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.