well, I guess the plural of anecdote is data. And I guess all those lawsuits about unpaid hours and breaks not given were just bullshit.

  103. MNG, if these poor people have no chance because of the environment in which they are raised, why help them at all? Don’t you have conflicting theories? I mean they are helpless because they emulate their worthless parents to age 5, so how can the government helping them ever provide a benefit?

  104. what would you say was the key determinant driving their respective outcomes? Why couldn’t Ehrenreich make it in the nickel and dime end of the economy while Shepard could?

    Gender is a huge advantage in the unskilled labor market. A healthy young man has the muscle to dig ditches, haul stone, move furniture, etc. A woman doesn’t. A strong back therefore can get you a jump on the minimum wage cashier jockey jobs.

    To be fair, Eherenrich alluded to her own advantages in having proper English. Whenever she applied for a low-paying backstage job (like hotel maid), she was usually shunted off to a relatively higher-paying on-stage job like waitressing while hispanic women got the maid jobs. I think there are some studies, and plenty of anecdotal evidence, that female wait staff get better tips even if you control for the attractiveness of the female.

    Another thing Eherenrich referenced was that even when she was able to maintain a status quo, she had almost no margin for error. While I admire what Adam Shepard did, and subscribe more to his world view than to Eherenrich’s, one has to acknowledge that if he suffered even a minor setback (like strained back) in the beginning, his project would likely have failed.

  105. Assuming they both had two healthy kidneys, I don’t see how either could not make it.

  106. MNG, at what age did you figure out that hard work is more likely than sloth and instant gratification to lead to long-term success? You made the point that the age isn’t 5. That’s a good start. Is it 12 or 15? 20? 30? Do you credit personal responsibility for success or blame lack of “good parents” for failure? Or is it, like, both dude? Is there a certain age where having undisciplined hippie, alcoholic, or left-wing parents is no longer an excuse?

    I believe “kids” know they’re fucking up when they’re fucking up. I did. Eventually, maybe as adults, they either get their shit together or they don’t. They may get it half together, like me. My relative success/failure has little to do with how well or poorly my parents served as good role models – same thing for the stereotypical minister’s son. It is the behavior I am engaging in right now as an adult that determines my future. (right now I should be doing something else – damned divorced parents screwed me up…)

    Can Tom Daschle’s tax “mistakes” be traced back to a rough childhood? No dad, and mom blows dudes in the alley? He wasn’t taught right from wrong?

    Have any thoughts on EGB’s post:
    Short, short story: I was raised by an unemployed single mother and orphaned at 13. I’m now an attorney. Care to guess my opinion of anyone who claims they can’t make a buck in this country?

  107. I read 90% of the comments on this thread, and I just have a few comments.

    1. I also had to read Nickel and Dimed and it was painful to do so. Ehrenreich had no concept of what was required to get a leg up – no concept of savings, no concept of thrift… I wanted to quit reading when she said that she started picking up lunch at Wendy’s in her car because she was “tired” and didn’t feel like making lunch. WTF?

    2. She seemed to make the false assumption that every job out there should be able to provide a person a reasonable living. Working as a hotel maid in Florida? “Why can’t I make enough to own my car, eat out, and have my own apartment! The system is rigged!!!” In this way, the two books are not the same in approach. Ehrenreich took a single job and “tried” to make it in that job in a couple of months, and Shepard (as I understand it) gave himself full flexibility to do whatever job he needed to in order to get the results. One was process-oriented and the other was results-oriented. Anybody question why the process-oriented approach failed?

    3. Ehrenreich took off time from her experiment to go to trendy restaurants with her friends.

    4. One must recognize that this young man who wrote the opposing book was healthy (likely – I have not read the book, I assume based on his age). This does not mean that if he were less healthy it would have been impossible, but probably harder.

  108. Short, short story: I was raised by an unemployed single mother and orphaned at 13.

    Not quite as long a journey, but my father was also raised by an unemployed single mother, who did have the additional handicap of being ethnically Mexican. Her sister helped support them.

    He wound up with an engineering degree, worked in management for a large petrochemical company, and retired at age 52 with a couple million in the bank. He credits the Marine Corp with teaching him many of the life skills he needed.

    If you more data-y data, then look at the longitudinal studies of wealth and income. This is still a remarkably mobile society, even from the bottom ranks presumably handicapped with bad culture/upbringing.

  109. Thwe CS Monitor article mentions that the kid relied on homeless shelters and food stamps to get on his feet. If this is Reason’s roundabout way of finally admitting that an extensive social welfare system is essential to protecting the American Dream, then I applaud them on their humility.

  110. Picador,

    Homeless shelters may or may not be part of a social welfare system (as it is usually meant). Many (most?) of them are privately funded.

  111. I was raised by one mentally abusive parent and another unemployed one.

    We (5 kids) ate powdered milk and fried baloney, and stole the condiments from the cafeteria during our spare time. (Nothing like pure sugar, ketchup, and mayonaise for a healthy diet!) Mostly, during the day we ran around with no supervision because we had to escape from our insane mother.

    I went to an Ivy League university and am currently working on a PhD in engineering. I don’t own my own home, but I do have enough in the bank for a down payment once I finish grad school.

    Oh, and I worked on the International Space Station program.

  112. MNG–

    Granted, some people are at a disadvantage from day one, whether because they had shitty parents, they’re unhealthy, whatever.

    I understand that. It’s unfortunate.

    But here’s the question: What am I (or anyone else) supposed to do about it? How are we supposed to account for those disadvantages to make them equal with everyone else? Should corporations be forced to pay living wages to people who can’t or won’t do enough to deserve those wages?

  113. MNG, et. al.

    Actually my crazy unsupervised upbringing was probably a significant contributor to my success. I was indepdendent from an early age. I CHOSE (was not encouraged) to get a paper route so that I would have spending money. I would collect bottles and cans to exchange them for the refund. I would walk around town by myself, and knew the bus schedules and how to use them. Often, I’d go to the library because it was a free source of entertainement. (Movies and arcades cost money!)

    The kids who grow up in upper-middle-class suburban homes are at a disadvantage because they get used to living on credit cards and having a car, so they never learn how to take care of themselves. The never learn how to manage their finances or to plan out how to save up for a car or a house. They never learn the real value of money. Consequently many of them end up in heavy credit card debt. It’s the children of the middle-class who are generally the poorest by my observation. they might have a college degree in some humanities discipline, but they have $90K in credit card debt and are working as a barrista, while taking out their angst by complaining about the capitalist system.

  114. Someone once said on a previous H&R thread that poverty is a lifestyle choice.

    Even if the kids have bad role models while growing up, they do eventually grow up and if they no longer want to be poor, the answer should be pretty obvious.

  115. If you’re the sort of person who gets a payday advance because you ran out of Bud Light mid-week, you’re choosing to be perpetually broke.

  116. This is absurd. I have no doubt that I could do the same experiment as him and get a six-figure income in a technology field within a year, similarly avoiding mentioning any education or experience. Does that mean he’s shiftless compared to me?

    All he proved is that education and experience provides actual skills that are valuable for earning money, and that it is possible to use these skills to succeed, even if you hide the origin of these skills from those around you. yawn.

  117. All he proved is that education and experience provides actual skills that are valuable for earning money, and that it is possible to use these skills to succeed, even if you hide the origin of these skills from those around you. yawn.

    Um. yeah. That’s why we keep telling people that you CAN make it if you apply yourself, get an education, and learn some skills.

    Yawn.

    WTF? What about the people who don’t WANT to learn any skills!!? What if they are too STUPID to learn them!!? What about THEM, huh????

    Won’t somebody think of the lazy morons!!!???

  118. Well, this is all very interesting, but whereas the story of “Nickel and Dimed” is shared by millions, I’m not sure how many Americans can plausibly claim to have shared this gentleman’s experience. Or be capable of replicating it, for that matter.

  119. Xanthippas,
    “Shared by millions?” Please. This gentleman’s story is shared by numerous people I know. Sans education advantage. “Nickel and Dimed”, on the other hand, is an experience shared mostly by spoiled little shits whose parents finally kicked them out and told them to get a job.

  120. He skipped out after 10 months because of an illness in his family, but by then he had a job, an apartment, a pickup truck, and $5,000 in the bank.

    Real poor people can’t skip out when they have an illness in the family. That’s the kind of thing that can take a big chunk out of your $5,000 in the bank, such that you can’t pay your rent or the payments on your pickup truck.

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