The “Bootstrapping” Myth

by Mike Dang and Logan Sachon

Mike: Earlier this week, we had a feature story about how a person got her job at a public relations firm. Part of that answer, we discover, is through connections this person had. “You should take every meeting,” she said. “Because you never know who’s going to have a job open up over the weekend. That’s a lot of how I got my job.” I appreciate how upfront she was about this because it basically demonstrated how “bootstrapping” is often a myth — the idea we got from Horatio Alger who wrote stories about boys working hard and moving themselves out of poverty and up the ladder. This is a part of the heart of the American Dream, but, of course, Horatio Alger wrote fiction. It’s not as simple as that. Were you raised with a “bootstrapping” mentality?

Logan: Yeah, I definitely was told, as a younger person, you can do anything if you set your mind to it and work hard at it. As a kid it felt like this idea that you could start from nothing and go up up up — but of course I was never starting at nothing. But also, I grew up in an upper middle class family with two parents with masters degrees and good jobs. So along with that boost of confidence, I was also given the tools and support to do whatever I wanted to do. It wasn’t until I got older, I don’t know, high school or college, that I realized that the American Dream only really works the way it’s promised for the already privileged. And now it’s even more clear, I guess.

Mike: And reports show that as well. If you are born into wealth, you are more likely to stay wealthy, and if you are born into poverty, you are more likely to stay poor. We live in a land of opportunity, but it is not a land of equal opportunity starting from birth.

So I grew up in a lower middle class family with two parents with no college degrees and blue collar jobs. My family came to this country with nearly nothing. My dad got a job working for the Ford Motor Company. We ate a lot of ramen Cup Noodles. And I guess you could say that my parents pulled themselves out of difficult economic circumstances to build a middle class life for themselves and have kids — and have a kid like me do well in school, go to an Ivy League college, and be where I am today. Now, is that bootstrapping? They worked hard, yes, but they were also lucky to have jobs that paid okay even without having college degrees, and to be honest, I’m not even sure if they received their GED.

Those kinds of jobs — like the one my dad got at Ford — don’t really exist today for people with little education. As we’ve seen in the last few years, the economic recovery has been in mostly low-wage retail, fast food, and home health care jobs while the jobs that were available to my dad in factory and construction work have taken a hammering. So some of it was bootstrapping, some of it was luck. We didn’t have a lot of money, but we happened to live in a neighborhood with good schools. And having access to that kind of education helped me out more than anything. So I could say, “My family came from nothing, and look at where I am today!” But I am where I am today thanks to the privilege of being born in circumstances that allowed me to succeed, and a community that was there to support me. Year after year, there would be some teacher who would encourage me to test into “gifted and talented” programs, or would figure out how to get me a used instrument so I could join the band in the fourth grade, or a number of other amazing things my teachers did for me. That’s the kind of community and support I had.

Logan: I’m friends with a former colleague on Facebook. He is an immigrant — he works several jobs, minimum wage probably, and the gist of most of his posts about politics is “get a job!” Which to me seems reductive — there are a lot of reasons why a lot people cannot get jobs, and a lot of reasons why a lot people that do have jobs aren’t being paid enough or given benefits and need to be on government assistance. So I see those posts and bristle. But then, you know, he is a person who did bootstrap it, is bootstrapping it. Came here with nothing and is now working so hard to provide for his family and succeeding at it. Maybe his kids will go to college, won’t have to work as hard as he does, I don’t know, I wish I knew him better. But I also wish he didn’t have to work so much and so hard.

Ha, Mike. I think this is the most involved end of week chat we’ve ever had! I usually try to avoid sharing my opinions on this stuff, at least on the fly like this — it’s hard to talk about! I prefer to be the one asking the questions, ha.

Mike: We talk about it because it’s hard to talk about. Money is hard to talk about! It does not have to be. Poverty, inequality, privilege — these are difficult things to talk about as they relate to money, but not talking about it is not an option, of course. We don’t have all the answers — which is why having discussions about them is important. It’s a step towards getting answers.

My best friend in college was a hardcore conservative. He, on a number of occasions, said that I was probably going to hell for various reasons. But we were friends because we could have honest, difficult conversations about things without it getting too heated or resorting to the vitriol you see in the dark depths of the comments sections of other websites. Debate is healthy! And he would probably use me as an example as someone who rose out of poor economic circumstances through bootstrapping. But again, I didn’t do it on my own. Do you know what helped pay for my college education? A government Pell grant. I did not work for that money. Does this make me a “taker”? I was determined to have financial need and was given that to help pay for my college education. And yes, I also worked throughout college, and yes, I earned some scholarships, but I can’t deny that I got help from a law that was voted in by people who collectively believe that we should help people who cannot afford a college education to get a college education. And I also got a lot of help throughout my career from, yes, connections I made. I mean, I’m a hard worker, but I’m also not going to say I did it completely on my own.

Logan: And now like, what is “it” anyway, is what I’m wondering. What have I used my own privilege to accomplish? Right now I’m living hand to mouth again, basically, something which I can only do because I know I cannot end up on the streets. I could try I guess, miss rent and be kicked out of my apartment, if I let it get that bad, but I know I can always go back to my parents’ house. That safety net is there for me. I’m getting depressed about myself now. How to end this. Not life, this chat.

Mike:Do not be depressed! You are in a good position! A better position than when you were when you first moved to the city! Meaning your economic mobility is moving in the right direction. Pull yourself up by your … just keep doing what you’re doing.

Photo: Matthias Shoots Analogue

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