Scratch Beginnings is a chronicle of recent college grad Adam Shephard‘s fascinating self-experiment:

I am going to start almost literally from scratch with one 8′ by 10′ tarp, a sleeping bag, an empty gym bag, $25, and the clothes on my back. Via train, I will be dropped at a random place somewhere in the southeastern United States that is not in my home state of North Carolina. I have 365 days to become free of the realities of homelessness and become a “regular” member of society. After one year, for my project to be considered successful, I have to possess an operable automobile, live in a furnished apartment…, have $2500 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.

His ground rules throw away all the easy ways out:

On paper, my previous life doesn’t exist for this one year. I cannot use any of my previous contacts, my college education, or my credit history… I cannot beg for money or use services that others are not at liberty to use.

He does not, however, rule out reliance on the welfare state. In fact, his initial life in a homeless shelter is the dramatic heart of the book – I couldn’t put the book down until Shephard got on his own two feet. (Afterwards, it lost steam, but it’s still well worth the price of admission).

My only big critique of this book: Shephard’s self-experiment wasn’t really necessary, because illegal immigrants have been proving his point for years. If the American economy didn’t allow unskilled, unconnected people to work their way from abysmal poverty to moderate affluence (known to Americans as “relative poverty”), people wouldn’t risk their lives to come here. So when Shephard ends his book with a call to action to help America’s poor help themselves, it doesn’t ring true. His self-experiment is another reminder that true humanitarians should focus on the world’s bottom billions – and that restricting the immigration of the bottom billions for the sake of relatively poor Americans is a crime.

P.S. Another high point: Shephard independently reaches my conclusion that the poor should get roommates:

Despite my reservations, Larry was set on moving out the next week. He wasn’t interested in hearing what I had to say about finding a place that was cheaper and maybe even getting a roommate. He didn’t even want to listen when I told him that the second bedroom he required to house the drum set he was going to buy was just not a feasible option. He had his mind made up, so I had to let the issue lay to rest.