Going over a package on poverty in the New Jersey Herald News, completed a couple weeks ago by my friend and former classmate Tom Meagher, I just realized that Tom had done more than write policy analysis and work and live as a temporary laborer for a month–he had also profiled several more regular members of the working-class poor, including two immigrants. One is a Peruvian father and husband named Julio, who has left his family behind in Lima. The other is a 20-year old son named Priyank Desai, arrived from India at the age of 16 and determined to help out his family:
Every week, Priyank Desai carries his paycheck home to the Passaic apartment he shares with his family, sets it before a makeshift shrine and prays to his Hindu deity.
“No matter how much money I make by working hard, it will all belong to you.”
Only after praying will he cash the check, which usually amounts to no more than $80 for two days of temporary work. He gives half to his parents to help pay for phone cards to call their extended family left behind in India, and for rides to work. The rest he spends on movies or lunch. He also pays for transportation to classes at Passaic County Community College that he hopes will lead him to a career as a Spanish teacher.(Link)
Tom himself spent a month working as a low-wage laborer in Passaic county. As the Columbia Journalism Review blog puts it, “It’s an old story idea — as old as George Orwell’s “Down and Out in London and Paris,” first printed in 1933 — but it’s a good one, and Meagher pulls it off.” It’s a particularly good idea because these stories are evergreen, and constantly need to be updated for our times. Nickled and Dimed came out over four years ago. Tom’s parameters:
I begin on Aug. 1, a Monday. I leave behind my checkbook, my ATM card, my credit card, my cell phone, my car keys, my fiancÃ©e and our apartment in Brooklyn. I’ve got $424 to get started, an amount based on a week’s wages at the Poverty Research Institute’s self-sufficiency level. (Link.)
The specifics change from state to state and generation to generation. Irish-Catholic Tom’s undercover project may seem unrelated to the Mutiny, but even this tempoary abandonment of the old for a shaky grasp on the new is a useful experiment for anyone trying to understand the troubles of a poor immigrant–Irish 150 years ago, Jews and Italians and Punjabi farmers 100 years ago, Senegalese and Peruvians and Indians and Bangladeshis today. Native-born Americans migrating from state to state. Some of the problems will always be the same. Getting a place to live. Finding a job. Trying to find community and sustenance at the library or a house of worship. Learning the new dialect, if not a whole new language–or two:
“I am really happy because I am helping my parents. They are really raising me up with love and affection. It’s my duty to help them out,” he said. Desai was 16 when his entire family received a coveted work visa and emigrated from India. He spoke very little English, although he could read and write it. He was excited to arrive in America.
“I imagined I would make a lot of money and find a beautiful girl for me.”
As he began classes at Passaic High School, he saw many of his classmates beginning to work and yearned to join them. His parents were able to provide for him, but he was tired of sitting at home after school. He wanted to be able to make money for himself, and to be able to contribute to his family’s finances.
. . .Through school friends and his Latino co-workers at Brickforce, he has become nearly fluent in both Spanish and English. He plans to continue to work there until he finishes school in a year and a half.(Link.)
Today Tom updated his work with a new story on the increase in poverty in New Jersey.