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Jewish World Review Sept. 15, 2004 / 29 Elul, 5764

Julia Gorin

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The (subsidized) American dream

http://www.jewishworldreview.com | By the time my mother, sister and I joined my father in America in 1976, he had saved $6,000 after two years of working as a violinist in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. His annual salary was $11,000. A former dissident from the Soviet Union, he never thought he'd see that kind of money in his lifetime ($36,000 in today's dollars). The $6,000 ($19,600 today) was enough for a down-payment on a house in the suburbs, and his salary was able to support a family of four.


We had a car — a used, sixty-dollar 1966 Plymouth that my dad had gone 50-50 on with a fellow immigrant Symphony pal. (In today's money, that $30 apiece means $107 each.) When my mom started working as a computer programmer the following year at $9,000, our cup was running over.


For my husband's family, the year was 1980, the family car was $200, and his parents — working as engineers for $5 and $10 an hour — were able to put a down-payment on a house within five years. They had help: In a combined effort, the State of Maryland and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society provided housing, utilities, food and healthcare — the same things that today's working poor get. But the family, who had come to America in March, were off the dole by November. (My mother-in-law proudly recalls the date: October 24th.)


The Soviet émigrés of the 70s and early 80s were a motivated bunch. For American-born welfare beneficiaries, on the other hand, it wasn't until the system itself became the motivator in 1996 that they were weaned off. That year, the Republican-controlled Congress's Welfare Reform Bill changed welfare from a lifestyle choice to a temporary solution used by people who work — just as we immigrants had used it (at least the honest ones among us). It stipulated a two-year deadline for finding a job, at which point the help would become more specific (childcare, housing, vocational training, work transportation — including money to fix the car if it's the only way to get to work). No one would be left out in the cold. Dick Morris advised a kicking and screaming Bill Clinton to sign the bill — if he wanted to get reelected. So what are today's Democrats thinking?

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Edwards painted an idyllic picture of his life growing up the son of a mill laborer. He credited his mother's part-time furniture refinishing with putting him through college, then declared that every American, no matter who they are, where they live or what their color, should have the same opportunity he did. The crowd roared. Yet the "opportunity" he described his modest background as affording him in this country qualified precisely as the poverty that he — and the other speakers — spent the whole convention railing against. So, while commending his parents for busting their behinds their whole lives and promising everyone the opportunity to do the same, he said no one should have to live that way.


The difference between Edwards' experience and the one he laments on behalf of the "working poor" were once summed up by Ronald Reagan: "We were poor when I was young, but the difference then was that the government didn't come around telling you you were poor."


John Edwards' parents were poor. But the government didn't come around telling them so. That blissful ignorance helped keep their spirits buoyant, their incentive to succeed intact, and the family afloat. But today their wealthy son and his party want to rob those in comparable situations of what Edwards had: the American will to persevere — the buoyancy of spirit which, when it falters, is buttressed by a safety net that includes free or subsidized healthcare for today's so-called working poor, as well as food stamps, transportation, childcare, job training and housing — those things that Soviet immigrants, empty-handed and new to a country, washed our hands of at first opportunity. Had we thought we couldn't get by without it, we would have stayed in the Soviet Union.


It was my parents' talent for necessary frugality, along with hand-me-downs from American friends, that got us through the difficult early years — not government programs. Somehow we managed, we found a way — because we had to. We survived, because America gave us hope — and not the kind that John Edwards promises is "on the way." His idea of "hope" is what we left in the Soviet Union.


For my family, it's been a long struggle and a hard-earned success. Kerry-Edwards, please don't take us back to Russia.

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JWR contributor Julia Gorin tours with Right Stuff Comedy and performs in the monthly New York-based show Republican Riot. Send your comments by clicking here.

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© 2004, Julia Gorin