Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Know Your Jewish Community: Bootstrapping

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.


Liberal Jew said...

-Luck. A single accident or illness is catastrophic without health insurance and/or employment insurance.

Brilliant. This is possibly the most important aspect of bootstrapping. My grandfather did it and he worked every day of his life until he was 65 and then lived the rest out on savings. That is nearly impossible now. His daughter (my mom) helped him with moving into a care facility and but he had saved. No matter how you slice it, his luck was important.

Luck is totally underrated and completely random. I feel lucky to sit here and write this.

Very well done with this post and I am off to my local book store during lunch to pick up this book. It is always nice to get a little boost form a book I know I will agree with.

Benjamin said...

Honestly, hard work was never the way you got ahead. If it was, we wouldn't have worried about the horrible plight of the mill workers, or the coal miners, etc. Working sixteen-hour days in a coal mine? That's hard work! Didn't get them far, and when they complained, the Army shot 'em.

"Making it" in America has always required hard work, intelligence, and ruthless ambition (Carnegie, Morgan, etc.). Just "wanting to be comfortable" is not something the American system supports. You have to continually seek out higher and better.

LT said...

Hard work is not everything, and never has been. I could sit hard at work digging a massive ditch, and then using my same shovel to fill that ditch up. To be productive, you have to do the right kind of work.

I read an article somewhere (I forget where) that the incredible work ethic prevalent among Mexican immigrants is working against them. They encourage their children to work their butts off, when what they should be doing is encouraging their children to pursue as much education as possible before entering the fulltime workforce. Never before has a college degree meant so much in terms of lifetime earning potential.

But of course, if everyone had the "right" values and emphasized hard work in pursuing an education... who would do all the menial jobs?

rokhl said...

I read "no shame" a couple of years ago, before I went to law school, and it totally rocked my world.

One of the things I feel differently about now is those shady seeming small business schools that you see advertised on the subway. You know the ones, where they teach things like ophthalmological dispensing. Now, on one hand, I've heard worrying things about these schools, how they don't graduate students, get them into debt without giving them skills, but I can't believe it's all the schools in this category.

Also, now that I've worked in different kinds of law settings, I see that if you can be a paralegal, that is, if you have a high level of reading and communication skills (much higher than required for McJob) then there is a whole world of opportunity open to disadvantaged youths. Good paralegals really are always in demand (like the ad says) and the pay tends to be quite good (though the work can be grueling). More than that, once you're in a professional setting, you can see a world of options and possibilities that you don't see when you work a McJob.

So, the question is, is it horrible and paternalistic and racist to encourage a young peson from say, Harlem, to go to Interboro business school for a practical associates degree, rather than encourage them to go to City College for a liberal arts degree, where, and again, I'm basing this on first hand acquaintance with a number of young people, as well as things I've read, they spend much time on remedial courses and struggling with basic literature classes in order to get, *if they're lucky and stick it out*, what is ultimately a useless liberal arts degree?