A National Bullying of the Poor: The Trouble With America’s Bootstrapping Myth
One day, I received an email from a stranger about how the poor are responsible for their own poverty.
It wasn’t the first: I get these missives frequently. These commenters like to claim that those who are economically on the edge just need to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps”, and that people who are struggling probably deserve to do so.
Why? Because these Americans took on educational debt, had children – or even got divorced. And so angry readers call other people out when they accrue such debt but also admonish them when they have not had adequate job retraining to be employable, not seeing the paradox. These audience members may also blame women for not marrying. And families for living in a city where the cost of living is high, ignoring that that’s where many of the jobs are. They also like to critique individuals for actually wanting to do what they love for a living.
Sadly, these blame-mongers aren’t alone: studies have found that many Republicans think success is something one achieves alone through hard work. And if we don’t manage to do so, it’s our own damn fault.
I’m familiar with this stream of invective because I’ve spent much of the last nine years reporting about the falling middle class and working poor and running a poverty non-profit to boot. But here was something about that specific comment – in which the writer claimed that we were “all products of our choices” and had to live with the consequences – that made me decide I wanted to get to the bottom of this refrain. How did this narrative and its flip side – the shame and blame of those who are not victors – become writ?
In order to better understand this mindset, I read books and political speeches going back to the 19th century, all with a similar through-line: Americans should thrive and rise on pluck and hard work alone.
From Walden to The Fountainhead, from the political speeches of Herbert Hoover through Trump, I found an ideological script for the vitriol the letter writers expressed. I also discovered a rich vein of hypocrisy – the Horatio Alger story was actually one of teenagers meeting wealthy benefactors and Alger himself had been run out of his ministry for pedophilic acts. The cringey Ayn Rand novels that shout we must all survive on our own may be worshipped by wealthy technologists, but Rand herself became dependent in later life, relying on social security and Medicare.
The writings of these compromised figures nevertheless are at the foundation of the thinking of those taking outsized pride in their supposedly self-reliant lives: even though they had had a teen mom, they now earned six figures, one wrote; in the words of another, how they managed to save money yet “had a car, a TV and food” while others like them had not.
Taken together, these responses seemed to be a kind of nationwide bullying of the poor.
I then reported around the US to document the lived experience of ordinary people who had suffered because of our culture’s relentless obsession with bootstrapping. These were different sides of the self-made-man storyline. There were those who were oppressed by the cult of self-reliance, both monetarily and emotionally. There were also those who benefited from it thanks to inherited wealth or other kinds of inborn privilege who had, in contrast, been thought to be all too deserving their whole lives.
Through my reporting and reading, I came to understand that I had a buried personal reason for my interest in the themes of independence, achievement and dependence. While I didn’t personally subscribe to “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps”, I myself had long been caught up in striving, a self-punishing regimen of accomplishments. Yes, I had gotten a lot done as a result of this effort. I started to wonder: at what cost?
I looked more skeptically at my own fixation on self-sufficient production, or what TikTok users call “the grindset”. I tend to overwork, to some extent mirroring the practices the harsh letter writers demanded, and I feel the attendant isolation of said work, which often disconnects you from others.
In researching the book – and through the years of the pandemic – I found this mindset loosening its grip, however. In interviews with a counselor to people with adverse childhood experiences, with members of mutual aid groups in my neighborhood or with the true believers of the cooperatives, I saw a different notion of self-actualization.
This exploration of what I came to think of as “the art of dependence” – proudly recognizing and asserting my own dependence on others and institutions – started to fundamentally change me and gave me a real retort to those who wag their fingers at others.
Like many others, I spent the early 2020s recognizing how connected we all are. The Covid period had, whether we realized it or not, drenched us in political opportunity and revelation, showing us once again that we exist within the antique sociological construct of “organic solidarity”. Indeed, my zeal for this is so palpable that at one recent book event, I was asked if it might qualify as a theology.
I am not a religious person in the least, so I was briefly stumped. The more I thought about it, though, the more I came to see my theology to be a form of what has been called “secular faith” – or public happiness. It was also about organic solidarity. The farmer needs the truck driver who needs the schoolteacher who needs the students. Parents need the caregivers. We need reporters to show us the truth, whether we still subscribe to the newspapers they work for or not. In other words, anyone who thinks they are truly self-made should call their mother.
We might achieve this welcome state of personal and societal interdependence if we rejected the self-made con that my sour letter writers championed. I am still not always the best at letting go of the notion of being a self-created heroine. I was raised in this country. I believe, however, that there is another storyline out there, a better tale, one that isn’t simply a lonely, faltering and often doomed trudge toward financial victory.
Bootstrapped: Liberating Ourselves from the American Dream, by Alissa Quart, is out now.
Alissa Quart is the executive director of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, a journalism nonprofit devoted to covering inequality. The author of five nonfiction books (including Bootstrapped (2023) and two poetry collections, she has also contributed to The New York Times, The Guardian, and The New York Review of Books, among other publications.
Co-published with The Guardian.