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.