Thursday, March 12, 2009

Out of Action for a Bit

I am going in for non-scary surgery this morning. [OK, Mrs. will only allow that it is not very scary.] This will knock me out for a few days.

I am working on a nifty post about the science of the idea that men and women have different "sexual peaks." Stay tuned.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Scratch Beginnings is Not About Race (Surprisingly)

Adam Shepard is white - I know this from his picture on the cover of Scratch Beginnings. Some of the people he lives with in the shelter and works with at the moving company in Charleston, SC, are black. I think. There are clues in the biographies and dialogues he gives us that suggest as much. So does the sheer demography of Charleston. If there is a hero in the book, it is Derrick, the best mover in the company who becomes Shepard's partner and landlord. Several context clues suggest strongly that Derrick is black.

Yet it is a remarkable fact about this book and the world it illuminates that race never intrudes in the story. The men in the shelter and on the several jobs Shepard has seem to be of many hues and ethnicities, but that is not central to their story. And it is not possible that a college-educated Southern white boy did not notice race or did not think about whether it matters. My guess is that Shepard was determined not to make race one of his standards for measuring people. When he was writing his story, his race did not seem to be central to how others were measuring him. I believe he must have made a conscious decision not to tell readers the race of the people he met because it was not really important to the story he was telling.

I take this as a measure of progress. Adam Shepard is of a new generation. Survey research suggests that Millennials think that ethnic variety is a good thing, and race just doesn't tell you much about what another person is like. If this means the rising generation is less obsessed with race than the retiring generation has been, then we are indeed making progress.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Scratch Beginnings Shows the Continuing Power of Privilege

Yesterday I wrote about Adam Shepard's experiment in Scratch Beginnings to work his way up from nothing to something by hard work and careful thrift. He succeeded, which is the main point of his book and a valuable lesson to keep testing.

Shepard also had several advantages that many of the other guys in the homeless shelter did not. He was young, healthy, and educated. He did not come into the shelter with addictions, a criminal record, or children to care for. He was a native English speaker. These are all privileges. Shepard did not ignore the advantages he had. Rather, he was making a case that attitude, work, and prudence can still produce success. He also believes, though of course could not prove with this one-case experiment, that attitude, work, and prudence could overcome the disadvantages that many of the other guys had.

Shepard bolsters his case with some valuable lessons he learned from the people he met in the shelter and on the job. Chapter 7 is entitled "Job Hunting 101 with Professor Phil Coleman." Coleman was one of the "resident nutcases at the shelter that no one paid much attention to." But he did give Shepard a valuable lesson in how to get hired:

You gotta go down to these managers and be like, 'Look here, homeboy. You need me. I'm the best worker you're gonna find, so hire me or not.'

Shepard accepted this as a solid point. He did go on to get a real job by persistently selling himself as a good worker. Shepard also knew the even more important follow-up point:

And after I had a job, it was just a matter of disciplining myself enough to keep that job and save the money that I needed to achieve my financial goals.

This second point was one that, sadly, Professor Coleman never managed to take in, which was why he had had 50 jobs but was still a regular at the homeless shelter.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Scratch Beginnings Shows the Continuing Power of Hard Work

Adam Shepard read Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed in college. As an experiment, she tried to live on minimum wage, and found it nearly impossible to feed, clothe, and, especially, house herself on minimum wage. Shepard wondered if it would really be so hard to work up from nothing, if you were disciplined and not self-destructive. Putting his money where his mouth was, he took the clothes on his back and $25 to Charleston (chosen at random). He tells his story in Scratch Beginnings.

He found a homeless shelter the first night. He took every job he could find. He managed his money very carefully. He didn't smoke, drink, or buy lottery tickets - the specific ways his sheltermates wasted their little extra money.

Most importantly, he learned that he was never going to get a regular job by filling out want ads when he lived at a homeless shelter. Instead, he took himself to an employer who caught his eye - a moving company, but it could have been any of dozens of blue collar jobs - and made a determined pitch that he was a hard worker who could be relied on. They took a chance on him. He wasn't a great mover, but he learned. He worked civilly with the other movers, especially the good ones. And he just kept showing up reliably, taking harder jobs as they were offered.

Shepard gave himself one year to have himself housed with next month's rent ready (Ehrenreich's standard) plus have a working vehicle and $2,500 in the bank. Through hard work and diligence, he met those goals within 8 months. He also made friends, and learned to respect the guys at the bottom who kept working honestly.

Adam Shepard gives a good answer to Barbara Ehrenreich's main claim that the bottom rung jobs are not enough to sustain a worker.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Can Gen-X Bring Outcomes Assessment to the Church?

My fellow Presbyterian-poker Michael Kruse has a good post, "Budgets Are Not Moral Documents." He takes issues with evangelical Left leader Jim Wallis, who has famously argued that budgets are, indeed, moral documents. Wallis' contention is that you tell what an organization values by what it spends on. I think this is partly true. But Kruse makes the important point that what really matters to the world is not what you spent money on, but what effect your spending, and your work, has.

The church, and the non-profit world in general, are just pervaded with the idea that what matters is what we put in to achieving our goals, not what we get out of our money and work. Kruse is a church reformer trying to get the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to pay more attention to the effects of its spending than their good intentions (or worse, to their job protection intentions). Mrs. G. is an education reformer trying to redirect the attention of public schools in a parallel way. Higher education, where I labor, is beset by ranking systems that measure inputs, like endowments size and spending per pupil, and not outcomes - what students learn and what kind of people they become as a result.

I have written about the broad difference in mindset between Baby Boomers and Generation X. I don't know where Kruse fits in this narrative. I do know that Wallis is a classic Boomer. I am on the cusp between the two generations, so I daily notice the difference. Boomers are often content to be judged by the morality of their rhetoric. Xers are more likely to eschew rhetoric and Just Do It.

One of the great achievements of Gen X as they now come to power could be to shift the practice of institutions from talking a good game to doing what it takes to actually improve achievement.