Monday, February 16, 2015

Perservering in Poverty: America's Weird Fetish for Bootstrap Narratives


If there's one thing we love in America, it's the idea that any of us can succeed if we just work hard enough. Sheer determination (and some natural talent) will be enough for us to achieve our wildest dreams if we just persevere. We hold up success stories of people starting from nothing and working their way up as proof that the world is fair and hard work does pay off--stories like Stephen King and JK Rowling, who started with nothing but wrote in their spare time working shit jobs and just scraping enough together to make end's meet until they suddenly found success after all their hard work.

One of our most famous and foundational American legends exemplifies this: the wealthy Andrew Carnegie started from nothing and eventually became one of the wealthiest men in America. When it comes to rags-to-riches stories, Carnegie is a staple for American lore.

The "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" mentality is so pervasive in America that politicians still engage in a "log cabin" campaigns all the time. "The Log Cabin Campaign" was a legit campaign run by William Henry Harrison against Martin Van Buren. Since ol' Willy was so old, the Van Buren campaign cracked that he'd be more likely to retire and just hang out in his log cabin. From this Harrison built a campaign around the concept that he was just another poor American living in a log cabin, that he came from poor folks and understood the day-to-day struggle of making end's meet well--which was a line of bullshit because he came from wealthy planters. Meanwhile, because Martin Van Buren had a successful government job, they painted him a being rich and out of touch.

Since that one campaign, it seems like every politician does some sort of variation of the log cabin campaign. If you watched the 2015 State of the Union Address, you probably saw the Republican rebuttal, where Joni Ernst talked about growing up poor.
"You see, growing up, I had only one good pair of shoes. So on rainy school days, my mom would slip plastic bread bags over them to keep them dry. But I was never embarrassed, because the school bus would be filled with rows and rows of young Iowans with bread bags slipped over their feet."
Marco Rubio expressed similar sentiments the year before, and Mitt Romney, presidential candidate with a net worth of $250,000,000, even tried to make his beginnings sound more humble than they were. Ann Romney once described their financial situation when they were first starting out thusly (emphasis mine): "We had no income except the stock we were chipping away at. We were living on the edge, not entertaining.”

While there's not necessarily anything wrong with bootstrap narratives--they're inspiring and push people to work hard to achieve things, and drive is something everyone should have--it also leads to stupid thinking and stupid policies in America. This same "work hard to make it on your own" mentality leads to gutting public aid programs like food stamps, disability, healthcare for the underprivileged, and money for those that have lost their jobs.

The bootstrap narrative operates under the assumption that we live in a just world where your hard work is rewarded and other people's hardships are because of something they did to deserve it. Every poor person is someone that didn't budget correctly. Every person massively in debt used their credit cards stupidly and frivolously.


Some Americans (particularly, right-wing Americans) are so obsessed with the idea that you can make it on your own that Fox News has run several segments demonizing poor people for...no joke...having a refrigerator and a DVD player. But if someone is receiving any financial help from the government, it seems they're not supposed to use any of their income on anything except the most basic, vital things. Any of those small things that could be considered "luxuries," like having a coffee maker, are proof that poor people are gaming the system. (See the Daily Shows and Colbert Report segments responding to this.)

President Obama received a ridiculous amount of flak from the right when he made the statement that business owners didn't build their businesses completely on their own.
"There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me — because they want to give something back. They know they didn’t — look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something — there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there. (Applause.) 
If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet."
Because of our beliefs that the universe is just and if you work hard enough, you can become wildly successful, we are loathe to help those in need with any government provided subsidies. Unemployment and food stamps are laughable in how almost ineffectual they are. If you lose your job and have a family, you are fucked. After my parents divorced, my mom struggled for years with money, and I recall times both when she was on unemployment and food stamps. There were a lot of times that she skipped eating so we could have enough. Which isn't to say that people refuse unemployment and food stamps. You take what you can where you can get it. But it wasn't nearly enough.

There's this perception that food stamps, welfare, unemployment, disability are all abused by moochers to get money and free stuff without having to work. Fox News constantly runs scary stories about people abusing these things, like the time someone bought lobster with their food stamps.

That's also not the entirety of the story. As NPR reports:

"Greenslate's benefit amounts to about $2.19 per meal, a calculation based on three meals a day.

As an able-bodied person under age 50, and with no apparent dependents, the San Diego surfer-musician would qualify among a group of Americans who became eligible for food stamps as part of the 2009 stimulus package.

Those who were newly qualified under the stimulus because of low income or unemployment now make up about 10 percent of the 48 million food stamp recipients. (The program is now known as SNAP, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.)

Nearly 90 percent of recipients have a dependent, whether a child, a senior citizen or someone with a disability." (Emphasis mine.)

Sure, there are people that abuse those relief programs. I've known some. But the fact is, these benefits help far more people than abuse them, and even that help isn't much. We could do more. And as the Daily Show showed, people that receive this help, when it's done right, work hard to no longer need the benefits. True, some people stay on them perpetually, but that's usually more about the half-assed "help" than the person's work ethic. (See this Cracked article.)

Recently the news got all in a tizzy about James Robertson, a man in Detroit that walks 21 FUCKING MILES ROUND TRIP JUST TO GET TO AND FROM WORK. The media painted this man as the kind of inspiring American bootstraps story we've grown to love. He's been walking to and from work for ten years. He has no social life. Literally his entire existence is get up, go to work, come home, sleep for a few hours, do it again. Several news articles describe him as sleep deprived, and he describes that he mostly can do it by binging on large amounts of caffeine.

It's sickening that people hold this man up as some kind of ideal situation, some sort of personification of the American Work Ethic. I'm not saying the man doesn't deserve praise. He is a fucking bad ass doing what he has to do. But the fact that he has to do it is near goddamned criminal.

His boss is a perfect example of the kind of unreasonable standards that America puts on our work force. From the Detroit Free Press: '"I set our attendance standard by this man," says Todd Wilson, plant manager at Schain Mold & Engineering. "I say, if this man can get here, walking all those miles through snow and rain, well I'll tell you, I have people in Pontiac 10 minutes away and they say they can't get here — bull!"'

Think about that for a moment. The manager decided that this man with his almost comically abysmal situation, is the metric that we should measure all work attendance. While Robertson's dedication is admirable, the poor man's situation is called DESPERATION. If this job is literally all you have, and the only thing you can do to keep the roof over your head, you'll do a lot of goddamned extreme things to make sure you don't lose it. But that shouldn't be used as the example for how we all should behave. Expecting people to go to such lengths is unreasonable.

Put it this way, if a tree falls and crushes someone to the ground, do we expect that person to saw their own arm off like that guy in 127 Hours, or is it reasonable to assume that we'll call an ambulance or the fire department to get that person free?

The boy that started the campaign to get the man a car is good. It's nice. That person did something nice for someone else, and we need more of that in this world. But it doesn't fix the systemic problem we have of people living in the kind of desperate poverty that would sound like something from the Onion if it weren't completely true. And it doesn't fix the systemic bias we have toward people that are struggling to survive.

What if we found out that he was in this situation because he made bad choices? What if he got here because he was frivolous with his money once upon a time? Should everyone that donated to him demand their money back because it turns out he was human? That kind of social Darwinism is the kind of bullshit you see paraded out whenever we discuss helping the poor, and it's cruel. People make mistakes. It says something when many people's concepts of societal justice come straight from the pages of A Christmas Carol.
``At this festive season of the year, Mr Scrooge,'' said the gentleman, taking up a pen, ``it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.'' 
``Are there no prisons?'' asked Scrooge. 
``Plenty of prisons,'' said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.
``And the Union workhouses?'' demanded Scrooge. ``Are they still in operation?'' 
``They are. Still,'' returned the gentleman, `` I wish I could say they were not.'' 
``The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?'' said Scrooge. 
``Both very busy, sir.'' 
``Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,'' said Scrooge. ``I'm very glad to hear it.'' 
``Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude,'' returned the gentleman, ``a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?'' 
``Nothing!'' Scrooge replied. 
``You wish to be anonymous?'' 
``I wish to be left alone,'' said Scrooge. ``Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don't make merry myself at Christmas and I can't afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned: they cost enough: and those who are badly off must go there.'' 
``Many can't go there; and many would rather die.'' 
``If they would rather die,'' said Scrooge, ``they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. Besides -- excuse me -- I don't know that.'' 
``But you might know it,'' observed the gentleman. 
``It's not my business,'' Scrooge returned. ``It's enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people's. Mine occupies me constantly. Good afternoon, gentlemen!'
We, as Americans, need to start recognizing that Robertsons' situation isn't acceptable. There are many people like him that need help, and we should start providing it. We also need to recognize that when we accept situations like James Robertson, eventually those in power will eventually decide that situations like Robertson's aren't an example of the indomitable human spirit, but rather a norm that all workers should strive to meet. They will start pointing to the James Robertons as examples for why you should be doing more to help yourself. And if you can't...well...maybe you need to pull yourself up by your bootstraps. This is America. We make it on our own.
“It’s alright to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.” ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.