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.