I wish I had a nickel for every college student I know who's been assigned to read "Nickel and Dimed," by journalist Barbara Ehrenreich. The book recounts Ehrenreich's two years working undercover at low-wage jobs such as waitress, hotel maid and Wal-Mart salesperson.

Her dire conclusion: America condemns its unskilled workers to a life of poverty and hopelessness.

This view is orthodoxy on college campuses, where many professors spoon-feed it to wide-eyed students. But now a young man named Adam Shepard has stepped forward to challenge Ehrenreich's tale of woe.

Shepard, 26, hails from North Carolina, where "Nickel and Dimed" was a required freshman text at the state's flagship public university at Chapel Hill. At age 19, he read the book after a woman for whom he did yard work handed him a copy. "I know what you're going through," she assured him. "You'll love this book."

Shepard was dubious. "I decided to find out for myself if the American Dream is dead," he said at a speech last week sponsored by the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota. He launched his own undercover investigation, and chronicled it in a new book, "Scratch Beginnings."

Shepard began his experiment in 2006, after graduating from Merrimack College in Massachusetts. He chose a random city -- Charleston, S.C. -- and got off the train there with $25 and the goal of reentering mainstream society in a year with a car, an apartment and a $2,500 bank account. He would do it all without using a credit card or disclosing his college education.

Initially, Shepard bedded down in a homeless shelter and scrounged for day labor. Soon, he landed a back-breaking job as a furniture mover, making $9 an hour.

He set a tight budget, sought out free entertainment and shopped at Goodwill. Within six months, he had socked away enough money to buy a rattletrap car and move to a small apartment.

Along the way, Shepard met others who were trying to scramble up the ladder of success. One was Derrick, a high school dropout who became Shepard's hero. Derrick -- a fellow mover -- had a profound work ethic, a house, a wife and daughter, and a growing bank account. "In just three years, he had catapulted himself to the top of the list as the guy that everyone wanted to work with," wrote Shepard.

But Shepard also met many folks who were going nowhere. They included BG, Derrick's cousin, who routinely blew his money on beer, cigarettes and lottery tickets.

"I expected to find a lot of old, bearded men with whiskey on their breath in the shelter," said Shepard in an interview. "I was amazed at the number of young, healthy guys who just couldn't keep their hands on a dollar."

Why did Derrick succeed while BG didn't?

"Guys like Derrick took their jobs seriously. They wanted to excel, and they took pride in what they accomplished. But you could tell that other guys just came to work to make a few bucks to party or get their landlords off their back."

Ehrenreich portrays low-wage workers as exploited and frequently depressed. But Shepard says he found that those who took responsibility for their own ups and downs tended to be happy, while those who viewed themselves as victims did not.

"Take the bus driver who drove my 6 a.m. bus every day. He could have been grouchy and bored. Instead, he lifted everyone's spirits with a smile as wide as his bus, and a friendly comment or witty remark. Everyone who got off his bus had his demeanor changed for the better."

Shepard ended his project after 10 months, when his mother had a recurrence of cancer. He had met all his goals, and had piled up a whopping $5,200 in the bank.

And Ehrenreich?

"It's clear from her book that she wanted to fail, and then write a book about it," Shepard said.

Shepard's objective now is to share what he's learned with his own generation. "Too many of those on the bottom see themselves as victims," he explained. "Too many of those on the top are hampered by a sense of entitlement."

"I'm frustrated with hearing 'I don't have,' rather than "Let's see what I can do with what I do have,' " he adds.

Katherine Kersten • 612-673-1774 kkersten @startribune.com Join the conversation at my blog, www.startribune.com/thinkagain.