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 tales have come to represent the idea of ”pulling yourself up by your bootstraps,” the scholarship honors youth who have overcome adversity who for me, that included my parents’ mental illnesses, time in foster care, and stints with 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 grand gala, we posed in rented finery, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in the center of our group photo. Political commentator Lou Dobbs praised the perseverance of the awardees in his opening speech. In the words of the Horatio Alger Society, we were “deserving scholars” who illustrated “the boundless possibilities available through the American free enterprise system.” We were proof that anyone could do it.
The Horatio Alger Association is one of the institutions that Alissa Quart, journalist and executive director of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, criticizes in her new book, Bootstrapped: Freeing Us from the American Dream. In 230 pages, Quart challenges 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 allegedly bad choices is “a kind of nationwide bullying” that the poor internalize. The boot top puts into words beliefs that I struggled to articulate as a teenager and that haunted me into adulthood: Both success and failure were up to me alone, I was only valuable when I prevailed, and if I could not prevail, I would have the better of death.
Quart opens by examining the origins of the phrase “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” and how our culture came to idolize the so-called self-made man. In 1834 the magazine was published Workman’s lawyer taunted a local inventor by suggesting that a device he had made would allow him to “deliver himself across the Cumberland River … by the straps of his boots”—a ridiculous impossibility, of course, because you can’t lift your whole body by your shoes. But the expression 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 stayed at Walden Pond—for many, the mecca of American individualism—his mother did his laundry. Ayn Rand, the patron saint of libertarians, collected Social Security near the end of her life. Even Horatio Alger’s novels are not tales of true independence: in most cases, a wealthy benefactor steps in to sponsor a beautiful teenage protagonist. (These stories also take on a darker meaning when you consider Alger’s own past: A Harvard Divinity School-educated pastor, he was forced to resign after being accused of molesting two boys.)
By Alyssa Quart
The belief that underprivileged teenagers can study hard, prove their worth and gain access to higher education thanks to charity also seems increasingly like a fable. Donors give disproportionately to elite schools with massive endowments. Only 1.5 percent of the total contributed goes to two-year colleges — despite state and community colleges having some of the highest upward mobility rates. Not only do the same universities benefit from it again and again, the same students often do too. A recent Horatio Alger winner noted to me that a small pool of high-achieving, low-income students seemed to win several major awards each year. I had noticed that as a teenager too. A handful of my peers were plucked from various nonprofits and feted repeatedly. Many of them got into prestigious universities that offered full financial aid, making the prizes contentious.
I was one of those students: I received a full ride to Harvard. At the Horatio Alger conference, the wife of a prominent American offered me another grant that meant I didn’t have to get a fixed-term job; I hardly touched the Horatio Alger money. I was uncomfortable with all the advantages I had had. Yes, I had rotated between friends’ couches and slept in my car the previous summer. But I also had a grandmother who had taken an interest in me and insisted that I get straight A’s and pay for a public school. I had left care homes because of boarding school support. For me, as for most of my peers with multiple scholarships, lucky breaks got worse. Our ascents were the opposite of self-sufficiency; if anyone had been paying attention, they could have studied us to understand what interventions worked—and what held others back.
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 worthiness. For example, Medicaid requires participants to frequently recertify themselves (a practice that was paused during the pandemic) to receive benefits. In recent years, more than 220,000 children in Tennessee alone have lost coverage because of writing errors. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has said that the unemployment insurance system was designed to “put as many kinds of pointless roadblocks in the way” as possible so that the unemployed would give up. Some of these barriers—such as some states’ Medicaid work requirements, which have been shown to have negligible effects on employment rates—are simply penalties for poverty.
Although Quart primarily criticizes such political failures, she also shows how widespread the tendency is to overemphasize individual responsibility. For example, she decries the “dystopian social safety net” that stretches beneath the abyss of unmet need. The epitome of GoFundMe fundraising (where people solicit donations from friends, family and strangers to help cover the costs of necessities like housing, car repairs and expensive medical procedures), getting help often means “matching our suffering” — not unlike the student who trades their trauma for a single semester of tuition at a private college.
Glorifying spirit is common in our culture – the fantasy of self-sufficiency is so prevalent because it feels good both to witness and to experience. Quart shouts “joy”. Little House on the Prairie, which shows a pioneer family surviving alone on the frontier, salt pork crackling over their self-started fire. I swelled with pride when I dropped off my scholarship application essay comparing my life to Horatio Alger Award winner Buzz Aldrin 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 single-handed success.
And when things went wrong, I blamed myself—when I was raped a few months after the conference, when I didn’t have a place to stay during the school breaks, when I nearly broke from a mouthful of root canals and fillings after years. occasional dental care. I had bought into the intoxicating fiction that I was the master of my destiny. When it turned out I wasn’t, the failure felt personal.
When I graduated, my shame that I wasn’t a smiling overcomer became unbearable. The only way I could let go was to recognize the dark side of our fixation with independence—a message Quart gets across far more directly than I could. She 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 recertification for Medicaid less onerous, and reducing administrative hurdles to seeking help.
Just as important, The boot top encourages readers to rethink their narratives of achievement. Quart encourages us to stop shaming others and ourselves for needing help and to recognize the way we are all interdependent. When I was a teenager, no amount of praise for my tenacity could have replaced the help I received: encouragement from teachers who believed in me, rides from friends’ parents, a few nights in a shelter, and, yes, the financial support that let me graduating debt-free – a modern miracle. There is a clear irony in a charity that rewards “self-sufficiency” even as it testifies to our deep impulse to help others.
At the Horatio Alger gala, a falconer released a bald eagle, which soared through the auditorium to the sound of the national anthem. The audience lit up in enthusiastic applause. When I saw the bird, I assumed it represented the individual triumphs of each of the scholarship winners. But perhaps I should have looked at the crowd, drawn together in our wonder, none of us so lonely after all.
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