Saturday, February 11, 2017

Bootstraps are bunk

I listened to episode 3 of the series Busted: America’s Poverty Myths by Brooke Gladstone from WNYC and NPR. This episode is Rags to Riches.

We’ll start with physics and linguistics. The phrase “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” is a physical impossibility. One can’t defy gravity by tugging on one’s boots. The original meaning of the phrase was about this impossibility. But the meaning has been flipped and many poor people are exhorted to get busy and pull themselves up by their bootstraps to get out of poverty. It is still an impossibility.

This basic American myth of upward mobility was first promoted by Benjamin Franklin. He was indeed was born to poverty and became successful. One of his many enterprises was to buy rags, which he made into paper, including paper currency. The original “rags to riches.”

Franklin promotes the idea that anyone can do what he did through hard work, and does this through his autobiography. But the counterexample is near at hand – Ben’s sister Jane, who seems to be just as industrious yet remained stuck in poverty. Ben thrived and was able to tell his story. Jane didn’t thrive and her story isn’t told. That’s always the case. But the success of the few ignores the situation of the many.

The story of a successful person rising from humble beginnings is still used to great effect. See every presidential campaign for perhaps the last 20 years, and many before then.

If hard work and virtue don’t automatically mean breaking out of poverty, what does?


We hear the story of Natasha, who escaped from a poor town to the big city. She got a job and worked hard. An illness (with no pay) meant an eviction notice. A surprise gift from a church meant keeping the apartment and job a few more months. Sharing the apartment with a friend – who screwed her over – meant losing it all and moving back to the poor town. Good luck through the church, bad luck through the nasty roommate.

Virtue usually works against luck. A poor person who receives a windfall (such as that surprise gift from the church) usually shares it (usually expected to share it) with others in the community. That usually dilutes the windfall so it can no longer make a difference in pulling a person out of poverty.

Professor Robert Frank of Cornell University has studied luck in raising up a poor person. He had an exchange with Stuart Varney, a host with Fox News, about the narrative of the self-made man. Varney says he came to America with nothing and took the risk of trying to work in American TV in spite of speaking with a British accent. Frank replied coming to America with a degree from the London School of Economics is not nothing. And Americans love British accents!

As for taking risks… Merriam-Webster says “Risk is the possibility that something bad or unpleasant, such as injury or loss, will happen.” So if Varney risked and succeeded, that fits the definition of luck.

There is the luck of birth: Your parents have money. Your parents are college educated. Your parents are alumni of a fabulous school. Your parents and your school provide you with a network to tap to guide you to a fabulous job. Your parents loan you a couple million to start your first business.

The stories of the successful get told. We don’t hear the stories of those who aren’t successful, those who were born to poor parents, those whose parents didn’t go to college and don’t have the money to send them, those who had to drop out of college because of a family catastrophe.

When we develop our personal narratives we emphasize all the hard work (and attending that fabulous school or using daddy’s money to start a business is hard work) and ignore the luck. We know the struggle to do that work. The luck is fuzzy and corrodes our faith in free will.

But recognizing the luck is important. It helps us to feel gratitude. And that prompts us to be more generous to strangers.

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