The Proverbial “Bootstraps”

By Dr. Alicia Schatteman

The mythic Horatio Alger narrative of pulling one’s self up by one’s bootstraps is one of the most dangerous and damaging myths to our society, especially right now.

There are systems in place to keep people in their place.  What we have seen is how the failure of certain systems like the criminal justice system, the education system, and the healthcare system has resulted in inequity across communities and states causing generational poverty and hopelessness.

All of us, and I do mean all of us, have received help from somewhere to get where we are at today, whether that help came from a family member, a friend, government, or a nonprofit.  Nonprofits have been the safety net of last resort, once all of the other options have been exhausted. That has been the case in US history and it is still the case today.

Even though the New Deal programs were created to expand the government’s role in addressing the needs of all citizens after the Great Depression, the government has always had this role.  Even the New Deal could not stem the tide of widespread unemployment and President Roosevelt enacted the Second New Deal creating the Social Security Act in 1935 which included the first federal unemployment insurance system, a guaranteed pension to million, and a system to take care of dependent children and persons with a disability.

What we have seen during the COVID19 pandemic is a societal response; from neighbors making masks for neighbors, family taking in other family members, government response from the local to the federal level, and yes nonprofits addressing those gaps left such as food provision, shelter, and much more.  In the United States, it has always been, and likely will always be, a collaborative effort to take care of those who need temporary help in situations such as job losses or temporary disability, but also the long term needs of our most vulnerable populations.

The myth of “pulling yourself by your bootstraps” simply has never existed. We don’t live in this world alone and we certainly do not thrive alone. Some of us by birth start ahead of others, and others experience hardship and setbacks along the way.  Nonprofits are one piece of the social safety net but they cannot do it alone.  COVID19 has certainly put a spotlight on our individual responsibility to keep each other safe, and that alone has faced criticism and even resentment.  Yet we have also seen shining examples of strangers reaching out to help someone else, to make their little part of the world just better for others.

Instead of boot-straps, why not hand-ups.  Thinking about times when you personally have received a hand-up; from a friend, from a family member, from a teacher, from a public program, from a nonprofit.  We can all give a hand-up to someone else. We can create better policies for a more just society for all.

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