John Stossel / March 18, 2009

Making It

I’m sick of hearing that America is no longer a land of opportunity.

Even before the current recession, politicians and pundits were constantly wringing their hands about the “demise of the middle class.”

“Middle class families are struggling,” President Barack Obama kept saying on the campaign trail.

Lou Dobbs hammers away at this night after night: “What’s left of our middle class may be on the verge of collapse.”

And author Barbara Ehrenreich won fame by claiming that it’s almost impossible for an entry-level worker to make it in America. She wrote “Nickel and Dimed,” a book that describes her failure to “make it” working in entry-level jobs. Her book is now required reading in thousands of high schools and colleges. I spoke to her for my ABC special “Bailouts, Big Spending and Bull” (

“I worked as a waitress and an aide in a nursing home and a cleaning lady and a Wal-Mart associate. And that didn’t do it.”

If you do a good job, can’t you move up?

“That’s not easy. Wal-Mart capped the maximum you can ever make.”

But if you do a good job, you could be promoted to assistant manager, store manager.

“Well, I suppose.”

I pointed out that the new CEO of Wal-Mart, Mike Duke, started out as an hourly worker.

“There are always exceptions,” she said. “My father worked his way up and became a corporate executive. But that was a one-in-a-million situation.”

Oh, yeah?

“I read ‘Nickel and Dimed,’” Adam Shepard told me. He was assigned her book in college and decided to test Ehrenreich’s claim.

He picked a city out of a hat, Charleston, S.C., and showed up there with $25. He didn’t tell anyone about his college degree. He soon got an $8/hour job working for a moving company. He kept at it. Within a year, he told me, “I have got $5,500 and a car. I have got a furnished apartment.”

Adam writes about his search for the American Dream in “Scratch Beginnings” ( It’s a very different book from “Nickel and Dimed.”

“If you want to fail, go for it, ” he said.

Barbara Ehrenreich wanted to fail?

“Absolutely, I think she wanted to fail – and write the book about it.

I asked him for evidence.

"She is spending $40 on pants. She is staying in hotels. I made sacrifices so that I could succeed. She didn’t make any sacrifices.”

I asked Ehrenreich: Why can he do it, when you couldn’t?

“I know, it’s embarrassing.”

Were you trying to fail?

“I think that is so unfair. The $40 pants, that was a big mistake, and that was one mistake I made early on. The motels, that’s not a rich person option.”

You could have succeeded if you’d gotten a roommate.

“In time, yes, I could have gotten roommates.”

You’re saying you can’t make it in America in these jobs. And you can.

“I said, here’s what my experience was.”

Her account of her experience is a very misleading portrait of opportunity in America. American Enterprise Institute president Arthur Brooks ( points out, “From 1950 to 2007, middle-class family income went up, in real dollars, adjusted for inflation, from $29,000 a year to $75,000.”

Of course now we’re in the midst of a recession. Millions have lost jobs.

“We can’t make light of that. But we have to keep this in perspective. We’ve had worse recessions.”

Perspective is right.

“Middle-class people today live like rich people lived in the 1950s.”

“We’ve always said, ‘But in the old days things were better,’” Brooks notes. “They said that in the 1920s. They said that in the 1950s, and we say it again today. It’s not that we have less money. It’s that our expectations have risen.”

Lately, fear has risen, as the economy has fallen. But economies do recover.

“We have a society that rewards hard work and merit,” Brooks adds. “Half of the poor actually are not poor 10 years later. Nobody is stuck where they start out.”


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