How to Achieve the American Dream on an Immigrant's Income
The American Dream—being able to earn a good living, buy a home, send children to school, and build a life in the United States regardless of social stature or place of birth—is an aspiration for most who immigrate to the United States.  While new immigrants may be fleeing violence, poverty, and persecution—so called “push factors”—they are also pulled by the prospects of a better life for themselves and their children.
Some immigrants arrive in the United States wealthy, educated, and fluent in English.  This chapter focuses on immigrants who may arrive with a few dollars in their pocket, struggle with English, and sometimes are without legal documents.  These new arrivals mostly work in lowpaying jobs in construction, dishwashing, cooking, domestic cleaning, and adult day care, with many earning an income in the shops of immigrants from their home countries, at least initially.  Our own research shows that households weave together income from multiple jobs performed by several family members. Income varies from week to week and season to season. Expenses, respondents said, can be just as unpredictable: health care, car repairs, rent, or a death or an illness will almost certainly occur, but without financial buffers in place, these costs set families back.
This chapter focuses on how immigrant households save up in groups (US RoSCAs)  to transform income that is irregular, uncertain, and low into regular, predictable, and meaningful sums of cash. This strategy is described by economists as a form of “income smoothing.”  It also highlights important by-products of US RoSCAs, including community-building and leadership skills. In this chapter, we use the terms RoSCAs, savings groups, and savings circles interchangeably.
Our research was carried out by graduate students who interviewed members of their own ethnic and international communities as well as the co-authors who carried out interviews. This chapter draws on case studies of immigrant communities living in the United States from Nepal, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Barbados, Haiti, Mexico, and El Salvador. The interviews were overseen by Jeffrey Ashe and Kim Wilson with research carried out by their graduate students from Brandeis, Columbia, and Tufts universities. Their language skills helped them access immigrant communities. Researchers held interviews in respondents’ homes and places of work and in local cafes as well as in meeting venues where RoSCA activities were taking place.