"He spent a week learning enough English to get a job in a machine shop for about $1 an hour.
In short, he was just about as low as you can go on the totem pole in America."
No, he wasn't. He got a decent paying job with little to no skills. He didn't create that job, the opportunity was there for him.
According to http://data.bls.gov/cgi-bin/cpicalc.pl
-> $1 in 1932 has the buying power of nearly $15 today. So, with no skills, he got a job paying today's equivalent of nearly $15/hr while having little to no expenses. That's pretty lucky, if you ask me. My best friend is trying to pay her way through college. Since she needs to attend classes, she can't work full-time. Since she's not yet a college graduate, she can't get a high-paying job. She would jump for joy at the chance to earn $15/hr. Despite the fact that English is her native tongue, and she had a 4.0GPA through high school, she earns maybe... 2/3rds of that number. Maybe a little bit more. Of course, we're also currently living through the heart of a huge economic downturn instead of catching the nation on its greatest economic and social upswing in history.
I'm doing everything I can to get myself through college, and I've lucked out pretty nicely. My best friend's dad hired me and pays me pretty well, and helps me with tuition. I'm lucky because I know a generous man with extra resources. I'm not getting a handout, because when I'm not at school, I'm working for him at his shop. I am, however, getting an opportunity. You'll never catch me saying how I built everything I had by myself, because I recognize that the foundation for a grand opportunity was made by someone else and I benefited. That's how the world should work. Not through handouts and the like, but through laying the groundwork for opportunity.
Oh, and despite my great opportunity and (relative to my friends) decent paycheck, paying for a roof over my head cost 50% of what I make, before any and all other expenses come in. Gotta pay for gas and maintain my car, because to get between work, home, and school means I drive 120 miles every day. I don't get to live the university life in a dorm, doing nothing but studying, because my parents could never afford that. In fact, I make more money than my own mother (who, by today's standards, makes less than the "bottom of the totem pole" figure you named before). I've lucked out, and got a lot of help from others, and yet it's still very challenging to improve my life.
I have another good friend, she doesn't attend college. She's not stupid, and she had attended classes in the past. But she needs to work full-time. You see, she had a respiratory illness and had to go the ER once. Despite having insurance, she's stuck with the bill. She's still paying off that bill. It's all she can do. She works, and lives, to pay off a bill she should've never had. Because of this, she's not going to school, she's not improving her life, she's doing everything she can to stay where she's at.
I would venture to say that most of our "poor" are in a similar situation. They're doing everything they can just so that they can maintain what little they have. I'm a little more fortunate. I can manage a little bit of upward socioeconomic mobility, but it certainly takes a lot of work. I wake up around 6am to go to work, got 60 miles from work to school, and then get back home sometime after 10pm. I'm not complaining, I know I have it good. I recognize and acknowledge what got me where I'm at, and I recognize and acknowledge what others don't
have that keeps them where they are.
Yes, there are overwhelming amounts of people that make bad choices that ruin their lives. Yes, we shouldn't give people a free ride. However, there is a far more large amount of people that are dying for an opportunity. That's what we need to work towards: Providing that "American Opportunity".