The Dark Side of Self-Reliance

When I was 17, I won $20,000 from the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans. Named after the prolific 19th-century novelist whose rags-to-riches stories epitomize the idea of ​​”pulling yourself up by your bootstraps,” the scholarship honors young people who have overcome adversity, which, for me, included the mental thinking of my parents illnesses, time in foster care and periods of homelessness.

In April 2010, Distinguished Americans flew me and the other 103 winners to Washington, DC, for a mandatory convention. We stayed in a nice hotel and spent a whole day learning table manners. We met Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who I remember shaking hands with the boys and hugging the girls. Before the event’s big gala, we posed in rented finery, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at the center of our group photo. Political commentator Lou Dobbs praised the tenacity of the honorees in his opening remarks. In the words of the Horatio Alger Association, we were “worthy scholars” who demonstrated “the limitless possibilities available through the American free enterprise system.” We were proof that anyone could make it.

The Horatio Alger Association is one of the institutions Alissa Quart, journalist and executive director of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, criticizes in her new book, Bootstrapped: Liberating Ourselves From the American Dream. In a sprawling 230 pages, Quart questions our nation’s obsession with self-reliance. According to Quart, the fiction that anyone who works hard can have a better life increases inequality and promotes policies that harm us. Meanwhile, blaming people for their supposedly bad choices is “a kind of nationwide bullying” internalized by the poor. Bootstrapped puts words to beliefs that I struggled to articulate as a teenager and that haunted me into adulthood: Both success and failure were in my hands, I was only valuable when I triumphed, and if I couldn’t overcome, I’d be better off dead.

Quart opens by exploring the origins of the phrase “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” and how our culture has come to idolize the so-called self-made man. In 1834 the magazine Advocate of the working man he taunted a local inventor by saying that a machine he had built would allow him to “deliver himself over the Cumberland River … by his bootstraps”—a joke impossible, of course, because you can’t lift your whole body in your shoes. But the term stuck and over time became synonymous with self-reliance. Quart then points out a number of cracks in our collective myth of self-sufficiency. While Henry David Thoreau lived in Walden Pond—for many, the Mecca of American individualism—his mother did his laundry. Ayn Rand, patron saint of libertarians, collected Social Security near the end of her life. Even the Horatio Alger novels are not stories of genuine independence: In most, a wealthy benefactor steps in to support a handsome teenage protagonist. (These stories also take on a darker meaning when you consider Alger’s own past: A Harvard Divinity School-trained pastor, he was forced to resign after being accused of abusing two boys.)

Bootstrapped – Freeing Ourselves from the American Dream

With Alyssa Quart

The belief that underprivileged teenagers can study hard, prove their worth and gain access to higher education thanks to philanthropic largesse is also increasingly a myth. Donors give disproportionately to elite schools with huge endowments. Only 1.5 percent of the total amount contributed goes to two-year colleges—despite the fact that state and community colleges have some of the highest rates of upward mobility. Not only do the same universities benefit again and again, but often the same students too. A recent Horatio Alger winner remarked to me that a small group of high-achieving, low-income students seemed to win several big prizes each year. I had noticed this myself as a teenager. A handful of my peers were kicked out of various non-profits and punished repeatedly. Many of them got into prestigious universities that offered full financial aid, making the awards moot.

I was one of those students: I received a full ride to Harvard. At the Horatio Alger conference, the wife of a distinguished American offered me another grant that meant I didn’t have to find a fixed-term job. I hardly touched Horatio Alger’s money. I sat uncomfortably with all the advantages I had. Yes, I had rotated between friends’ couches and slept in my car last summer. But I also had a grandmother who had taken an interest in me, insisting that I get straight A’s and pay for an elementary elementary school. I had left foster care because of financial aid from boarding school. For me, like most of my multi-scholarship peers, the lucky breaks got worse. Our withdrawals were the opposite of self-sufficiency. If anyone had been paying attention, they could have studied us to understand which interventions worked—and what stopped others.

But for many people who insist that modern America is a meritocracy, the burden is on those who need help to prove they need it. One of Quart’s sharpest points is that administrative burdens force disadvantaged people to repeatedly prove their worth. For example, Medicaid requires participants to frequently recertify (a practice that had been discontinued during the pandemic) to receive benefits. In recent years, more than 220,000 children in Tennessee alone have lost coverage due to clerical errors. Florida Gov. Ron DeSandis said the unemployment insurance system was designed to “put as many unnecessary roadblocks as possible” so that the unemployed would quit. Some of these barriers—such as some states’ Medicaid work requirements, which have been shown to marginally affect employment rates—are simply punishment for poverty.

Although Quart is primarily critical of such policy failures, she also shows how widespread the tendency is to overemphasize individual responsibility. For example, he condemns the “dystopian social safety net” that stretches beneath the abyss of unmet need. As highlighted by GoFundMe fundraising (where people ask friends, family and strangers for donations to help cover the costs of necessities like housing, car repairs and expensive medical procedures), getting help often means “commodifying our pain”— it’s no different than students who brandish their trauma over a semester’s tuition at a private college.

Praise is common throughout our culture—the fantasy of self-sufficiency is so pervasive because it feels good, both to witness and to experience. Quart shouts its “hygge”. Little House in Livadi, which features a pioneer family surviving alone on the frontier, with salty pork sizzling over the fire they started. I swelled with pride when the scholarship application essay, in which I compared my life to that of Horatio Alger Award recipient Buzz Aldrin, was delivered to me in a State Department dining room. Growing up in a society that idolized individual achievement, I never failed to notice and cling to moments of seemingly isolated success.

And when things went wrong, I blamed myself—when I was raped a few months after the conference, when I had nowhere to stay during school breaks, when I nearly broke a bite of root canals and fillings after years of sporadic dental care. I had understood in heady fiction that I was the master of my own destiny. When it turned out I wasn’t, the failure was personal.

When I graduated from college, my shame at not being a smiling winner became unbearable. The only way I could let it go was to acknowledge the dark side of our fixation on independence—a message that Quart gets across much more directly than I could. Proposes common-sense changes to improve the social safety net, most of which are extensions of COVID-era policies: expanding the child tax credit, making re-certification for Medicaid less burdensome, and reducing administrative barriers to seeking help .

Equally important, Bootstrapped urges readers to reconsider their narratives of achievement. Quart encourages us to stop shaming others and ourselves for needing help and to recognize the ways in which we are all interdependent. When I was a teenager, no amount of praise for my persistence could replace the help I received: encouragement from teachers who believed in me, rides from friends’ parents, a few nights at a shelter, and, yes, the financial aid that allowed me to graduate. debt free — a modern miracle. There is a clear irony in a charity that rewards “self-sufficiency” even as it affirms our deep urge to help others.

At the Horatio Alger gala, a hawk released a bald eagle, which soared through the hall to the sound of the national anthem. The audience erupted into thunderous applause. Watching the bird, I assumed it represented the individual triumphs of each of the scholarship winners. But maybe I should look at the crowd, gathered with our wonder, none of us are so lonely after all.

​When you purchase a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for the support The Atlantic.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *