HARDEST HIT Low-Wage Workers

Clinging to Dreams of a Better Life

A new poll shows that immigrant workers are more likely to think they can still achieve the "American dream," even though as a group, they have less formal education and face other obstacles, including language.
By Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 16, 2008

The handtruck is stacked several feet high with the goodies of 21st-century global innovation and commerce: LG cellphones and Canon digital cameras, GameBoys and GameCubes. Abderrafie el-Alami can't afford most of these items, but he handles the packages with care. Calculator, $20.99, top row. MP3 player headset, $24.99, third rung from the bottom.

Later, he'll leave the job at Circuit City for his four-story walkup in Alexandria, a two-bedroom flat he shares with two other men from Morocco, his homeland. It is a neat, spare existence, as well as crowded: His bed sits on the floor next to a plastic nightstand.

Alami, who is not married, has a masters' degree in public administration and will be 40 this year. Back home, his father is a respected former imam. But a job is a job, and Alami is not too good for the services industry, he thinks. There is no question that even after seven years of low-wage work and cramped living in Northern Virginia, and worrying about making ends meet, this $11.25 an hour job will lead him to what he has come to understand is achieving the "American dream."

"You work hard, you get ahead and you don't stop," he said. "There is a job to be done, and it is a good job because it pays. It doesn't really matter what my education was at home. The opportunity is here. And you take it, and you do it and it will work out."

Alami's complex but unwavering view that this better life is not far from his reach reflects results from a new survey conducted by The Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University that examined the experiences of low-wage workers in the United States. Foreign-born, low-wage workers in the poll said that the economic security they left homes and families to seek in the United States is becoming harder to attain. But their faith in that dream is still strong, as they tend to be more optimistic about the future and more satisfied with their jobs and wages than native-born workers.

Nearly eight in 10 believe that their children will lead even better financial lives, far above the proportion among the native-born that thinks so.

"With many immigrants, there is this sense that they made this hard choice to leave their homelands and they are going to make it under any cost," said Robert Trumble, a professor of management at Virginia Commonwealth University and director of the Virginia Labor Studies Center. "I think there's a tendency to see the positive, even under the most dire circumstances, because so much is at stake: They've left family, family members are counting on them and they want to make this work.

Follow-up interviews with nearly a dozen legal immigrants age 20 to 40 in the Washington region echo this optimism in the face of fragile financial circumstances.

The poll, conducted in June and July, focused on adults aged 18 to 64 who made no more than $27,000 last year while working at least 30 hours a week. Foreign-born workers make up 16 percent of this group, which together accounts for nearly one-quarter of all U.S. adults.

Adopting a Dream

These positive attitudes about life in what Alami calls "my New World" have long been the psychic backbone that has supported the lives of tens of millions of foreign-born laborers that for generations have made the United States a country of immigrants.

In part, this stems from the poverty and lack of opportunities many immigrants left in their homelands. Nearly seven in 10 of those surveyed in the Post-Kaiser-Harvard poll said they were better off than their parents were at this stage in their lives. Despite Alami's education, he was unable to find work in Morocco's major cities and saw emigrating nearly 4,000 miles as the only chance to help support his entire family.

Recently, however, these immigrants have been plagued by stagnating wages and rising inflation. Only about a third of foreign-born workers in the poll said their wages had gone up in past years; a majority said their incomes were flat or had declined. And they were more apt to report having a harder time paying for life's basics -- housing, food, health care and energy costs -- than the U.S.-born.

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