A few years back, I read a great book entitled Scratch Beginnings. It was written by a young man named Adam Shepard who told of his experiences while conducting an extensive, self-immersed experiment to determine whether or not the American Dream was still alive in this country.
Shepard had grown frustrated by the whining, complaining, and overall defeatist attitude of his peers who insisted that people of meager beginnings couldn’t become successful in this country anymore. After reading a book by author Barbara Ehrenrich, who essentially reinforced that mindset, Shepard decided to take it upon himself to demonstrate, by putting his money where his mouth was, that the narrative was wrong.
After graduating college, he began a year-long project that entailed him essentially starting his life from scratch. With only an 8′ x 10′ tarp, a sleeping bag, an empty gym bag, $25 in his pocket, and the clothes on his back, he took a train out of state and got off at a random stop. There, in an unfamiliar city, he lived among the homeless and began his journey toward the American dream. For his project to be considered successful at the end of his 365-day run, he had to possess an operable automobile, live in a furnished apartment, have $2500 in cash, and have started his own business. Off limits were the use of his college education, credit history, or the help of anyone he had known prior to the start of the project.
I read Scratch Beginnings in 2008 while I was paying regular visits to a local blood-plasma bank, desperate to build up some extra income over fears that the struggling company I worked for was about to go under. It was amusing to learn, while reading his story, that donating plasma for money was also a part of Shepard’s weekly routine as he fought to better his situation. We had other things in common. Despite the obstacles and fears that stood in front of us, neither of us bought into the notion that the country’s Socioeconomic makeup was keeping people down.
That was a theme that was being pushed in this country at the time I was reading the book. The primary battle over the 2008 presidential election was going strong. Even while the economy, as a whole, appeared to be doing well, and unemployment was quite low, Democratic candidates like Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Barack Obama were routinely insisting that income inequality was a social injustice, and that the game was stacked against the poor and the middle class.
If there was ever a time when I was weak enough to let people like that convince me that I was a hapless victim, it was then. But it didn’t happen. My life experiences had taught me something very different: This country is full of opportunity. It’s up to us to work for it. Self-reliance is the key to success, and rich people aren’t the problem. Their wealth only brings more opportunities for the rest of us to succeed.
Adam Shepard proved what I already knew to be true. He made tough choices, took responsibility for his own well-being, went out on limbs, worked his butt off, and took advantage of opportunities afforded to him by being a citizen of the United States. By the ten-month mark, he had made it into that furnished apartment, bought a pickup truck, saved around $5,300, and started his own moving company. He found that the American dream was still alive and well.
But that was a few years ago – prior to the Great Recession and the era of Obama. Does the American dream still exist?
If you’ve listened to the rhetoric coming out of the White House, and taken note of the spreading mindset among the American public over the past four years, you’d think the answer was ‘No’.
When the message that strikes a chord with people is that the average American in this country can’t thrive because the rich are too wealthy, and that message is awarded with re-election, rugged individualism has been dealt a crippling blow. When the aspiration to become rich is replaced with an envy-fueled vindictiveness aimed at those who are rich, the unfortunate outcome is a permanent underclass of underachievers.
The problem is that we have a president who has little faith in the abilities of the American people to succeed on their own merits. He instinctively believes that government empowerment, not individual empowerment, is the answer to a fair, just society. So if the president doesn’t place value in individuals, why should individuals place value in themselves?
This is terrible for America, especially during tough economic times when people are desperate. It demoralizes a country that has traditionally led the world in innovation, influence, and economic strength on the backs of individuals… not government. Yet, the collectivist theme has filtered its way down into the mainstream of our culture.
During this year’s campaign, when President Obama repeatedly asserted that concepts like trickle-down economics don’t work (despite three decades of unprecedented economic growth proving otherwise), Mitt Romney didn’t even bother to challenge him on it. That says something about how far we’ve fallen as a country in just a few short years. That says something about how quickly we’re transforming from a country of makers to a country of takers. Capitalism shouldn’t be a dirty word. It’s the most effective and compassionate economic system that has ever existed, and Americans need to be reminded of that. They also need to be reminded that they are the engine of wealth creation in this country. Not the government.
My hope is that this country is able to find its way back to its rugged individualist roots someday – maybe in a post-Obama America. But things aren’t looking good. While our government continues to dig a deeper and deeper economic hole for the next generation, more and more people from this generation are viewing themselves as victims. More and more people see government dependency as an easier, safer lifestyle than taking control of their own future. My fear is that fewer and fewer people will choose to go the route of Adam Shepard. Instead, they’ll view stories like his as works of fantasy when they should be viewed as a testament to the American spirit and the American dream.