An Alternative to the “Bootstraps” Narrative of Economic Mobility

Many sunsets ago, I wrote a blog post talking about why I thought that the “bootstraps” narrative of economic mobility is problematic. I saw the narrative as problematic for a number of reasons, but one of them was due to this notion that we can succeed by ourselves without any help from others (because, in reality, all of us who succeed need the help of other people in one form or another).

This fact, the fact that we all need the help of others in order to succeed, brings me to an alternative to the bootstraps narrative. What I propose is something that I will call here the “community narrative,” named after the fact that all of us need a community of people helping us along the way in order to succeed, whatever success looks like to us.

To highlight this fact, let’s think about one of the classic cliché stories we often hear from the bootstraps narrative: the person who comes from no money at all within their family but becomes wealthy through “hard work.” In this situation, it is possible, even probable, that there was hard work, but various people along the way from poverty to success needed to recognize the hard work in a way that helped advance the formerly poor person’s education/career. This could be anything from a school able to give a full scholarship to the person when they were a student, to a group of influential people recognizing the person’s talents, to a helpful mentor (or set of mentors), to some complete strangers who were willing to take a chance on the product produced by the formerly poor person. In the story I told highlighting the bootstraps narrative, there could theoretically be anywhere between one or two and several thousand people who help the formerly poor person become wealthy along the way—hardly befitting of the notion of one pulling themselves up by the bootstraps. But it is befitting of the idea that we all need a community of people in order to succeed.

Getting ourselves away from the classic cliché stories we often hear with regard to the bootstraps narrative, one must consider and confront the fact that all of us need some help from others in order to succeed. Everyone with a strong education needed a strong institution (or institutions) to accept them into the place(s) with the strong education; every person in a high-level position (unless they run their own company) was hired by someone and likely came with letters of recommendation from a variety of other people; every entrepreneur needed a group of people who believed in the product(s) or service(s) provided; and every politician needed votes from their constituents in order to take elected office. In all these cases, a person who has succeeded needed a community of people in order to succeed—bootstraps simply wouldn’t have been enough. In fact, I’m hard-pressed to think of a single industry where you’re able to succeed without a community of people helping you in ways small and large along the way.

While it is possible that someone at some point may come up with a better explanation than my community narrative to explain how some people succeed, I hope that what I propose at the very least helps move a few people from the previous bootstraps narrative—an ill-advised narrative, for a multitude of reasons.

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.

Like Blind Injustice on Facebook

Follow @blindinjustices on Twitter

Follow Blind Injustice on Pinterest