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Bootstrapping Has Always Been A Myth. The New American Dream Proves It

8 minute read
Quart is the author of five acclaimed books of nonfiction including Bootstrapped: Liberating Ourselves from the American Dream, the paperback of which is out on April 9, 2024.

The classic leather boot has had many names over the years—lace-up, cowboy, congress, pale rider. To get your work boots on your feet 200 or so years ago, you would stand up and grab two small leather flaps on the sides, known as bootstraps, and pull the boot up. From this everyday activity, the idiom “to pull yourself up by your bootstraps” was born—and with it, a torturous myth that true success meant getting ahead on only your energy and steam, without help from your family, government, or community. While it was initially understood to be an absurdity, over time it became a phrase that millions of people take seriously. The phrase is now, arguably, the basis of the American Dream and its embrace of an individualism that shades into a brittle self-sufficiency.

For years, I have been struck by how much the self-made myth shapes public opinion and policy. As a reporter focused on inequality, I frequently see this relentless individualistic stance, even in the messages I receive from readers about how the poor are responsible for their own scarcity, strangers wagging their proverbial fingers at “single mothers” or people who’ve been evicted. They are following decades of instructions that Americans have to accomplish everything on our own, from poor women being called “welfare queens” during the Reagan era to today’s Republican politicians opposing college-debt relief as “a debt-transfer scam.”

But there is also a very different version of the American Dream from this one. It’s closer to what was first imagined by James Truslow Adams in his 1931 book on the subject—more inclusive, more communitarian, and less singular. It’s catching on. You can see it in the rise in the number of people joining—or attempting to create—new unions, and in the range of citizens now helping decide the budgets of their local governments. These are just two examples of the new American Dreamers that taken together show that collective action and community-focused activity are growing in popularity.

Read more: U.S. Labor Unions Are Having a Moment

Their numbers include people who are joining psychological subcultures that operate like mutual-aid networks of the mind, with what one practitioner called “survivor-centered and survivor-aware care.” Cissy White, one counselor in a kind of new peer-to-peer counseling community, was a trauma survivor herself. She led webinars during the pandemic, sharing memories of her extreme poverty and neglect as a child, including the father she knew living unhoused. But while all of this suffering could have hardened her toward those less resilient and made her self-focused, it had instead made White more rigorous in her generosity.

Another woman spoke of her own abject poverty in childhood and young adulthood, how she once spent her days “drinking so much I was dying.” White nodded in acceptance. A chorus of attendees also responded.

While the need for mental health care is often cast as an individual failing, those who are rethinking mental-health care believe we shouldn’t have to hustle to access assistance or attempt to get healthier through self-help alone.

The fight for this new American Dream tends to require both social smarts and organizational abilities. For example, that’s what people needed to participate in the mutual-aid groups that have risen up around the country since the pandemic. Local strangers connected by Google Groups, Google Calendars, and calling trees to bring groceries, eyeglasses, and medication to one another; they placed fridges in urban areas with complimentary food inside. In 2021, there were an estimated 800 such groups nationwide, but informally, scholars who study voluntarism told me there were many more. Near my apartment in Brooklyn, a volunteer group was organized by community activist Crystal Hudson, who today occupies New York City’s 35th District council seat, to help the aged and the financially stressed in our neighborhood, including her own mother, before she passed away. The result of that group was that creatives in their 20s were buying chicken feet and pig feet and taking them to the doorsteps of elderly Caribbean Americans. It meant that Hudson herself heard “people cry on the phone when I asked them what they want us to buy. They told me, ‘No one has ever asked me what I want to eat before.’” Mutual-aid groups can rethink charity and create spaces where the giver and receiver are more aligned.

The new American Dream can also be seen in alternative labor organization meetings or people rallying for higher salaries after a hard day as an underpaid adjunct professor or a low-wage restaurant worker. Think of the wave of protests by workers at universities and museums in 2022. These new brain-worker labor activists realize that advancement comes from better wages and benefits, not just from their creative endeavors. They certainly won’t get it from the person at the top making over a million dollars a year. At one college recently, even the students joined, occupying the main glass building to insist that their adjunct professors, who are often paid poverty wages, get adequate raises and insured health care. In late 2022, faculty and graduate students in the massive University of California system marched and even kayaked to demand living wages, while in New York’s Hudson Valley, sculpture-park workers picketed in front of a private club hosting an event for their trustees. These are not the typical union activists. Instead, they are culture workers banding together to address how they are underpaid and insecure. Even though they work in fields that tend to be highly individualistic, one of the striking adjuncts told me they had found new strength by bonding together: “We are woven together more tightly with our new social capital: that of raised awareness.”

The dream also means workers entering their workplaces on different terms. This includes worker-owners of today’s rising number of worker cooperatives, like the people who make up western North Carolina’s Opportunity Threads, a worker-owned cut-and-sew factory that specializes in customizing patterns. I’ve spoken to a dozen workers at different worker-cooperatives and in their communal efforts—in these cases, the workers own their own farms and also work the land, or they co-own their own catering company and cook the food that’s delivered as well—and they all describe a feeling of collective strength in their work, that their labor is offering a livelihood rather than just earning them their keep. According to the nonprofit U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives, there are now 465 verified worker-owned co-ops in the country, up 36% since 2013, with about 450 more are starting up. Worker-owners are often better paid too, according to the Democracy at Work Institute.

Finally, the new American Dreamers include people who have joined participatory budgeting citizens’ groups in cities around the country.

These are residents who are holding their municipal governments accountable, learning the ins and outs of their local governments and proposing to put civic money into improving park spaces or creating accessible paths to the public beach for the disabled. As one participatory-budgeting attendee said, they’re allocating money in ways that were not how “government money was usually spent.” The neighborhoods’ inhabitants then vote on these citizen proposals at city-council offices or even at a folding table in front of the local grocery store.

An estimated 150,000 Americans have taken part in them since the practice was imported to the U.S. from Brazil over 10 years ago.

Despite the inspiration these pioneers show, many are still under the sway of the old bootstrap myth. A recent Center for American Progress study found that 60% of Republicans agreed with the statement “People get stuck in poverty primarily because they make bad decisions or lack the ambition to do better in life.” Others polled by Pew Research Center in 2020 supported the idea that people are poor because “they have not worked as hard as most other people.”

Opinions like these are why alternative community efforts must continue. National prosperity requires “community support as well as individual effort,” as business historian Pamela Laird reminds us in her book Pull. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “It’s a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his bootstraps.”

We must internalize these words and actions as elements of the new American Dream. It can emerge only out of heterogeneous communities, in which members help one another, if we are ever to escape the Bootstrap Society. Taken together these group efforts radiate outward, burning away the toxin of our relentless individualism.

Adapted from Bootstrapped: Liberating Ourselves From the American Dream © 2023 by Alissa Quart. Reprinted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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