The Myth of Bootstrapping

Politicians love to portray themselves as Horatio Alger characters, but they aren't talking about how social mobility is all but impossible for many these days

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Despite the fact that Democrats and Republicans see themselves as having competing views about America, the theme of bootstrapping, or lifting oneself up the social and economic ladder through individual effort, hard work and personal responsibility, have taken center stage for both parties. At his convention, Republican Chris Christie, for example, talked about how his Irish father and Sicilian mother grew up in poverty but made better lives for their children with elbow grease and American ingenuity. Then this week Michelle Obama spoke about how the lives of both her father and President Obama’s grandmother showed that even if one starts out with little money, hard work and effort can lead to better lives for the next generation.  Republican Senator Marco Rubio shared the details of his family’s immigration to the United States from Cuba and Democrat Elizabeth Warren talked about her rise from poverty and hardship to a professorship at Harvard Law School.  They all either bootstrapped themselves up the economic ladder or benefitted from the bootstrapping of their parents and grandparents.

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The concept of bootstrapping dates back to at least the 1890s, when Horatio Alger wrote novels about boys who worked hard and rose up the social ladder from poverty and is intertwined with that other mythical ideal, the American Dream.  Today, however, according to the recent Pew Study on the American Dream, social mobility between the lowest levels of American society and the middle class is increasingly difficult, if not impossible. Specifically, the study found that while a large number of Americans (84 percent) have a higher family income than did their parents, those born at both the top and the bottom of the “income ladder” stay where they are from one generation to the next. What that means is that those who begin life wealthy pass that wealth, but those born at the bottom—in other words those who would typically be candidates for bootstrapping—are now more likely to stay there. This is particularly true for African Americans who are stuck at the bottom more than any other group and may even to fall farther behind from one generation to the next.

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Of course, the findings in this study do not neatly fit with the bootstrapping narrative, which is perhaps why so few of the speakers at either convention talked specifically about the expansion of poverty and contraction of opportunity, or offered policy plans for addressing poverty such as job training programs, increased access to quality affordable daycare for working mothers, and an increase in the minimum wage. In the past, such policies have helped those stuck at the bottom. While Michelle Obama, Elizabeth Warren and Chris Christies are all great examples of bootstrapping themselves to the Ivy League and political office, we do have to wonder what story they and their families could tell if they were growing up today.

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Last night at the Democratic Convention, when Bill Clinton joked that every politician wants every voter to believe he grew up in a log cabin he built himself, he was acknowledging in part how hollow and meaningless the metaphor of bootstrapping has become. It got a nice laugh from the crowd, but given our current social circumstances, we need to begin to have more than laugh lines to solve this problem.

24 comments
flamestar
flamestar

Politicians love to portray themselves as

Horatio Alger characters, but they aren't talking about how social

mobility is all but impossible for many these days  If the effort Noliwe M. Rooks put into this article is any indication she never did a lick of work in her life and yet here she is  an associate professor at Cornell University. Actually that may be the point of the article that you don't have to work hard if you have the right friends.

 

BigGuy
BigGuy

Quadriplegics will just have to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps if Romney gets in.

He will pray for you.

Will he pay, will he ask others to pay, more taxes to help you? NO.

That's what your friends and family are for.

What if you have no friends?

Pray to God.

No family?

Pray to God.

No money?

Get a job.

But if you have no friends, no family, no money, no job, no home, no arms and no legs?

Then yours is the kingdom of God. Republicans will praise your (in)voluntary Christian life of poverty. Some will say you're assured of going to heaven no matter what, and some will say, if you accept the Christ, you will be assured of going to heaven.

None will advocate money be spent by the government to help you or that people be taxed to help you, But they will say they will pray for you.

God will bless you.

And may God bless America.

Jimmy Hoffa
Jimmy Hoffa

FTA: "Specifically, the study found that while a large number of Americans (84 percent) have a higher family income than did their parents, those born at both the top and the bottom of the “income ladder” stay where they are from one generation to the next."

Bootstrapping doesn't mean if you're poor you become wealthy -- a Dave Thomas or Sam Walton. It can mean you're the first person in your family to achieve a four-year degree and get a middle income job, or if your parents were on welfare, you aren't and you have a career. The problem with this article is that it assumes that everyone who "bootstraps themselves" does so to a wealthy stature. As the statistics show, that's not the case, but the overwhelming majority are earning more than their parents (I'm supposing this accounts for inflation). What's also missing in this article is context. It doesn't tell us if past generations were more successful at "bootstrapping" than the current one. 

Jardin J
Jardin J

I'm not a historian, but from what I remember the original idea was that if you work hard and sacrifice then you can make a better life for the NEXT generation, not yourself. It seems that nowadays, people want to work for a few years and then live like the Kardashians. 

There are no doubt many factors that attribute to this, but it seems to me we live in an age of instant gratification. Look at all the people claiming that all our economic woes (which have taken decades to come to a head) should have been solved in 4 years. 

And while it has become harder to move up the economic ladder from a stand point of opportunity, the biggest problem may be that we have become accustomed to the idea that life and America owes us something.

Jackie Keveson
Jackie Keveson

Those convention speakers with Horatio Alger I-pulled-myself-up-by-my-bootstraps were all given by folks who had won the IQ lottery -- bright, dynamic, exceptional people and that's great for them. The truth is, however, that not everyone is exceptional. Unlike Lake Wobegone, not all children are above average. 90% of students do not graduate in the top 10% of their class. Only 44 male children have achieved the ultimate dream of growing up to be president in more than two centuries. So what about the rest? Everyone should have a path to improvement if they are willing to put in the time and effort.

rockaboutmusic
rockaboutmusic

The myth behind Bootstrapping,

no man is an island,,,, interdependence is the key,,,

Without healthy interaction,,,basic needs could go ignored,,,

bootstrapping is an arrogant self portrayal,,of narcissistic,, fantasized,,, achievement         

Jürgen Hubert
Jürgen Hubert

Not very surprising - intergenerational social mobility in the USA _is_ among the lowest of the developed nations, with only the UK scoring lower.

flamestar
flamestar

How does  Noliwe M.

Rooks away with writing such a stupid article. She is either ignorant or too

lazy to find out how Clinton and the others made it into the Ivy League.  As for social mobility if she knew how to

write this type of article she would show how social mobility is measured and

what percentage of people go up and what percentage of people go down and what

are the factors determine out come.

flamestar
flamestar

This article is useless with out some facts to back it up. 

Surfboat Dan.
Surfboat Dan.

Selling water to a backwards village is one thing;  Getting a contract to exclusively sell water to a city is a bit of a competition eliminating ordeal.  The pyramid of White men with military clout getting all the good contracts is starting to tremble at the base.

URRightandWrong
URRightandWrong

This article perfectly describes the limited, extremely defined ceiling of voluntary capitalism. Can America supply the American Dream to it's citizens just wishing to live meekly comfortable? At neighborhood and community level we need doers, not sayers.

Shams Aci
Shams Aci

 It has been observed most politicians  talk big but do too less than that even a poor person could do. Whereas, voters today should cast their votes to the one/one about whom they know they (politicians)believe in practical doings and they (politicians) maintain a background of doing practically what they promise to do, not just keep on delivering big talks but practically doing nothing ultimately. However people of our time can distinguish well enough between practical doers in reality rejecting the fake ones.

  - A.R.Shams's Reflection  -  Press and Online Publications.

     http://arshamssreflection.blog...

Nonaffiliated
Nonaffiliated

It is more difficult to "make it" these days.   Going from bottom to top usually involves becoming an entrepreneur and starting your own business.  Back when social mobility was more common, this process was as simple as advertising your services and hiring help when needed.  Have you tried starting a business today? 

I recently explored the possibility of opening a child daycare center.  The maze of legal requirements is mind boggling.  Building codes, food preparation, playground size, students per square foot, inspections, teachers per student, licensing, teacher training, and many many more.  Want to accept government subsidized students?  Get ready for even more legal requirements.

Should we really be surprised that today's poor don't become wealthy entrepreneurs as easily as they once did?  How many poor have enough spare time and resources to navigate the maze of government regulation?  These laws create a barrier to entry for new entrepreneurs (poor people) and protect the profitability of large and established businesses (rich people).

Individually, each law has a well-meaning purpose and may be worth the trouble.  Collectively, they're a nearly impenetrable barrier to poor people climbing the economic ladder.  The same government rules that protect us also limit our possibilities.