Why the “Bootstraps” Narrative of Economic Mobility is Problematic

“I pulled myself up by my bootsraps and that’s how I got to where I am today.”

To which I would say, “Congratulations on your success! I’m happy for you!”

While I do not begrudge people who succeed through their hard work (nor should others), I’m also concerned that this “bootstraps” narrative is also harmful to many people who don’t achieve what American society defines as success, on the grounds that they “didn’t pull by the bootstraps at all/hard enough.” And at that, I’m concerned enough that it’s worth dedicating a blog post to this.

One problem is that the idea of “pulling yourself up by the bootstraps” creates a wrongful impression that we do, or we can, succeed all by ourselves without any help from others. But the fact is that, while some people accomplish great things without much help, that happens rarely. I say that because, somewhere along the way, many of us get help from academic or athletic scholarships, an employer who believed in us when we struggled to believe in ourselves, a mentor, a wealthy family member or friend, or someone else—or a combination of some of these. Of the people I know, both personally and in the public arena, I can’t recall a single person who succeeded without another person helping them or believing in them.

Furthermore, to say “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” creates the impression that people who don’t succeed (or achieve society’s definition of success) are automatically lazy, underachievers, or have some other negative characteristic. While I’m sure there are people who don’t succeed because of their own wrongdoings, many others struggle because of characteristics outside their control. For example, I’ve known people to experience struggles because of tragic events in their life or the lives of people they’re closest to, various ailments, unjust events, or other things. Sometimes there are life circumstances that keep people from being able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, or have no bootstraps at all.

Finally, the “bootstraps” narrative does not acknowledge that there are flaws in our society which keep people from doing exactly that. From the mountains of college debt that keep some younger adults from being able to pull themselves up, to various forms of institutional racism which keep some groups of people weighed down (some of which I mention in various posts in my current institutional racism series), some people lack the “bootstraps” to pull on.

Ultimately, the “bootstraps” narrative of success, as nice as it sounds, does not do justice to either the people who help us succeed or those among us who don’t succeed for reasons outside of their control.

7 Replies to “Why the “Bootstraps” Narrative of Economic Mobility is Problematic”

  1. Musing here… For me, the bootstrap narrative has helped me not feel like a victim of circumstance. The idea of being able to use what you already have (the bootstraps) means you don’t have to be born to a certain family, in a certain country, or within a certain XYZ. I agree the phrase and concept has shifted to perhaps cause discouragement or, as you point out, give people a different way to brag about their achievements. Still, what would you say helps you most get out of the victim mentality and more towards the feeling of possibility and optimism? Thanks! Nice post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hmmm. Interesting!

      To answer your question, what helps me the most is realizing that I have so many family members, friends and even current and former coworkers who all are there to support me even when I’m at my lowest ebb. All of that, plus most of all the God I believe in and worship, helps lead me more towards possibility and optimism. I think of these people/beings as helping me provide the bootstraps and helping to pull me up on my bootstraps, as opposed to me doing it on my own.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! The fact is that many people are already working as hard as they can. The only problem is that for some, working as hard as possible means working 50+ hours to struggle to make ends meet.


  2. Thanks for sharing this. Good fortune and starting circumstances certainly play a role in success even after we control for skill, IQ, work ethic and other factors. I think having savings early is also important. This is largely anecdotal, but I recall meeting several people who became stuck in the poverty trap as soon as they left their childhood home. Basically, it boils down to this. Without savings or parental assistance, you are on your own to pay for food and housing. To get a decent job that will give you some free time and benefits, you need an education. For many people, they must choose food and housing OR education (but not both) due to not having a high-paying job. The market favors those who are better off to begin with.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I would definitely agree with you that the market favors people who are doing well to begin with. Skill, IQ, work ethic, etc can help but at the end of the day many of us with those things going for us still need the bootstraps.

      Liked by 2 people

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