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.

24 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 2 people

    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.

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  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 3 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 3 people

  3. Thank you for so eloquently putting into words what I’ve felt for years. I’m so tired of the ‘personal responsibility’ crap parroted by privileged people, mostly conservatives. It’s very difficult to pull yourself up bu broken bootstraps.

    Liked by 3 people

      1. People like that are not only cruel and sociopathic, but they don’t appreciate and aren’t aware of the advantages they had in life to get them to where they are.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Yeah, the bootstraps argument is a giant strawman especially when it’s moralized by those in the dominant society. Especially from a Black perspective in America, there have been communities of that complexion who have made prosperous areas like the Greenwood area in Tulsa AKA Black Wall Street (do you see where I’m going with this?), Rosewood, or Slocum, TX. What do these communities have in common? They picked themselves up by their collective bootstraps with these wealthy communities only to be slaughtered by the most bigoted White people with impunity. That would fit the logic, but they were such hypocrites by burning everything down. Not only that, you had generations of the majority who had a hand such as the GI Bill, Homestead Act, and the New Deal that helped get people on their feet. Wouldn’t conservatives call it socialism? Such double standards…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Wow. I had no idea about these different massacres that you talked about. Thanks for bringing these up, as they further demonstrate that on occasions when people actually did try to pull themselves up by bootstraps, often people are destroyed by factors that are out of their control (like racism). At the same time, it’s worth remembering that so many of us are also helped by being pulled up ourselves.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. No problem, and I’m glad you were able to learn about those examples. I thought those were perfect examples that ruin the bootstraps argument while showing the hypocrisy at it’s most absurd, yet fatal conclusion. It’s true and individualism can only go so far since everyone needs help here and there.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Excellent post! You are so right … most of us who weren’t born with a silver spoon in our mouth have needed help in one form or another at some point in time. I surely have! I had college professors who believed in me enough to see that I received the financing and even housing I needed to get through school. I had friends who took care of my children while I worked on my M.A. and worked 3 jobs to feed those children. I had other friends who helped me find a home when I was once homeless. And, believing in “pay it forward”, I’ve tried to give others help when they needed it. We are all in this world together, after all. Thanks for this post, Brendan.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Agreed. And I can say the same for myself. I had college professors who believed in me, high school teachers who wrote recommendation letters for me with college, and parents who helped me through a series of unpaid internships after college. I don’t even come from a poor background, but where I am now comes from getting help along the way, much like with you. We often need help from others–a fact that refutes the notion of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Exactly. Not everybody has the same opportunities in life. I think it is sheer arrogance for a person to assume that just because he/she pulled himself up by his bootstraps, so to speak, everyone should be able to do so. There’s a lot of arrogance in this world today. Sigh.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Since literally pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps is physically impossible, the expression must have originated as a debunking of the idea that it should be normative to succeed entirely by one’s own unaided efforts. If people who do believe in that idea have adopted the phrase, it shows a certain obliviousness.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hmmm…that’s an interesting thought. I, for one, certainly don’t have the strength to pull up by bootstraps! But some people believe that it’s possible to do so economically, apparently (even though it seldom happens).

      Like

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