How Ditching America’s ‘Bootstraps’ Myth Can Open Up Politics
In 2022, after Maxwell Frost was elected to Congress at age 25, he announced he would be living with friends while saving money and looking for a place. When the Republican National Committee mocked him for couch surfing, Frost responded: “I don’t get my first paycheck till February and I don’t have a lot of money.” He was, he said, rebutting “the ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ people.”
He is not the only member of the new Congress to reveal a modest financial position. Rep. Marie Gluesenkamp Perez (D), an auto body shop owner who won a surprising 2022 victory in a red district of Washington state, told the media, “I’ve never bought a new car in my life” and has argued that our country needs more people governing who worked in trades.
By pointing out their limited funds, these two politicians suggest to others that wealth is not a prerequisite for office — and depart from a narrative that has prevailed in American politics for over a century. In what you might call the “bootstraps” narrative, or the Horatio Alger story, politicians claim or imply that they come from humble beginnings but have since become powerful and wealthy, thanks to no one’s efforts but their own. The idea is that success is within reach of us all, and that hard work by a lone individual, unaided by others and regardless of where we come from, is the ticket to riches and renown.
Now politicians are beginning to more regularly challenge this model. This is a testament to new diversity in Congress, and a chance for a more inclusive model within governance, one that acknowledges we all need some help in finding success and that societal obstacles make achievement harder for some than for others.
If the bootstrapping narrative has been the norm in Congress up until now, that’s no coincidence, since it’s a story that flatters the typical politician in the House. Though this congressional class has a breakthrough level of diversity in terms of race and gender — women make up 28 percent of the members of Congress this year, the highest percentage in history, and a quarter of Congress identifies as something other than non-Hispanic White, the most multiracial Congress to date — the more typical U.S. lawmaker is still White, male and wealthy. In a Congress where roughly more than half of the members are millionaires, according to 2020 data gathered by OpenSecrets of lawmakers’ most recent personal financial disclosures at that time, it’s not surprising that a self-propelled rags-to-riches backstory is one politicians lean toward. It’s a narrative that paints them as both successful and deserving.
But for generations, women and people of color have often been left out of the bootstraps story. They have not received the full societal benefits that have allowed Americans to imagine they have succeeded on their own, with lower earning power and incomplete access to government programs. Take the Homestead Act of 1862, the federal-assistance program that offered, mostly to White men and their families, 160 acres each of Western land, most of it appropriated from Native Americans. Those homesteaders might have been pioneers, but they can also be understood as recipients of the ultimate handout.
The same was true for the GI Bill, which starting in 1944 helped qualifying veterans and their family members get educational assistance for college or graduate school and buy homes. It was one of the most beneficial and generous pieces of legislation of the 20th century, and helped foster a thriving American middle class. Yet, in the postwar period, the same help wasn’t offered to Black veterans. The 1.2 million Black veterans of World War II weren’t overtly excluded from its benefits, but because of intimidation and obstacles written into the law by Southern Democrats, they had far more trouble accessing them.
For women, who by and large worked in the home in the 19th century, the idea of being “self-made” was a nonstarter. The “culture based on self-reliance,” as author Carol Tavris puts it in “The Mismeasure of Woman,” is a “mythic vision” that “excludes the women who struggled to establish homes, survive childbirth, care for families, and contribute with men to the community.” Child care was established as a limited system, with the assumption that women would still be largely responsible for child-rearing, and the United States still spends a lower percentage of its gross domestic product on child care than the average for other countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. That means women who are mothers are always in an interdependent position, whether they want to be or not. And being self-made is less accessible, too, when you earn 82 cents for every man’s dollar.
As a new crop of politicians rises, they have good reason to publicly call out the bootstrapping mentality. The 20-something Frost is, in many ways, typical of a generation that, as economist Raj Chetty and others have found, has a much lower chance of social mobility than their parents. Members of Frost’s cohort are less likely to own homes — as he patiently explained to his political enemies, “When you move into an apartment, you pay first, deposit, sometimes last, and for furniture,” not so easy before you get your first paycheck — and they are far more likely to have student debt. As young millennials and Gen Z-ers edge into political life, we might see more of a reckoning with the self-created-winner ideal.
The bootstrapping story has captured American imaginations for a reason. But it is a tale that erases the roles of our parents, teachers and caretakers, as well as the part that wealth, gender, race, inherited property and a whole cache of related opportunities play in our lives. Politicians such as Frost can help bust the notion that the rich are inherently better or more deserving of public office, or that those who are poorer are less deserving of election. By showing their economic truth, they offer a counter-story to the one where blame is put on those who are financially unstable. They can fight myths about who in America is really self-made — and they can invite others who don’t see themselves in that story to join them in government.
Alissa Quart is the author of “Bootstrapped: Liberating Ourselves From the American Dream” and the executive director of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.
Co-published with The Washington Post.