The Bootstraps BS

It’s hard to comprehend that the United States has such insane economic inequality with very little happening to change it. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos has a net worth of over $100 billion while countless others are trying to scrape by in debt or homelessness. The contrast between a handful of people with tens of billions of dollars and everyone else couldn’t be starker. And yet, it continues to get worse—without a lot of collective action or governmental change. What the hell?

I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around the disparity and callousness, and it seems clear that it has a lot to do with the ol’ bootstraps myth. You know, the idea that every American can pull themselves up by their bootstraps if they choose to do so, and rise to great wealth and social standing. A handful of people have a net worth of billions of dollars because they’re the smartest and hardest-working. The homeless man shooting up on the streets of San Francisco is there because he hasn’t pulled himself up by the bootstraps. He made bad choices or is lazy or isn’t taking advantage of his opportunities.

So the myth goes. And so class divides persist and worsen. A particular person’s situation is deemed the inevitable outcome of how hard they’re trying. Stark inequality throughout the whole country is shrugged at as the resulting separation between the people who tried hard and the people who didn’t.

A widely referenced 2009 Pew survey suggested that a majority of Americans think this way. 71% to 21%, those surveyed said that “personal attributes, like hard work and drive, are more important to economic mobility than external conditions.” If you’re financially successful, you’re an all-American bootstrapper. If you’re struggling, you’re an outcast from the American social contract and you’ve only got yourself to blame.

If economic and social standing are the outcomes of personal character, why would anyone think much of it or work to change it? That’s just the way it is. If you think someday that could be me with billions if I work hard enough!, you probably want things to stay as they are. I’m gonna be in the top income bracket one day, so don’t tax it too much. And don’t give people a *handout* or a leg up who aren’t trying as hard as I am.

But, of course, none of this is really how it works. Wealth in the United States is not some perfectly laissez-faire, unbiased, meritocratic system–where those who have the most worked the hardest and those who are destitute are there because of their lack of effort. Some of the people who are absurdly wealthy just goof around all day. They coast as their fortune–often starting as a sizable inheritance–grows. Meanwhile, millions of middle class and poor Americans hardly have time to rest—working long hours or trying to live out of their car or on the street. America’s inequality, and the particular people who are rich and poor, are not simply the outcomes of effort.

The disparities start at birth, then later continue in second, third, and twentieth chances for some while oppression and shaming for others. Consider how bootstrapping is linked to race and sex. White men with a huge advantage of inheritance and a foot in the door from their white, male buddies are proclaimed to have gotten to the top by virtuousness and industriousness.

While “welfare queens,” “ungrateful” black and brown people, and “reckless” single moms are believed to have every opportunity and support they could need, yet fail to rise up the ladder. They’re accused of not trying, and considered a terrible burden on society. Sometimes a black CEO, or a single mom hustling through night classes, get spotlit as the good, bootstrapping individuals that other black people and women should aspire to be like. The bootstraps bullshit is fully weaponized by loading it with racism and sexism.

The harsh, simple truth is that the majority of us are going to go through costly personal tragedies and uncontrollable struggles to make ends meet. It’s not easy to afford all your material needs all of the time, or to live through the traumas you can’t do anything to prevent.

When you’re knocked down, it’s difficult to recover in America. The United States doesn’t have anything close to a foundational system of social services that other countries do, which ensure that whatever you aspire to and whatever kind of luck you encounter in life, you’ll still have your basic needs provided for. Things like universal healthcare with virtually zero patient cost. Elder care. Child care. Housing. Robust maternity and paternity leave. And more.

In Texas, a 38-year-old teacher, Heather Holland, recently died of complications from the flu when she couldn’t afford the $116 copay for a prescription. Some internet assholes very unhelpfully chimed in to say that she should have had a rainy day fund to cover something like that. That’s some classic bootstrap shaming.

I’ve mentioned before that close to half of Americans couldn’t cover an emergency $400 expense if they needed to. It’s not just Heather Holland and her supposed moral failings. Many unexpected expenses are a lot more than $116 or $400. Cancer treatments can cost tens of thousands of dollars per month. Who’s got a rainy day fund for that? There is no perfect lifestyle and financial plan to prevent everything and afford everything.

While Jeff Bezos sits on billions, hundreds of Amazon employees are in the supplemental nutrition assistance program (formerly known as food stamps). These sad realities say a lot more about the way wealth is immorally distributed than whether or not individual people are trying hard enough to make it.

But our inequality-generating system is rarely challenged in public. The bootstraps myth obscures the crazy head-starts given to some, stifling structural prejudices against others, and the dire need for a strong social support system. People in debt or poverty or failing health are told you need to do better or you failed, so figure out how to get out of it.

That’s really the best this country can do? That’s all we owe to each other?

Everyone deserves to have their basic needs taken care of. Everyone should be supported through misfortune. Not because people are trying hard enough, but because we’re all human beings who want to enjoy life in the face of universal challenges.

Some Order in the Chaos

I don’t want to speak for everyone, but I sense that many people think the world works something like this:

If you do good, good things will happen to you.

If you do bad, bad things will happen to you.

The way that you act and the kind of person you are will determine how well or arduously your life goes.

In other words, people reap what they sow. If good things are happening to you, it’s because you did good things. If something bad happened to you, it’s a result of something bad you did. Powerful people are powerful because of the good that they do. Poor people are poor because of the bad decisions they’ve made. Etcetera, etcetera.

But in reality, things frequently go like this:

Bad things happen to people who do good.

Good things happen to people who do bad.

The way that you act and the kind of person you are seems to have little bearing on the enjoyment or difficulties that come your way.

A power-hungry asshole gets the job instead of you–the more intelligent, empathetic person. A benevolent doctor has a career-ending stroke. The corrupt businessman gets a bonus larger than you and fifteen other people will make in your combined lifetimes. You give everything to your significant other, and they leave you for someone else. Things that you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy–injury, illness, loss–strike all kinds of people around you.

The only discernible law about how things work is that no matter what kind of person you are, a number of good and bad things will happen to you without much rhyme or reason. Life is frequently unfair. The world is not perfectly karmic. Beautiful, awesome, rewarding things happen. But so do tragic, painful, gut-wrenching things. Sometimes, it’s because of your choices and actions. Other times, it’s pure happenstance. A meaningful and enjoyable life has a lot of luck involved.

So does that mean we should all give up on trying to be better people? If so much is coincidental, shouldn’t we just take as much as we can for ourselves and let other people fend for themselves?

I think it’s actually the opposite. With so much of what makes our lives enjoyable or difficult outside of our control, what we should do is collectively try to bring a little bit of order to the chaos.

We should think about what we can do…

To create support structures that alleviate each other’s suffering and misfortune.

To establish more accountability and transparency–especially with institutions and positions of power.

To ensure that the most vulnerable people have the same basic standard of living as everyone else.

To take care of our mental and physical health so we’re more resilient in the face of adversity.

To be more kind and patient with one another–knowing that each of us is probably struggling through something we didn’t ask for.

How the world works isn’t regularly what we expect or want. It’s up to us to come together and do what we can to make things more just, humane, and enjoyable for everyone.