The Phrase “Pull Yourself Up By Your Bootstraps” is Bullsh*t

There’s a reason “bootstraps” can be abbreviated with “BS”

A brown bull named John Lewis Thunderheart

Photo by Smol Fortune

Meet John Lewis Thunderheart, the beautiful boy pictured above whose massive size is most likely due to the giant gentle soul inside of him. (You can click here to see his adorable bond with a dog named Sky along with other heart-warming photos and videos of his activities).

What comes out of Mr. Thunderheart, however, are steaming piles of crap or what some may call, representations of the phrase “pull yourself up by your bootstraps.”

The expression originated to convey when something was an impossible, preposterous task, but has evolved into the idea that the ability to change one’s socioeconomic status is attainable and in every individual’s control. (You can read more about its history in the HuffPost article by Caroline Bologna here).

The problem with placing the onus of socioeconomic status on an individual is that the qualities and choices deemed as leading to sky-high bootstraps do not actually guarantee job security, fair pay, or a safe and respectful workplace. It also requires equal and equitable access to choice, which is not the world we live in.

Having a low socioeconomic status, being unemployed, underemployed, or underpaid are not reflections of anyone’s individual value, work ethic, or integrity. They are indicators that there are serious systemic issues at play. Socioeconomic status is not an easily-traveled spectrum. According to 2013 findings from the UC Davis Center for Poverty Research, in the U.S., the longer the time spent in poverty, the lower the chances that an individual will exit it: they’re 56% after one year and decrease to 13% after seven or more years in poverty.

Pretending that one can “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” doesn’t acknowledge history, denies statistics, and erases racism, sexism, ageism, anti-semitism, homophobia, Islamophobia, ableism, and everything else on the long list of prejudice and discrimination that impacts professional and monetary advancement (among many other things).

It’s insulting. It places the blame of a lack of infrastructural support and equity on the people it impacts instead of the policies responsible for it.

In order for anything remotely close to the concept of “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” to exist, there needs to be a shared starting line for said “bootstrappers.” This means there needs to be a system in place that automatically provides everyone with basic needs (i.e. high-quality public healthcare, education, housing, childcare, elderly care, etc…) rather than them being precariously accessed or unaffordable.

If the idea of a system like this sounds scary or unpleasant, it is important to remember that the human population is a community that you’re a part of whether you like it or not. Even if a resource provided to one person is not something you were or will be able to partake in, it doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile. Living in a world where only you personally are permitted to thrive at all times is asking for self-destruction. There are too many services you are dependent on that you do not and cannot do alone.

No one does anything without the help of others, whether it be through government programs, other people, or both. It is impossible to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps.”

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