Jay Reding.com

Taking Upward Mobility To A New Extreme

The Christian Science Monitor has the fascinating story of a man who did an experiment starting out with $25 in his pocket and ten months later had a job, an apartment, and a modest savings. His experiences suggest that the standard view of upward mobility and poverty in America may need revision:

During his first 70 days in Charleston, Shepard lived in a shelter and received food stamps. He also made new friends, finding work as a day laborer, which led to a steady job with a moving company.

Ten months into the experiment, he decided to quit after learning of an illness in his family. But by then he had moved into an apartment, bought a pickup truck, and had saved close to $5,000.

The effort, he says, was inspired after reading “Nickel and Dimed,” in which author Barbara Ehrenreich takes on a series of low-paying jobs. Unlike Ms. Ehrenreich, who chronicled the difficulty of advancing beyond the ranks of the working poor, Shepard found he was able to successfully climb out of his self-imposed poverty.

He tells his story in “Scratch Beginnings: Me, $25, and the Search for the American Dream.” The book, he says, is a testament to what ordinary Americans can achieve.

Shepard had it easier than most people in poverty—he hadn’t run up debt, he wasn’t chemically dependent and he had the benefit of an education. Yet he also demonstrated quite clearly that it’s possible to lift oneself out of poverty without extensive government subsidies. While he did use foot stamps and other welfare programs, eventually he ended up self-sufficient.

What this story also highlights is how much of poverty in America is based on social factors rather than economic ones. The conventional wisdom is that poverty can be “cured” through government intervention—yet studies have shown that poverty is most strongly linked to social factors. As a nation, we could eliminate nearly two thirds of our poverty problem by ensuring that every American graduated high school, stayed off drugs and did not have children out of wedlock.

The big problem is that the government can’t force people to do those things. However, if we start treating poverty as a largely societal problem rather than a problem of resource allocation, we can start making headway against poverty in America. The welfare reform initiatives of the 1990s worked precisely because they subsidized positive social factors&dmash;encouraging people to work rather than remaining on the dole. In order to really help America’s poor, we need to look at the problem not as something that can be bought away with taxpayer dollars, but as an symptom of a larger cause. Our society devalues hard work, entrepreneurialism and the family. Yet those values are the values that lift people out of poverty. We cannot just keep throwing money at the problem and expect it to go away—but we can give people the societal support they need to change their own lives around.

While there are certainly people who are poor for other reasons, the vast majority of poverty is social. Shepard’s story serves as a reminder that “Nickled and Dimed” doesn’t represent the totality of life as a poor person in America. It is possible to get ahead in America, even starting from virtually nothing. If we care about lifting people out of poverty, we have to understand how people can do it rather than merely focusing on the potential (and in the case of Ms. Ehrenreich’s experiment, largely artifical) roadblocks along the way. Shepard is an inspiration to those trying to get by in America today, and if more people in poverty followed his example we could make real headway in reducing poverty in this country in the next few years.

5 responses to “Taking Upward Mobility To A New Extreme”

  1. Mark says:

    “Shepard is an inspiration to those trying to get by in America today, and if more people in poverty followed his example we could make real headway in reducing poverty in this country in the next few years.”

    Followed his example? You mean receive a college education before setting out to write a book in which he validates a predetermined worldview that poverty in America can be eliminated in “10 months” if only 40-some million poor people followed his blueprint?

    Perhaps so. And similarly, hapless single gals should follow the example of the princess who kissed a frog and found her Prince Charming.

    “As a nation, we could eliminate nearly two thirds of our poverty problem by ensuring that every American graduated high school, stayed off drugs and did not have children out of wedlock.”

    It could be eliminated entirely if employers willfully paid no less than $20 per hour to low-skill employees and offered free health care for employers without a government mandate. That’s no less pie-in-the-sky than a solution dependent upon human nature becoming infallibly pious.

    “The welfare reform initiatives of the 1990s worked precisely because they subsidized positive social factors&dmash;encouraging people to work rather than remaining on the dole.”

    Welfare reform “worked” because the timing dovetailed with an unprecedented expansion of low-skill service jobs and provided a much smoother transition for millions of Americans than would have been possible 20, 10, or even five years earlier. Furthermore, it’s curious how the rate of poverty in America has fallen by only a fraction during the same period of time in which welfare reform has “worked”. We’ve merely shifted the nonworking poor to the working poor, a demographic that Jay Reding.com suggested was a “myth” a couple years ago.

    “Our society devalues hard work, entrepreneurialism and the family.”

    Once again, Republicans attempt to have it both ways in the same sentence, calling on Americans to dedicate more time and energy to their employers while simultaneously decrying the reduction of parental oversight in the “broken American family”.

    Smug Conservative Blogger: “Where were the parents?!?!?!”

    Collective Overworked Peasantry: “At work, stupid!”

    “and in the case of Ms. Ehrenreich’s experiment, largely artifical”

    Yet a college educated author-in-waiting fancying himself among the ranks of America’s disadvantaged for the sole purpose of proving himself their moral superior is NOT artificial? You guys….

  2. Jay Reding says:

    Ignorant attitudes like yours only perpetuate the cycle of poverty.

    Followed his example? You mean receive a college education before setting out to write a book in which he validates a predetermined worldview that poverty in America can be eliminated in “10 months” if only 40-some million poor people followed his blueprint?

    He didn’t use his college education at all. He never once mentioned it to anyone, and while a college education is profoundly useful for white-collar jobs, I rather doubt that an appreciation of Proust is particularly helpful to someone working construction as Shepard did. Moreover, he says that he had no idea what the outcome would be when he started his experiment.

    All things you’d know if you’d actually read the article

    Perhaps so. And similarly, hapless single gals should follow the example of the princess who kissed a frog and found her Prince Charming.

    Or they could follow an example that has actually worked, not only in Mr. Shepard’s experiment, but countless other times.

    Oh that’s right, to an addle-brained leftist like yourself actually working hard and getting ahead is a fairy tale…

    It could be eliminated entirely if employers willfully paid no less than $20 per hour to low-skill employees and offered free health care for employers without a government mandate. That’s no less pie-in-the-sky than a solution dependent upon human nature becoming infallibly pious.

    Of course, you conveniently neglect to mention where all that money would come from. Clearly you’ve never worked anywhere near a small business.

    This is why you’re utterly clueless on basic economics. How the hell can a small business arbitrarily raise its labor costs nearly four times what they are and then stay afloat? Are they supposed find that money growing on trees? Pull it from their collective posteriors? It’s an economically illiterate idea.

    The real person living in a fairy tale is you. It’s impossible for small businesses to pay nearly four times their current labor costs and stay afloat. It’s impossible for small businesses to pay for all their workers health care (nor is it a particularly good idea to keep tying health care to employment).

    Meanwhile, someone actually does what you keep saying is categorically impossible, and you try to ignore the evidence.

    Typical.

    Welfare reform “worked” because the timing dovetailed with an unprecedented expansion of low-skill service jobs and provided a much smoother transition for millions of Americans than would have been possible 20, 10, or even five years earlier. Furthermore, it’s curious how the rate of poverty in America has fallen by only a fraction during the same period of time in which welfare reform has “worked”. We’ve merely shifted the nonworking poor to the working poor, a demographic that Jay Reding.com suggested was a “myth” a couple years ago.

    The center-left Brookings Institution would beg to differ on that subject. Since President Clinton’s welfare reform package was passed in 1996 more people have gotten off welfare on onto work even with the effects of economic growth factored out. The child poverty rate is four times lower than it was in 1993, even with the post-2001 recession increase in poverty. The result of the bipartisan welfare reform bill was a significant decline in the American underclass.

    But hey, if you can’t argue facts, I’m sure you can make up plenty of wild unsupported arguments…

    Once again, Republicans attempt to have it both ways in the same sentence, calling on Americans to dedicate more time and energy to their employers while simultaneously decrying the reduction of parental oversight in the “broken American family”.

    Smug Conservative Blogger: “Where were the parents?!?!?!”

    Collective Overworked Peasantry: “At work, stupid!”

    Again, your own arrogance is showing, You call poor people peasants! How arrogant is that? You can’t even see through your own silly biases to realize that you’re systematically devaluing the very people you claim to support.

    Let me be very clear: the American working class are not peasants. They are not serfs—and no matter how much your ignorant ideologies would treat them as such, they will continue to prosper and advance so long as baseless and thoughtless ideas of people like you fail to stand in their way.

    Yet a college educated author-in-waiting fancying himself among the ranks of America’s disadvantaged for the sole purpose of proving himself their moral superior is NOT artificial? You guys….

    Read Enrehreich’s book. She never stayed in a job long enough to advance. She received offers of help and rebuffed them. She shares your blistering contempt for American workers. She failed to make ends meet because she did everything she could to try to fail—whereas Shepard did something that anyone can do, regardless of education: he stayed in one job, worked hard, and saved his money.

    If people do those three very basic things, we can eliminate a majority of poverty in America. The fact that you are more interested in pursuing your policy agenda than helping people only highlights why your ideologies have failed to fight poverty and have only made it worse.

  3. Mark says:

    “He didn’t use his college education at all.”

    How could he not? Those who go to college develop an advanced subset of socialization skills that most poor people lack. To suggest a college-educated author-in-waiting is in any way on the same playing field as the average lesser-educated poor person is the definition of “artificial”.

    “Moreover, he says that he had no idea what the outcome would be when he started his experiment.”

    Sure sounds to me like a guy determined to prove that Sean Hannity is right. I’ll have to keep my ears open to see if it plays out that way though.

    “Of course, you conveniently neglect to mention where all that money would come from. Clearly you’ve never worked anywhere near a small business.

    This is why you’re utterly clueless on basic economics. How the hell can a small business arbitrarily raise its labor costs nearly four times what they are and then stay afloat? Are they supposed find that money growing on trees? Pull it from their collective posteriors? It’s an economically illiterate idea.

    The real person living in a fairy tale is you. It’s impossible for small businesses to pay nearly four times their current labor costs and stay afloat. It’s impossible for small businesses to pay for all their workers health care (nor is it a particularly good idea to keep tying health care to employment).”

    Yadda, yadda, yadda. Had YOU ACTUALLY READ what I wrote, you would have recognized my “employers could pay $20 an hour and reduce poverty” was a self-described pie-in-the-sky solution that only seems less-than-ridiculous when compared to the suggestion of you and other conservatives to eliminate poverty by “ensuring that every American graduated high school, stayed off drugs and did not have children out of wedlock”. Herein lies the problem. You rightly realize that the disparity of individual identities within the human race makes the concept of communism a pipe dream, but fail to recognize that the human species is similarly incapable of unilaterally avoiding bad choices.

    “Meanwhile, someone actually does what you keep saying is categorically impossible, and you try to ignore the evidence.”

    And this “someone” just happens to be a guy who you admit yourself “had it easier than most people in poverty”, including small little things like the expanded litany of social skills that comes with more education, enough intelligence to become an author, and a total lack of “baggage”, be it human dependents or mistakes from his past. The percentage of the impoverished in America who fit that profile is so microscopic that Shepard’s case study is irrelevant.

    “The child poverty rate is four times lower than it was in 1993”

    Four times lower? That would mean it’s down 75% right? Child poverty is down for the same reason adult poverty is. So many low-wage jobs were created in the past 10 years that parents working three of them earn enough to rise above the poverty line yet still be branded by Republican lawmakers as the “lucky ducky” freeloaders who don’t earn enough to pay income taxes.

    “You call poor people peasants! How arrogant is that?”

    It’s a lighthearted shorthand for people who aren’t part of the political and economic noisemakers. No sane person would take offense to it, particularly when used in the context that I use it as a contrast to your bourgeoise apologia?

    “Let me be very clear”

    Wow, you are turning into a politician. Next you’ll be prefacing every comment with “Look!”

    “the American working class are not peasants”

    Yes, yes, I know….they’re the freeloader “lucky duckies” forcing the wealthy to pay higher income tax rates due to their limited earning capacity.

    “Read Enrehreich’s book. She never stayed in a job long enough to advance. She received offers of help and rebuffed them.”

    I have read the book…most of it anyway. The author herself never took the opportunity to advance but many of her coworkers at the various jobs were in permanent positions and WERE denied advancement because the bosses deemed them desperate and thus last line for promotions compared to the newbie off the street. My mom has spent 30 years in the grocery business. I know how the game is played better than you, I assure you.

  4. Jay Reding says:

    How could he not? Those who go to college develop an advanced subset of socialization skills that most poor people lack. To suggest a college-educated author-in-waiting is in any way on the same playing field as the average lesser-educated poor person is the definition of “artificial”.

    And what “advanced set of socialization skills” would those be? Exactly how would they help someone who is making their living working for a construction company or hauling freight? As much as I think a liberal arts education is a great thing, I don’t buy the argument that it gives people an advantage in the entry-level job market.

    The skills people need to get by in America are pretty basic: enough math to balance a checkbook, enough reading skills to read a basic contract and enough smarts to find a library. A good high school education should be enough. (Admittedly, the American educational system is deeply broken and doesn’t teach basic life skills nearly well enough.) A college degree helps you advance up from where Shepard was, but Shepard had gotten himself to the point where if he needed to, he could have taken community college courses that could have gotten him up to the next level of social mobility.

    Sure sounds to me like a guy determined to prove that Sean Hannity is right. I’ll have to keep my ears open to see if it plays out that way though.

    From what I’ve read, he approached the experiment thinking it would fail. That’s why he brought a credit card with him in case he had to end the project. He never ended up using it.

    Yadda, yadda, yadda. Had YOU ACTUALLY READ what I wrote, you would have recognized my “employers could pay $20 an hour and reduce poverty” was a self-described pie-in-the-sky solution that only seems less-than-ridiculous when compared to the suggestion of you and other conservatives to eliminate poverty by “ensuring that every American graduated high school, stayed off drugs and did not have children out of wedlock”. Herein lies the problem. You rightly realize that the disparity of individual identities within the human race makes the concept of communism a pipe dream, but fail to recognize that the human species is similarly incapable of unilaterally avoiding bad choices

    Except even if they could, it still wouldn’t work. The majority of poverty is not caused by a lack of money, it’s caused by deeper social factors. Even if you had a minimum wage of $20/hour and free health care, you’d still have poverty in America. In fact, it would produce more poverty in America because small businesses wouldn’t have enough money to hire as many workers and would be far less likely to take a chance on someone who was a single mother, a recovering addict or presented some other potential problem.

    You really need to spend some time with small business owners and see how small businesses operate. It would open your eyes to how business and the economy actually works and you’d quickly come to understand why your chosen social policies wouldn’t produce the benefits you claim they would.

    And this “someone” just happens to be a guy who you admit yourself “had it easier than most people in poverty”, including small little things like the expanded litany of social skills that comes with more education, enough intelligence to become an author, and a total lack of “baggage”, be it human dependents or mistakes from his past. The percentage of the impoverished in America who fit that profile is so microscopic that Shepard’s case study is irrelevant.

    Approximately two-thirds of poverty in America is caused by social factors. Shepard had some advantages, but they weren’t nearly as great as you think. Education doesn’t automatically give you social skills (unless you count beer pong as a social skill). He did have a lack of “baggage” (although his cover story was that he was fleeing from an abusive mother and a deadbeat dad), but that’s because he affirmatively took steps to avoid it. He didn’t do drugs, he didn’t have children he couldn’t afford and he saved his money whenever possible.

    The harsh reality is this: we have the richest poor people in the world. The vast majority of people in poverty aren’t in poverty because of medical bills, they’re in poverty because they screwed up at some point in their lives. Government can either subsidize their screwups or tailor relief that gives them incentives to fix things. Welfare, for decades, did the former, and it wasn’t until it started doing the latter than things got significantly better.

    There are some people who do get into poverty because they couldn’t pay medical bills—but if we can reduce the level of needless poverty, we can free up resources to help those people. We can never “end poverty” unless we force everyone to make good life choices (and get rid of free will), but we can cut back on poverty if we have a culture that promotes the values that lift people out of poverty. More welfare hurts poor people because it subsidizes poverty rather than subsidizing work.

    Four times lower? That would mean it’s down 75% right? Child poverty is down for the same reason adult poverty is. So many low-wage jobs were created in the past 10 years that parents working three of them earn enough to rise above the poverty line yet still be branded by Republican lawmakers as the “lucky ducky” freeloaders who don’t earn enough to pay income taxes.

    Which ignores that people at the poverty line don’t pay income tax, and no Republican argues that they should. We’re the anti-tax party, remember?

    Moreover, child poverty is down significantly due in large part to the reduction in teenage pregnancy. Again, poverty is largely a social problem, not an economic one. The rate of child poverty decreased more than the overall poverty rate—if the sole explanation for the drop was the economy, then you’d expect to see the same rates for both groups.

    It’s a lighthearted shorthand for people who aren’t part of the political and economic noisemakers. No sane person would take offense to it, particularly when used in the context that I use it as a contrast to your bourgeoise apologia?

    Yes, no sane person would think that calling people “peasants” would be at all offensive… except for the pesky fact that it is a slur against American workers.

    Yes, yes, I know….they’re the freeloader “lucky duckies” forcing the wealthy to pay higher income tax rates due to their limited earning capacity.

    That’s a non-sequitor, and a dumb one to boot.

    I have read the book…most of it anyway. The author herself never took the opportunity to advance but many of her coworkers at the various jobs were in permanent positions and WERE denied advancement because the bosses deemed them desperate and thus last line for promotions compared to the newbie off the street. My mom has spent 30 years in the grocery business. I know how the game is played better than you, I assure you.

    Yes, because it’s perfectly logical that a business owner would take someone off the street and promote them rather than a worker that they’ve known for some time. That makes perfect sense. As Borat would say, “NOT!”

    It’s really quite simple: people who work hard, save money and live responsibly tend to get ahead. Those who don’t do those things tend to fall behind. More money doesn’t change that calculus at all. A welfare system that subsidizes being on the dole will produce more poverty, one that encourages work will get people out of poverty. A society that encourages people to be lazy, always look for the quick buck and “hook up” rather than be sexually responsible will produce more poor people than one that teaches children to work hard, save their money and not have children out of wedlock.

    We tried your way for nearly four decades, and in those four decades the rate of poverty skyrocketed. The very definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

  5. Mark says:

    “And what “advanced set of socialization skills” would those be?”

    Knowing how to sell yourself to the boss, accentuating the value you offer the employer, which in the case of the unattached Shepard, was probably more tangible than the single mother working next him with a reduced ability to kowtow to the bossman’s beckon call.

    “Even if you had a minimum wage of $20/hour and free health care….”

    Quit spinning. I made it abundantly clear that I don’t believe a $20 per hour minimum wage and free employer-financed health care are realistic policy approaches. It was merely a contrast with your equally far-fetched solution of turning every poor American into a vice-free, mistake-free Mitt Romney clone. And touche, even in such a utopia absent high school dropouts, drugs, and single parenthood, poverty rates wouldn’t go down much because the job market would still require the poorly paid services of janitors, cashiers, and the like, and they would continue to pay at the rate the market bears at they do today.

    “The vast majority of people in poverty aren’t in poverty because of medical bills, they’re in poverty because they screwed up at some point in their lives.”

    See comment above. Wal-Mart clerks will still be poor even if they live puritanical lives.

    “Yes, no sane person would think that calling people “peasants” would be at all offensive… except for the pesky fact that it is a slur against American workers.”

    I’ve been lightheartedly invoking the term for years, usually directly to American workers since that’s the company I keep. The only person who has ever taken offense to it, real or artificial, is you.

    “Yes, because it’s perfectly logical that a business owner would take someone off the street and promote them rather than a worker that they’ve known for some time. That makes perfect sense. As Borat would say, “NOT!””

    I’ll tell you what, Jay Reding….I’ll take you up on your challenge to “spend more time with small business owners to see how small businesses operate” if you spend a little time stocking shelves at a grocery store or discount retailer. Given the low rate of pay, recruiting new people off the street has become increasingly competitive for grocers and retailers in most decent-sized markets. They frequently roll out the red carpet to lasso in the 21-year-old single kid driving a trust fund sports car, offering him a relatively upscale position to entice him in the door. Meanwhile, the single mom living paycheck to paycheck and who has worked at the store for five years is known by the boss to be too desperate to walk away from her job, so she fails to get the promotion and remains a cashier into year six. It’s abundantly clear you haven’t the slightest hint of the politics, favortism, and social Darwinism that plays out on the floor of the typical nonunion grocery/discount retail store. You’re overdue for a lesson.

    “We tried your way for nearly four decades, and in those four decades the rate of poverty skyrocketed.”

    Come again?

    http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/poverty/histpov/hstpov2.html

    Real world figures should that the poverty rate fell by half in the decades during and following Great Society, and only started rising again during those glorious Reagan years conservatives would like us to believe as being as the 20th century’s Renaissance. Four decades ago was 1968, Jay, and the poverty rate in America was 12.8%. In 2006, the rate was 12.3%. Care to explain that constitutes “skyrocketing” in conservative orthodoxy?