Dreaming Big

Posted: Mar 28, 2008 3:54 PM

Bad news always seems to be in vogue, but it’s worse than usual lately. The economy, the media tells us, is collapsing. People are losing their jobs (outsourced to Mexico because of NAFTA), their homes (repossessed by cruel banks), their investments (dragged down by a sinking stock market) and their hope (crushed under a mountain of debt).

Things are so bad, CNN has started a noon program focusing on “Issue Number One,” the wounded economy. Recently, Thelma Gutierrez reported live from a food bank in Riverside, Calif. “The people here say that they’ve noticed an increase in need and an increase in the number of families who are coming to them for help,” Gutierrez said. “The majority are now middle-class families.”

So: Is the American dream dead?

Not according to the new book “Scratch Beginnings” by Adam Shepard. “I am frustrated with the whining and complaining,” Shepard writes in his introduction. He’s just out of college, and sets out to prove it’s still possible to make it in America. With just $25, a sleeping bag and the clothes on his back, Shepard headed for Charleston, S.C.

He gave himself just one year to become a “regular” member of society. He wouldn’t take advantage of his degree, his parents or his friends. Starting from zero, Shepard would aim to “possess an operable automobile, live in a furnished apartment (alone or with a roommate), have $2,500 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.”

Shepard landed at Crisis Ministries, a homeless shelter where he lived for more than two months. He ate most meals there, learned how to wash his clothes in the shower and started saving his pennies. He worked odd jobs for little pay before landing a longer term gig with a furniture moving company.

Along the way Shepard learned that private individual charity still works. For one thing, plenty of volunteers came to his shelter to donate or serve food. And one Sunday he went to a church where “Joseph, who had been living on the streets since his time had run out at the shelter, was given a bag full of clothes, food vouchers, and the invitation to come live in a vacant room at one of the churchgoers’ houses.”

The kindness was overwhelming. “Members of these churches were reaching out to offer assistance,” Shepard writes. “Not just a few dollars here and there or a pair of pants, but a place to live! I couldn’t believe it.” Think about that the next time somebody says we need another federal program to battle poverty.

Shepard puts his finger on what’s really putting the American dream at risk. “A lot of us spend our lives living beyond our means, working for items that aren’t necessarily within our reach,” he notes. “We rack up credit card debt and spend money on material items and vacations that we can’t quite afford.”

The CNN report bears that out.

Patricia Guerrero explained she’d recently lost her $70,000 per year job, and she’d apparently been spending most of that money as soon as it came in. Before going to the soup kitchen, she told reporter Gutierrez, “I just remember you take off the Tiffany bracelet and you take off -- you don’t take in your Coach purse because it is not worth anything anyways.”

Clearly it’s American priorities, not opportunities, that have changed.

Shepard eventually succeeds in his quest. Of course, as he acknowledges, some will say he only got ahead because he was a young healthy man who didn’t have to worry about, say, health insurance. But it’s worth noting that even wealthy people often go without coverage.

Just last year a study found that rock stars are more likely to die at a young age. No real surprise there. Researcher Mark Bellis told reporters that could be because aging American pop stars don’t buy health insurance.

But why can’t health insurance work like car insurance? It’s almost impossible to turn on the TV without seeing an ad for car insurance. Dozens of companies compete to offer the best prices and services.

The health insurance market could be just as competitive. Federal tax policy is the reason it isn’t. Because of a World War II era policy, most people get health coverage through their job. If we created a private market, more people would have access to better coverage.

“More than anything else over the course of my project, I grew to appreciate, even more than before, that we live in the greatest country in the world,” Shepard concludes. “In spite of all the whining and complaining that goes on in our country, I’d say we’re doing all right.”

Anyone who questions the American dream should read this book, and prepare to be re-energized.