Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Myth of the Bootstrap: The Permission of Poverty as a Legacy of Cultural Ideology

All this Occupy stuff has inspired me to post a paper I wrote about two years ago about Americans and our attitude regarding poverty. If I weren't lazy I'd update it to include specific Occupy issues, but it's still relevant. Hopefully Occupy and even more progressive movements around the economic situation in this country will someday make it obsolete. 
Why does the United States allow domestic poverty to persist in near “Third World” conditions more than a decade into the 21st century? Advocates of social reform have been examining poverty for decades and have generated an inordinate amount of data on its causes, effects and potential solutions. Scholars who support multiculturalism focus on poverty at its inevitable intersections of racism, classism and sexism. Since these mechanisms as they relate to poverty have been explicated ad nauseum elsewhere, my goal is not to reproduce such scholarship here. Instead, I would like to propose a fourth mechanism that allows poverty to thrive. It admittedly operates on a more philosophical level than the other three, which the white male power structure transformed into concrete social institutions upon the founding of the United States of America. This mechanism is nonetheless imbued with the same self-actuating facility as its companions but, unlike its companions, is unique to the American psyche. I have dubbed it “the myth of the bootstrap.” This is an introduction to the myth, its main components and its origin.

Assigning Blame
The myth of the bootstrap is a nostalgic and delusional psychology which at its core demands individual upward mobility from everyone in spite of a modern sociopolitical environment that tends to restrict this opportunity to a select few. It is reinforced by the inclination to blame the poor for their own predicament, across the spectrum of political philosophies. Jonathan Kozol quotes a psychiatrist colleague describing the views of his suburban neighbors on life in inner cities. “They say, ‘We didn’t have much money when we started out, but we lead clean and decent lives. We did it. Why can’t they?’”[1]
A Harris Interactive poll[2] on the subject, conducted in 2000, discovered:
Three-quarters of all adult Americans believe that most people on welfare would find paid work if they were not on welfare, and that most people who are unemployed could find work without much difficulty if they really tried. Furthermore, a plurality believes that the poor are mainly to blame for their poverty; only just over a third believes that they are mostly poor through no fault of their own.

                  Chairman of the Harris Poll, Humphrey Taylor, speculated that the survey revealed a certain “American exceptionalism” regarding the issue of poverty:
The result of this survey helps to explain why the United States, alone among western democracies, has never had a significant socialist party. Americans, perhaps more than people in any other country, tend to believe that everyone should be able to find work and make it into the middle class, and that if they do not it is their own fault, not just bad luck. The welfare state, many Americans believe, just makes it easier for those who are lazy to avoid work and still survive.
            Beyond even the question of survival, there exists a perception that welfare recipients are abusers of the system who spend their money on frivolous material goods. See Ronald Regan’s infamous apocryphal tale of the “Chicago welfare queen” who stole $150,000 from the government and drives a Cadillac. Then there is this cynical quip about a man snapping a cell phone photo of First Lady Michelle Obama serving food at a D.C. soup kitchen: “If this unidentified meal recipient is too poor to buy his own food, how does he afford a cellphone? And if he is homeless, where do they send the cellphone bills?”[3] It is as though the author is suggesting that all the poor and their circumstances must be identical in order to fulfill the criteria for “needy.” The very expression “deserving poor” suggests that a certain segment of impoverished citizens deserve help and others—“the ne'er-do-well, the slacker, the vagrant, the addict, the drunk, the able but lazy burden of the state,”[4] —do not. Rather than rectifying the circumstances that create poverty, we are quick to dismiss a significant portion of the impoverished as undeserving poor.

The Bootstrap Myth as An Inherited Cultural Ideology
Although the familiar expression to “pull oneself up by the bootstraps” is believed to have originated in the 19th century,[5] the myth of the bootstrap has its origins in colonial America. The progenitors of this principle were the Puritan settlers themselves, who would lead German economist and sociologist Max Weber to popularize the term “Protestant work ethic” in his 1905 book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. The term became synonymous with people who seem to possess a indefatigable impulse toward hard work. The Puritans believed that such labor not only benefitted both the individual and the community, but also lead to personal salvation in the eyes of God.[6]
Another 18th century source feeding the bootstrap myth are seminal works admired in their time and that the keepers of posterity would come to regard as central to American thought. Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography (1771-1789) is essentially an instructional treatise for his son about striking out from the protective family circle to make his way in the world, carrying with him the spirit of free market entrepreneurship. The writings of Thomas Jefferson gave rise to the “Jeffersonian ideal,” positing that the United States economy should be composed of small business- and/or landowners who produce for themselves, in no way reliant upon large government and industry. Letters from an American Farmer by J. Hector St. John Crèvecoeur (1782) rings with the idealism of a pioneer throwing off class shackles, cultivating his land and building a legacy to bequeath to future generations: 
[America] is not composed, as in Europe, of great lords who possess every thing and of a herd of people who have nothing. Here are no aristocratical families, no courts, no kings, no bishops, no ecclesiastical dominion, no invisible power giving to a few a very visible one; no great manufacturers employing thousands, no great refinements of luxury. The rich and the poor are not so far removed from each other as they are in Europe…We are a people of cultivators, scattered over an immense territory…united by the silken bands of mild government, all respecting the laws, without dreading their power, because they are equitable. We are all animated with the spirit of an industry which is unfettered and unrestrained, because each person works for himself.[7]

            We cling to this romantic vision of the America of our “Founding Fathers.” Politicians in particular are notorious offenders; if they can regale us with promises of a new America by conjuring visions of American antiquity, we are too often lulled into a complacency that saps our capacity to enact radical progress. Below is an excerpt from Ronald Regan’s 1981 inaugural address:                       
In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem. From time to time we’ve been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. But if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else?

All of us together…must bear the burden. The solutions we seek must be equitable with no one group singled out to pay a higher price. We hear much of special interest groups. Well our concern must be for a special interest group that has been too long neglected. It knows no sectional boundaries, or ethnic and racial divisions, and it crosses political party lines. It is made up of men and women who raise our food, patrol our streets, man our mines and factories, teach our children, keep our homes, and heal us when we’re sick -- professionals, industrialists, shopkeepers, clerks, cabbies, and truck drivers. They are, in short, “We the People.” This breed called Americans.[8]

Similar rhetoric can be found in the inaugural speech of Bill Clinton and the second inaugural speech of George W. Bush, demonstrating that even in a new millennium our leaders were still looking backward at a fictitious golden age when “We the People” included everyone. That popular 18th century sentiment, which posits that if one is “animated with the spirit of an industry which is unfettered and unrestrained” then one can succeed in America, has become an enduring cultural meme. It persists while at the same time it has failed to adjust itself to the character of today’s capitalism—a monopolist power pyramid wherein a handful of corporations control the majority of the country’s wealth. Still we continue to place the onus on the individual to pick himself up by his proverbial bootstraps then blame him when he fails, despite the fact that our superstructures have grown titanic, labyrinthine, arcane and anti-democratic.
Yet the greatest error in clinging to such nostalgia is that for certain demographics within the population, it has always been a myth. An explicit integral theme common to many canonized works of early American literature is the definition of an American as patriotic, industrious, autonomous, unflappable in the face of hardship. The implicit definition is the American as white male. Colonial cultural norms were “politically conservative, patriarchal, and white-dominant.”[9] The only “citizens” whose civil rights were protected and guaranteed were white male property owners. Lawmakers did not have to account for the complexities of an integrated, multicultural society because the systematic deprivation of Natives, African Americans and to a lesser extent, white women, was a matter of legislative policy. Scholar Dana Nelson argues that the cultural elite, i.e. rich white men, bypassed the opportunity to author a truly radical democracy that incorporated women and people of color as equals in order to define nationhood as white manhood. [10]
Franklin’s Autobiography may have intended his son to be the primary audience, but his son represented all the young, upwardly mobile white men who would become the wielders of economic power. Who, after all, were Jefferson’s landowners and small business owners who would compose the country’s economic base? Crèvecoeur may not have perceived America’s white elite as “aristocratical families,” but the main element they lacked in this regard were hereditary titles. He saw little divide between the rich and the poor because he himself would have been able to traverse the gulch from the latter to the former without trepidation. And are we really expected to credit that Reagan did not understand that the government is run “by an elite group?”
Crèvecoeur asks in Letters, “What, then, is the American, this new man?”:
He is either an European or the descendant of an European…He is an American, who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds.[11]
It can be argued that the modern definition of American has not evolved much from Crèvecoeur’s imaginings. What do we mean, for example, when we use the term “all-American?” Often without a conscious awareness of it and despite the cultural plurality in which we live, we use it to describe clean-cut, conventional, middle-class people. The images traditionally associated with it are Rockwellian—white (and quite often blonde-haired, blue-eyed) youth smiling beatifically against a small town or rural backdrop. The expression suggests that in the 21st century, the identity “American,” and by extension, “citizen,” still carries 18th century coding regardless of contemporary legal stipulations to the contrary.

The Hypocrisy Within the Myth
Adherents to the myth of the bootstrap, like the suburban neighbors discussed by Kozol’s colleague, embrace the fallacy of hasty generalization, one that is “committed when a person draws a conclusion about a population based on a sample that is not large enough.” [12] In this case it proclaims, “If I can do it, you can do it.” American pop culture is littered with the propaganda of self-determination and improvement, whether couched as the latest quick fix diet scheme, or multimillionaire Tony Robbins hosting elaborate seminars costing upwards of $1,000 teaching us to Unleash the Power Within. Unfortunately, the superstructures actually responsible for bolstering the will to self-improvement too often countervail that will and, at their most egregious, foster an atmosphere that conveys to the poor and minorities that the bootstrap devotées do not in reality expect them to succeed.
             Nowhere is this more graphic than in sections of the public school system that serve poor minority children. Kozol quotes the principal of Camden High, Ruthie Green-Brown: “There is that notion out there that the fate of these children is determined by their birth. If they fail, it’s something in themselves. That, I believe, is why Joe Clark got so much praise from the white media. ‘If they fail, kick ‘em out!’…I’ve worked in upper-middle-class suburban schools. I know the difference.”[13]
The evidence reaches beyond the deplorable conditions of the inner city schools Kozol explored in the 1990s. It extends into initiatives such as the No Child Left Behind Act. Introduced by President George W. Bush in 2001, it purported to be a blueprint for raising achievement in low-performing schools. Among many criticisms of the act is the practice of “teaching to outcomes” (also known as “teaching to the test”) which detractors believe encourages educators to focus on methods for passing mandated standardized tests rather than lessons emphasizing supple learning and critical thinking.[14] As recently as 2004, a researcher discovered that, “in schools where more than 71% of the students eligible for subsidized school lunch programs, only 35% of students are assigned research using the Internet, compared to 61% of students in high-wealth schools. And this is true even though there is only a 7% difference in their access to computers in classrooms.”[15] Further evidence is the practice of “tracking,” placing students into groups based on alleged academic ability. Critics have found that the low-track students are disproportionately low-income minorities while the high-track students tend to come from socioeconomically advantaged backgrounds—all of this while theorizing that the placement of poor minorities does not necessarily reflect their actual facilities for learning.[16] 
Kozol’s colleague interprets the true meaning of his neighbors’ rhetorical question, We did it, why can’t they?What they mean is [poor minorities have a] lack of brains, or lack of drive, or lack of willingness to work.” Kozol himself summarizes this paradox of the bootstrap myth perfectly when he writes: “Placing the burden on the individual to break down doors…is attractive to conservatives because it reaffirms their faith in individual ambition and autonomy. But to ask an individual to break down doors that we have chained and bolted in advance of his arrival is unfair.”

The Broken Bootstrap
            Given that we as a society have chosen to interpret the phrase “all men are created equal” to mean every human being, that the United States is a country of vast wealth, and that most Americans believe we are living in a free, democratic society, it is understandable how we might become exasperated with those we perceive as lacking initiative. To some extent, the enfranchised have little excuse; those of us who are educated, familiar with the workings of bureaucracy and the methods to access our abundant resources must account for ourselves when we choose to let others do the bootstrapping for us. For the disenfranchised, we exemplify those rare cases who lift themselves out of poverty and hold them up as examples of how this can be achieved in the face of enormous odds: They did it, why can’t you? Of course they are to be lauded, but not to the extent that we use them as an indictment against those who remain trapped by poverty. The myth of the bootstrap fails to consider how exceptional it is to be exceptional, even among the racial and economic demographics it favors. How many of us, from our positions of relative advantage, are both willing and able to strive against the common banalities of everyday life to accomplish uncommon goals? Does an attitude of futility among the impoverished differ so much from one of complacency among the privileged?
            What we as individuals ultimately believe we owe the marginalized is a matter of personal morality. That can only be determined by an honest assessment of self. We need not all agree upon the most efficacious means to battle poverty. However, it is incumbent upon those of us who agree it must be combated to engage in unflinching discourse with ourselves and with each other; we must first accept that we are all indoctrinated with inherited prejudices before we can interrogate them. Failure to do so is to perpetuate hypocrisy of word and deed that will delude future generations into permitting poverty to persist. 

            “boot(-)strap”…the original sense was not simply “to raise or better oneself by one’s own unaided efforts”, but to try to do so in a ludicrously far-fetched or quixotic manner…Even in the 1927 article I cited in a previous post ("The Bootstrapper", reprinted from the Times of London), the headstrong American belief in self-improvement is presented as rather preposterous.[17]

[1] Kozol, Jonathan. Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools. New York: Harper, 1991.
[2] See full survey results, along with tables and methodology, at the conclusion of this paper.
[3] Malcolm, Andrew. “Michelle Obama serves food to D.C. poor and homeless, but...” Top of the Ticket. Los Angeles Times/Blogs. March 6, 2009. <>
[4] Ironcross One-One. “The Deserving Poor.” The Brutality of Reason. 2005. <>   March 8, 2009.
[5] Zimmer, Benjamin. “figurative ‘bootstraps’ (1834)” American Dialect Society. 2005. <> March 2, 2009.
[6] Survey of American Literature I. Lecture notes. Mills College, Sept. 9, 2008.
[7] Lauter, Paul, ed. Heath Anthology of American Literature, Volume A: Colonial Period to 1800. Boston: Houghton, 2006.
[8] “Ronald Reagan: First Inaugural Address.” Top 100 Speeches. American Rhetoric. 2001-2009.
[9] Heath.
[10] Nelson, Dana D. National Manhood: Capitalist Citizenship and the Imagined Fraternity of White Men. Duke University Press, 1998.
[11] Heath.
[12] Labossiere, Dr. Michael C. Fallacy Tutorial Pro 3.0. 1995.
[13] Kozol.
[14] World of the Black Child. Lecture notes. CSUEB, January 20, 2009.
[15] Lewis, Ann C. “Washington Commentary: Redefining ‘Inexcusable.’” Phi Delta Kappan. October, 2004: 8.2. Phi Delta Kappa International. <> February 27, 2009.
[16] Oakes, Jeannie. “Tracking in Secondary Schools: A Contextual Perspective.” Educational Psychology, 13.2 (1987)
[17] Zimmer.


  1. I was curious about the name on your blog. I did not expect to gleen as much from you as I did. Your post is well done, well thought out and has me thinking. I wonder that most people do not realize that America was founded not by the founding fathers of government, but the founders escaping persecution. Coming to America meant owning your own land and it meant your hard work did pay off. Communities worked together, helped eachother. They had decent relationships with the natives (who do not like to be called natives, sorry.) and they could, barring extreme weather and sickness, control their own destiny. Then the aristocrats came. They established government, armies, taxes, and laws favoring their fellow aristocrats who took over the land using taxes exhoribitant taxes, they took the land, then charged exhorbitant rent knowing the landowners could not pay. This is how they created the forced labor market from which most of us white folk come from. Dirty mines and factories that left our children orphans who were then forced to work or scavenge. These children were prey to other poor adults who were left to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and used them to commit crimes and left them to be hung in the streets on display for doing them. Orphanages cropped up, slaves came, more and more people were disenfranchised with the introduction of free labor. The aristocrats took over, they used the mining industry, the oil industry, the real estate industry and later agriculture and textiles and war. They called it a free market system. But it was because they were free to do what they wish, not because anyone else was. Here in lies the beauty of your argument. The founding fathers founded this nation on the backs of laborers who could never have risen above they were not allowed to, never meant to, it woul cause a collapse of the caste system that kept them rich and powerful so they shamed them with propaganda, drove wedges between citizens with skilled use of stigmatisation, heirarchal systems, labels and labor divisions. They took away the ability to be self sufficient and justified it under this disguise of benevolence, look at all we have done for you, and you are ungrateful and lazy. Those industries still control us. We are not allowed to be self sufficient, we are meant to serve the feudal lords who took over long ago, who took this country from the original founders. Make no mistake, we are socialized to serve higher classes, to divide ourselves by class and race and to think of the wealthy as our kindly benefactors. Regardless of their race, or whatever prejudices they brought with them we have been fighting to get America back since they took it but keep getting side tracked on lesser issues.There is a lot to what you say. I just wanted to add in. Thank you for the good read.