Back in the 1800s, the expression “pull oneself up by the bootstraps” meant the opposite of what it does now. Then it was used mockingly to describe an impossible act.
An 1834 publication ridiculed a claim to have built a perpetual-motion machine by saying that the inventor might next heave himself over a river “by the straps of his boots.” An 1840 citation scoffs that something is “as gross an absurdity as he who attempts to raise himself over a fence by the straps of his boots.”
Yet this phrase has become part of America’s mythology and the centerpiece of our approach to help those left behind: We harangue them to lift themselves up by the bootstraps. When Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez this month dismissed bootstrapping at a congressional hearing as “physically impossible,” outrage reverberated across the conservative media world.
Sean Hannity’s blog said that her assertion “left millions of television viewers scratching their heads.” Another Fox News commentator said that Ocasio-Cortez was “completely clueless.”
So let’s think this through.
It’s true that upward mobility has always resonated deeply in the United States. My father, a refugee from Romania and Ukraine, came to the United States because to him it symbolized opportunity (and, sure enough, it provided him rich opportunities).
Some people do manage heroic journeys to the top. Ben Carson grew up as an impoverished black child of a single mother in Detroit and became a pediatric neurosurgeon and secretary of housing and urban development. Bravo to him.
The problem is that this bootstraps narrative drives out good policy in three ways.
First, it suggests that historically Americans rose purely through rugged individualism — think of the pioneers!
Ah, but why did the pioneers go west? Because of government benefit programs that granted them homesteads! Ten percent of America’s land was given out as homesteads, and perhaps one-quarter of Americans (almost all of them white) owe part of their family wealth to the homestead acts.
Then there was the American investment in free high schools and in state colleges and universities, plus gigantic programs like rural electrification and the GI Bill of Rights. In short, even when we were a much poorer nation, we were able to afford huge national investments to help disadvantaged (white) Americans, because they were a priority.
Second, the bootstraps narrative often suggests that benefits programs are counterproductive because they foster “dependency.” That may have been a plausible argument a generation ago, but the evidence now indicates that it is incorrect.
Europe and Canada have much more robust social welfare systems than the United States, but Americans in the prime working years (ages 25 to 54) are more likely to drop out of the labor force than Europeans and Canadians in those years. Americans drop out of the labor force primarily because we do worse than other countries of investing in workers’ education, health care, addiction treatment and job training.
Third, the bootstraps narrative implies that everyone can pull a Ben Carson (Carson himself falls for this fallacy). This is like arguing that because some people can run a four-minute mile, everyone can.
Yes, some Americans soar from humble beginnings; more often, the top is occupied by those who, say, were earning $200,000 a year at age 3, in today’s money, as President Donald Trump was. Some research finds that upward mobility has tumbled in the United States over the last half-century and is now lower than in Europe.
It’s particularly hard for people to scramble up when they come from violent homes, poor schools or foster care, or face impediments of race or class. These can be challenges, but they can be addressed to some extent — but not by sermons about bootstraps.
I received a note the other day from a carpenter in Washington State, Mike Stimac, about these issues. He grew up in a small town and describes himself as “more conservative than liberal,” but he had read a new book that my wife and I wrote about Americans left behind, and he responded: “I had two parents who gave me a home, no alcohol or physical abuse. I always felt like we were just making it. My parents were blue collar (machinist, sawmill operator, seamstress, cafeteria cook). I never felt like I was privileged, but I see now that I was. …
“Being a carpenter and general contractor, here again I felt I ‘pulled myself up by my bootstraps.’ My wife and I made a living with hard work and family help and now have a fairly strong financial standing. But now I realize it is more than hard work and family help. I was privileged to have two parents who valued education (though they never went to college), I am white, and there was no abuse.”
Stimac says he now favors substantial federal programs to provide opportunity and address addiction, mental illness and education, adding, “This is a real change of heart for me.”
That change of heart is what we need for our country as a whole. American children need fewer wagging fingers or homilies about bootstraps, and more helping hands.