“Bootstrapped”: The self-made myth and the “dystopian social safety net” it created
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“Bootstrapped”: The self-made myth and the “dystopian social safety net” it created
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From Kylie Jenner to Elon Musk, public figures love to claim that they’re self-made. And while the image might seem like it’s only about public relations, America’s love for the self-made mythos goes back nearly two centuries — and may have had a huge impact on public policy.
According to Alissa Quart, director of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, the terms “self-made” and “bootstrapped” can be traced to the 1830s.
“Boots were really important in the 19th century,” Quart said in an interview with “Marketplace” host Reema Khrais. “If you’re wealthy, you had someone who could help you put them on. If you’re a working man, you were struggling to pull them up every day. So pulling yourself over your bootstraps became this symbol of getting ahead in this country all on your own steam.”
In her latest book, “Bootstrapped: Liberating Ourselves From the American Dream,” Quart looks at how this symbol helped create what she calls the “dystopian social safety net.”
“If we have a country where the social welfare state is much more fragile than, say, other advanced industrialized countries,” said Quart, “you have people then relying on this ragtag network of nonprofits, volunteers, crowdfunding.”
To listen to Quart’s conversation with Khrais, click the audio player above. In the following excerpt, Quart describes why this reliance can be a huge problem.
James Fauntleroy does not like depending on what he considers charity, but he has had to for the last few years, on the site GoFundMe. “I’m reluctantly asking for assistance until I find something that can supplement my income,” he writes. “This is a challenge, though, but at least it won’t be made worse by me being out on the street.” And then he made a request for $5,000, which ended with a sentence characteristic of his extremely good manners: “Thank you for reading and I appreciate you.”
Fauntleroy had suffered from poor health from a young age and was now burdened with end-stage renal disease. Since he developed the disease more than six years ago, Fauntleroy, who is in his thirties, stopped cooking full-time professionally, though his condition at first allowed him to work sporadically. Now he cannot work at all.
There was much more to Fauntleroy than this crowdfunding campaign and his malady, and I got to know these facets through conversations with him over the years. Sometimes when I spoke to him, he’d just returned from the other space that he frequents, the dialysis clinic. At one point he showed me his small room, where he both slept and worked, lit by the sunny Florida sky and abutted by a small mat of grass outside his window.
We talked about the week’s events: Fauntleroy read the news voraciously—he even consumed Noam Chomsky for fun. We also discussed politics. He said he desperately wanted to live in a country that functioned better for people like him. A case in point: he had liked school, but never attended college, because he was afraid of going into deeper debt. We talked about what he liked to cook for himself and his mother. Though he was often broke, Fauntleroy had saved and had recently bought fresh ingredients for shrimp scampi pasta, featuring a white wine garlic butter sauce and sauteed mushrooms. He made it for himself and his mother, to her delight.
A self-described “people person,” he even talked with me about the ideas I was wrestling with. “I am of the opinion there is no self-made man or self-made woman,” he told me. “You had help getting to where you needed to go with roads and bridges, paid for by taxation. That’s why you can drive around or why your drinking water is clean and you have public schools.”
Talking to him, with his wry and warm demeanor and baritone voice, it was easy to see how Fauntleroy had once worked as a salesman, selling sectional couches and dining room tables that looked like maple but were made of particle board. Fauntleroy’s LinkedIn profile still lists that job, with a profile photo of him looking sharp, with cherubic face and physique, in a checkered dress shirt.
Yet now he is too ill—and the pandemic too omnipresent—for that work, especially given that the company that once employed him received one of the highest OSHA penalties in recent memory of any company in the country. What was really added to his mental load, however, was not his malady but the limits on his disability monies. He said it meant that he can’t earn over about $1,200 a month and still receive benefits.
In addition, his Social Security benefits are at their max of $1,300 per month, which he described as “starvation income,” or as he has calculated, what comes out to $6.60 an hour. “To expect someone on disability to live on this is immoral and indecent,” he told me. He struggles to cover the $65 monthly co-pays for his medical care. Further, he has many necessary small expenses that are hard to manage, like keeping up the car he and his mother own, which needs new power steering; the hose has a leak. “I don’t have enough money to get it fixed—anything above $30 is something we can’t pull off very quickly,” he explained on a crowdfunding site.
Like millions of other people, Fauntleroy relied on these platforms. He also believed that these sites shouldn’t have to exist and these needs were not necessarily supposed to be relieved by an online charity drive, rather than government aid. In fact, like me, he felt these sites were evidence that our country had left us to survive on our own, and many of us could not do so, which was why many are at least partly getting by on what they are able to collect from friends and even near-strangers on the internet. It’s part of what I call the “dystopian social safety net.”
The dystopian social safety net includes nonprofits throughout the country that are forced to open “warming centers” to prevent those experiencing homelessness from freezing on corners and at bus stops during cold snaps. For slightly more solvent unhoused people, there are safe parking initiatives, where designated lots double as housing for those living out of their cars; in Walmart parking lots and other commercial lots, spaces meant to be briefly used by vehicles loading up on dog chow have become ad hoc overnight residences. The dystopian social safety net also includes organizations like the Patient Advocate Foundation with its Co-Pay Relief program, which can step in if you receive surprising and wildly excessive medical bills you cannot pay. The “dental fairs,” free two-day dental clinics, are geared to the many people who cannot afford tooth care (fewer than half of American dentists accept Medicaid). These are fairs without Ferris wheels and bumper cars—instead, two thousand people at, say, a fairground are there to get their teeth cleaned or fixed.
The dystopian social safety net included several Alabama public school teachers who donated rare and precious time off to a fellow teacher so that he could spend more time with his cancer-stricken sixteen-month-old daughter who was getting treatment at a hospital a hundred miles from home. It was also composed of a group of colleagues who’d told me how they combined their vacation days and gave them to a colleague to fund a “paid maternity leave,” because their employer had provided her with none. It included people like Keoni Ching from Vancouver, Washington, who was eight years old when he started to sell handmade key chains for $5 each on the site. Ching was selling these trinkets to help kids at his school, and his act was followed by positive press and requests for the chains from Alaska and Arizona. He ultimately raised $4,015.
The dystopian social safety net is what often patches over holes in our systems, but the organizations and so forth that compose the net are not always above reproach.
Take the drug rehab organizations like the one that offers one lucky caller (!) the free recovery help they need. An even more repellent example of this was when a South Dakota hockey team and mortgage lender in 2021 threw a promotional event called “Dash for Cash,” where underpaid schoolteachers were encouraged to crawl and slither on a rink’s ice grabbing $5,000 worth of dollar bills off the cold surface and stuffing them in their clothes during an intermission. This filmed occasion went viral.
And when the pandemic hit, Americans’ dependence on the dystopian social safety net only grew. Families used GoFundMe to underwrite their food costs while they stayed at coronavirus isolation hotels or to pay for Zoom funerals after COVID deaths. Others campaigned for essential workers, for beloved bookstores and restaurants set to close. A GoFundMe page raised over $50,000 for two Black FedEx drivers who claimed they were fired over a viral video confrontation with a customer in May 2020. “All we did was deliver his package; he was in the house at the time,” said one of the deliverymen in Leesburg, Georgia.
The dystopian social safety net, a mesh of programs that could be necessary only in a failing society, is not usually acknowledged.
“Bootstrapped“ © 2003 by Alissa Quart. Published with permission of Harper Collins.
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