Book Review: Scratch Beginnings

After graduating from Merrimack College in 2006, Adam Shepard embarked on a social experiment about a year later that would change his life. Quite literally, Adam became one of the nation’s poor. Scratch Beginnings: Me, $25, and the Search for the American Dream is about Adam’s voluntary, instant descent into poverty and his slow rise from it.

Scratch BeginningsSelecting a city by drawing names from a hat, Adam got off the train in Charleston, South Carolina with $25, his sleeping bag, and the clothes on his back. Though his first encounter almost got him beaten up, he soon found his way to Crisis Ministries, a homeless shelter that focuses on getting people on their feet and back to becoming productive members of society.

He lived, slept, ate, worked, and interacted with the poor and homeless as one of them. He never used his college education to help him get a job, nor did he use his previous contacts. He quite literally became one of the working poor in order to experience what they experienced, to feel what they felt, to understand their plight and what it would take to overcome it. He was starting from scratch.

Adam committed to performing this experiment for one year with several goals in mind:
1. Have a steady job. Check – worked as a mover with a “super mover” named Derrick.
2. Have a furnished apartment. Check – shared with his roommate, BG.
3. Have a vehicle. Check – a pickup truck.
4. Have $2,500 in savings. Check – actually saved up $5,300. Wow.
5. Be in a position to continue to improve himself. Check – the difference is attitude and he, as well as Derrick, had it.
Photo of BG, Adam, Derrick
BG (roommate), Adam, and Derrick (super-mover)

Adam accomplished these (and more) within 10 months and left Charleston to care for his mother, who had to undergo high-dose chemotherapy for cancer.

All along the way, Adam makes some poignant observations, especially while living in the homeless shelter. Quoting the book on page 61:

In my mind, I had to be prepared to put my wants aside indefinitely as I fought to attain my basic needs. I didn’t yet have the means to provide my own food, shelter, clothing, or an automobile. Nothing. So the more money I spent on booze or cigarettes or snacks or the latest pair of shoes that nobody else on the block had yet, the farther I would be from accomplishing what I had set out to accomplish. To me, money that wasn’t saved or going toward other worthy means was money wasted.

What I got out of this book was that any person can make it if they’re willing to sacrifice. Sacrifice having a cell phone, eating out (even cheaply), driving a showy car, living in a fancy home with new furniture, going “clubbing,” drinking, smoking, cable TV, clothes from the mall, or having some expensive hobby. Sacrificing now will allow you to enjoy all those same things later, but you’ll be able to afford them.

He had brought up a good point about society in America, not just the homeless shelter. Are we very economically savvy? A lot of us spend our lives living beyond our means, working for items that aren’t necessarily within our reach. We rack up credit card debt and spend money on material items and vacations that we can’t quite afford. We splurge for a private-school education for our children, but then we offset it when we buy them the latest, mind numbing video-game system and all of the cool games to go along with it. And we live in luxury homes and condos that we cant even enjoy because we have to work overtime to cover the mortgage payment. Why? Because we don’t know any better? Or are we compensating for a life that we didn’t have growing up? Couldn’t we be putting our money toward more worthwhile pursuits?

Why indeed?

I’ve read some criticisms that he didn’t have 3 kids tagging along, that he wasn’t part of an ethnic group, or that he was raised in an environment that encouraged him and allowed him to dream big. But my reply is, “So What?” Does anyone expect him to drag three kids into such an experiment? He can’t change the color of his skin and he didn’t ask to be born into his current socio-economic situation, so to the detractors out there, I say, “YOU go give it a try.” The simple fact is that people pull themselves out of poverty all the time. It all depends on how badly someone wants it.

My father lost his dad when he was only 13 years old. Living in very rural Alabama, he and his mother suddenly had no source of income and literally lost everything they ever had. Many nights they had nothing to eat, but my grandmother and my father never gave up. My dad married my mother, then finished high school, worked in manual labor jobs, and eventually became a successful business owner. He suffered enormous setbacks all along the way but he will tell you that if someone, anyone is willing to sacrifice, make wise decisions, make deposits to a savings account, work hard, make extra money, and keep their commitments, they can pull themselves out of poverty.

People of all races make bad decisions, people with or without college degrees make bad decisions, people with fabulous family support make bad decisions. No one is above failure but the fact is, anyone can set a realistic goal and make the sacrifices necessary to achieve it. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, as Adam found out in the homeless shelter, it’s where you’re going.

After reading this book, I am thoroughly convinced that basic financial literacy is one of the most important skills we can teach so that people can make the wise choices that will help them have a balanced, fulfilling life. What causes people to fall into poverty is a very complex issue and it won’t be solved by one person performing an experiment. But Adam Shepard’s project does solidify one thing in my mind: poverty can be overcome through hard work, dedication, and a never-give-up attitude.

Adam ShepardRecommendation: Buy or Don’t Buy?

Adam suggests that you don’t buy his book, but borrow it from the library. That being said, I would recommend you DO buy it and read it. One caveat: there is a lot of street language. I wouldn’t recommend it for younger audiences (under 16) and I hope there is a “kid-friendly” version soon to come out. The message could be a very powerful one for the younger set. For the record, I plan to donate my copy to the local library so that others CAN borrow it. Thanks for the suggestion Adam!

[tags]scratch beginnings, poverty, homeless, homelessness, committment, goals, money, finance, financial[/tags]