The Limits on Bootstraps

By Alex Mozell


The common requisition to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” is irksome, not only because its literal interpretation is impossible, but also because there are so many barriers between being poor and succeeding – a success that a very small but very loud minority enjoy.

Samuel Bowles, in the book, Poverty Traps, of which he was coeditor and contributor, argued that, “exclusion of all but the well-to-do from entrepreneurial pursuits, and blocked access to education…” frequently arises in unjust societies, but offers “no advantages in productive efficiency.”  In other words, American inequality is so great that ascension is all but impossible for some.  Struggling and striving feels like Sisyphus must have felt, rolling a boulder up a hill, only for his hopes to be dashed, again.  Who does this serve?  Society?  The economy?  Our hardworking culture?  No.  It serves only a few, who profit off of their janitors cleaning the floors of their shopping malls, their greeters who welcome customers into their superstores, and their fry cooks producing food at their restaurant chains.  Gone are the days when you could enter from the bottom and retire at the top.  Gone is the American Dream.

These poverty traps, ultimately, imply inequality of opportunity: the type of inequality even the right claims to eschew.  Struggling workers, families, and children find the climb to success (if it even exists) hazardous, risky, and riddled with impediments.  Ultimately, poverty hurts one’s chance at success, and failing at success returns a person, and also returns their children, back to poverty.  These poverty traps are vicious cycles, part of a downward whirlpool.  Here are just a few of the many barriers that one might face when starting and growing a business:

  • The rich get many chances to start a business. If they fail the first time, chances are that they have a good second shot, or third.  Drawing on their financial assets is easier for them, trying again and again, perhaps providing seed funding even for their children and friends.  The poor might not have enough money to try again (or even have enough money to try once).
  • The poor are more risk averse than the rich, meaning they are afraid of losing what they have because they own less. The poor might lose their home, their car, or what they have saved for their retirement or for a child’s education: all, of course, dear possessions.  The rich, however, might only have to give up some financial investments, these assets’ previous purpose simply to sit in an investment fund and grow in value.  And so the rich are more likely to try, to take risks, and perhaps make a lot of money doing so.  Those on the right prize boldness and taking risks, but have these theorists been in such a desperate position, where every asset a person owns is invaluable?
  • Someone who is very wealthy, perhaps through inheritance, need not get a real job; they are of the Leisure Class, as Dr. Veblen might put it. Alternatively put, money breeds laziness.  If they start a business, they are simply filling their free time.  A poor or middle class person, however, must give up their job in order to take a shot at starting a business, and that’s a big risk.  So they’re more likely to play it safe, more likely to continue with a steady income, and less likely to join the ranks of the wealthy underemployed.
  • The rich are more likely to get a loan, mostly because they can put their assets up for collateral. They can schmooze important bankers, or more likely, important bankers will schmooze them. Banks will compete for their business, only too happy to lend them money.  Also, wealthy people can tap into their network of rich friends to get startup capital and know-how.  Money flows around at the top, investments from one to another, into their pet business projects.  Remember: it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.
  • Finally, public schools for the poor are insufficiently funded compared to those for the rich because local tax dollars go to funding nearby schools. Additionally, the rich can afford private education for their children, the yearly bill often rivalling college tuition.  So, poor children graduate less prepared to excel in college and then to become professionals.  And firms are going to expect the “proper” speech, mannerisms, and dress: very thinly veiled classism.  The sharpness of one’s suit may get them farther than the length of their resume.

It seems like right-wing pundits look at someone pulling and pulling on their bootstraps, and then blame them for not being able to fly.  The right accuses the masses of being lazy, and seems not to notice those working well over full time, supporting a family, and clinging onto the edge of bankruptcy.  Wouldn’t these people put such amazing effort into social ascension if social ascension were possible?  Barriers to success plague this country, serving only a few on the mountain’s precipice, shouting down at the rest of us, accusing us of laziness.  These barriers are obvious, and anyone who can think and observe should be able clearly to see them.