The New American Dream and the Myth of Self-Sufficiency

Tthe classic leather boot has gone by many names over the years—cowboy, cowboy, convention, pale rider. To get your work boots on your feet about 200 years ago, you would stand up and grab two small leather flaps on the sides, known as boots, and pull the boot up. From this daily activity, the idiom “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” was born—and with it, a nagging myth that true success meant going on your own energy and steam, with no help from family. your government or community. While it was initially perceived as absurd, over time it became a phrase that millions of people take seriously. The phrase is now, arguably, the basis of the American Dream and its embrace of an individualism that shades into a fragile self-sufficiency.

For years, I have been struck by how much self-created myth shapes public opinion and policy. As a journalist focused on inequality, I often see this relentlessly individualistic attitude, even in the messages I get from readers about how the poor are to blame for their own lack, strangers pointing fingers at “single mothers” or people facing eviction . It follows decades of instruction that Americans should do everything ourselves, from poor women who were called “welfare queens” in the Reagan era to today’s Republican politicians who oppose college debt relief as a “debt transfer scam.”

But there is also a very different version of the American Dream than this. It is closer to what James Truslow Adams first envisioned in his 1931 book on the subject—more inclusive, more communal, and less singular. He gets it. You can see it in the increase in the number of people joining—or trying to form—new unions, and in the range of citizens who now help decide their local government budgets. These are just two examples of the new American Dreamers that together show that collective action and community-focused activity are growing in popularity.

Read more: US labor unions are having a moment

Their number includes people who join psychological subcultures that function as self-help networks of the mind, with what one practitioner called “survivor-centered care and survivor awareness.” Cissy White, a counselor in a kind of new peer-to-peer counseling community, was a trauma survivor herself. She led webinars during the pandemic, sharing memories of extreme poverty and neglect as a child, including the father she knew was homeless. But while all this suffering could have hardened her towards those less resilient and made her self-centered, it had instead hardened White in her generosity.

Another woman spoke of her own abject poverty in childhood and youth, how she once spent her days “drinking so hard I was dying.” White nodded. A chorus of bystanders also responded.

While the need for mental health care is often seen as a failure of the individual, those who rethink mental health care believe that we should not rush to access help or try to get healthier through self-help alone.

The fight for this new American Dream tends to require both social smarts and organizational skills. For example, this is what people needed to participate in the self-help groups that have sprung up around the country since the pandemic. Local strangers connecting to Google Groups, Google Calendars, and calling trees to bring groceries, glasses, and medicine to each other. They placed refrigerators in urban areas with free food inside. In 2021, there were about 800 such groups nationwide, but unofficially, scholars who study volunteerism told me there were many more. Near my apartment in Brooklyn, a volunteer group was organized by community activist Crystal Hudson, who currently serves on the New York City Council’s 35th Ward, to help the elderly and financially stressed in our neighborhood, including her mother , before he died. The result of this group was that creatives in their 20s were buying chicken feet and pig feet and delivering them to the doorsteps of elderly Caribbean Americans. That meant Hudson herself heard “people crying on the phone when I asked them what they wanted us to buy. They said, “No one has ever asked me what I want to eat before.” Mutual aid groups can rethink philanthropy and create spaces where giver and receiver are more aligned.

The new American Dream can also be seen in meetings of alternative labor organizations or in people rallying for higher wages after a hard day as an underpaid teaching assistant or low-wage restaurant worker. Consider the wave of university and museum worker protests in 2022. These new labor activists realize that progress comes from better wages and benefits, not just their creative efforts. They certainly won’t get it from the person at the top who makes over a million dollars a year. At one college recently, even students joined in, occupying the central glass building to insist their teaching assistants, who are often paid poverty wages, receive adequate raises and have health care insurance. In late 2022, professors and graduate students at the massive University of California system marched and even kayaked to demand living wages, while in New York’s Hudson Valley, sculpture park workers demonstrated outside a private club hosting an event for their managers. These are not your typical trade unionists. Instead, they are cultural workers rallying to address how they are underpaid and insecure. Although they work in fields that tend to be highly individualistic, one of my impressionable collaborators told me that they had found new strength by bonding with each other: “We are more closely connected to our new social capital: that of heightened awareness.”

The dream also means that workers enter their workplaces on different terms. That includes worker-owners in today’s growing number of worker cooperatives, like the folks who make up Western North Carolina’s Opportunity Threads, a worker-owned cut-and-sew factory specializing in pattern customization. I’ve talked to a dozen workers in different worker cooperatives and their community efforts—in these cases, the workers own their own farms and also work the land, or co-own their own catering company and cook the food that’s delivered as well— and all describe a sense of collective power in their work, that their labor provides their livelihood rather than merely earning them their coffers. According to the nonprofit Federation of U.S. Worker Cooperatives, there are now 465 verified worker-owned cooperatives in the country, a 36 percent increase since 2013, with about 450 more to start. Employee-owners are also often better paid, according to the Democracy at Work Institute.

Finally, new American Dreamers include people who have joined participatory budgeting civic groups in cities across the country.

These are residents who hold their municipal governments accountable, learn the ins and outs of their local governments, and propose that political money be allocated to improving park spaces or creating accessible paths to the public beach for the disabled. As one participatory budgeting participant put it, they were allocating money in ways that weren’t the way “state money was usually spent.” The residents of the neighborhoods then vote on these citizen proposals at the city council offices or even at a folding table in front of the local grocery store.

An estimated 150,000 Americans have taken part in them since the practice was introduced to the US from Brazil more than 10 years ago.

Despite the inspiration shown by these pioneers, many are still under the sway of the old bootstrap myth. A recent study by the Center for American Progress found that 60% of Republicans agreed with the statement “People get stuck in poverty mostly because they make bad decisions or lack the ambition to do better in life.” Others polled by the Pew Research Center in 2020 supported the idea that people are poor because they “haven’t worked as hard as most other people.”

Opinions like these are why alternative community efforts must continue. National prosperity requires “community support as well as individual effort,” as business historian Pamela Laird reminds us in her book Pull. The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “It is a cruel joke to tell a man without boots that he must lift himself from his boots.”

We must internalize these words and actions as elements of the new American dream. It can only emerge from heterogeneous communities, in which members help each other, if we are ever to break out of the Bootstrap Society. Collectively, these group efforts radiate outward, burning away the toxin of our relentless individualism.

Adapted from Bootstrapped: Liberating Ourselves From the American Dream © 2023 by Alissa Quart. Reprinted with permission from Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publications.

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