According to No Shame in My Game:
"Established German Jews who had gained success in America by the end of the nineteenth century were embarassed by their poor brethren from the shtetls of Eastern Europe who were then landing in boatloads. The middle-class reformers among them who established well-financed and effective social service agencies to take care of their poor "Russian" kinsmen were motivated in no small measure by the desire to conceal these mortifying cases from the watchful eyes of mainstream society." (pg 168)
This method of assimilation has been followed in a number of ethnic enclaves, recently, and with the most success by Chinese and Japanese immigrants. The above paragraph is located within a chapter about the breakdown of social networks which can help the working poor to achieve social and economic mobility.
The question becomes, when these social networks break down, whose responsibility is it to replace/fix them? Is it the government? I tend to think so, but after reading an article on the projected raise of the minimum wage (from WashPo of course) it occurs to me, perhaps belatedly, that such a raise does not come without many possible pitfalls for those whom it is supposed to help. Clearly minimum wage cannot help the working poor on its own, our country is also desperately in need of welfare reform (and in my mind socialized healthcare). It is no accident that today the WashPo also ran an editorial by Robert J. Samuelson suggesting that we should cut entitlements (Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security) to the boomer generation.
This topic has been one under discussion recently by my group of friends. The roommate's gentleman caller is the child of immigrants, and firmly believes in "bootstrapping." You know, pulling oneself up by one's bootstraps. Just like Carnegie did. Just like many of our immigrant grandparents, great-grandparents did. However, in this time and place, I think (and No Shame agrees) that bootstrapping is limited to individuals or groups who have:
-Social or human capital, ie skilled workers, those who speak English well, can live cheaply or for free with family or friends.
-Few or no encumberments (like children or elderly relatives). One cannot support a single person, let alone more than one, on minimum wage in New York City, even by living in poor, depressed, or dangerous neighborhoods, without some form of assistance, either from a communal living situation, or public funds.
-Luck. A single accident or illness is catastrophic without health insurance and/or employment insurance.
We have created a situation where the poverty cycle is nigh on inescapable for many reasons (as outlined in the book No Shame, really, go read it), and no safety net for those trapped beneath it. Hard work is no longer enough to get ahead; as a society we need to accept that truth as the first step towards real change. Accord the working poor the dignity that they deserve, and then give up a larger cut of our paychecks so that their children have the same opportunities that ours do.
And here is where I get preachy and patriotic: America should be a land of opportunity, a true meritocracy, where equality of opportunity exists. The possibility for social mobility is what has made this country great, because with the chance for advancement comes our work ethic, and our ingenuity. Yes, we need to save Darfur, help rebuild after the tsunami and Katrina, but we also need to look in our own backyards.