Em-URGE-ing Voices

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We Need To Give the “Bootstraps” Narrative the Boot

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February 23, 2024

Since September 2023, I have been juggling three part-time jobs. I took on these responsibilities because I didn’t have another choice. After spending a year and a half churning out hundreds of job applications and preparing for hours of interviews, not getting any offers left me exasperated. I knew I had to earn income in some way while still searching for the right full-time job for me. I now make enough money to afford health insurance, a car note, and to maintain a savings account. However, if I wasn’t living with family, I would be living paycheck to paycheck at best. 

While I may not struggle to make ends meet, many Americans do. A press release from the Lending Club confirms that Americans from all tax brackets are increasingly living paycheck to paycheck. Another study conducted in October 2023 confirms that the number of Americans with multiple jobs reached its highest peak since January 2020. I see tons of conversations about the struggles of affording life in the United States on TikTok. One user shared how she watched a teacher talk about how much debt they’re in just by living paycheck to paycheck on their salary, and another user stitched that video and added their monthly income and budget breakdowns to the conversations, which shows how they have only $10 left over after covering their essential expenses. Although neither user mentions the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” phrase, they express phrases that are within the same vain: “just budget better” or “just spend less.” Both phrases harken back to this “bootstraps” narrative, which tells young people, especially young working-class people, that they can achieve wealth and stability if they just work harder. In this economy, working harder and gaining financial stability is not that simple. 

While it was more common to land a good paying job by your mid-20s in previous generations, most Millennials do not find those good jobs until their mid-30s. In terms of job searching, recently unemployed job seekers apply to thirty jobs on average, only to get four callbacks or responses. Not only is job-searching more difficult than ever for young people, it is also taking longer to secure stable jobs. The “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” narrative entertains the fantasy that the “rags to riches” pipeline is achievable and simple. But telling young people, especially working-class young people of color, that they can achieve wealth and stability if they just “work harder” simply doesn’t align with present-day realities. Despite how this phrase has evolved over the last century, it actually originally referred to an impossible feat or absurdity. It has now transitioned to mean something that sets young people up for disappointment, making them feel like failures for not achieving something that is at odds with our current economic reality.  

While there is some merit in believing that hard work pays off, it is dismissive to say hard work and hyper-independence are the defining factors of success. For one, even those who say people need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps had some sort of support. As TikTok user @shennaigans observes, some people have better bootstraps than others in the first place. If those straps break, they have a support system ready to give them new bootstraps. When we substitute bootstraps for income, @shennaigans’ observations help us understand how some people get to make millions or billions of dollars a year because of government tax breaks, connections from around the world, grossly exploiting their workforce and, most notably, generational wealth. Generational wealth refers to the economic assets you pass down within family systems, such as stocks, bonds, and real estate. Some would argue that financial literacy is a form of generational wealth.

Secondly, even while we live in a culture that normalizes struggle as an acceptable part of life, it is not distributed equally. The Institute for Policy Studies stated that the top 1%’s earnings increased dramatically between 1979 and 2022, while the earnings for the bottom 99% remained stagnant. These economic disparities are even more significant when attending to marginalized groups. Disabled workers for example earn 87 cents for every dollar compared to non-disabled workers and risk losing their benefits if they earn over a certain threshold. For formerly incarcerated people, the earnings are even slimmer. Formerly incarcerated people make just 53% of the U.S. median wage within the first few months of release, and earnings average out to about 84 cents for every dollar by the 4-year post-release mark. 

When these wages are put in conversation with the high costs of housing, we can see why people feel so demoralized. All of these inequalities exist while one in four renters in the United States are deemed “severely cost-burdened” by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. This means one in four renters spend so much on rent, they barely have enough money to cover other essentials. This just scratches the surface of economic inequality and does not include barriers such as eligibility for government assistance, access to social services, medical debt, and systemic oppression. When people struggle to get by, it is not because they are not working hard enough, it is because this country lacks sufficient social safety nets. 

When I think about the fight for reproductive justice, I think about how this includes not only the right to bodily autonomy but also the right to raise our families in safe and sustainable communities. In this case, part of our work as reproductive activists should be to fight against the “bootstraps” myth and engage in the fight for economic justice. We fight for a world where all our basic needs are met. We fight so that we do not feel the need to work ourselves to the grave just to afford a livable salary, secure stable housing, or have a work-life balance that allows us time with our loved ones. Reproductive justice is not just about surviving, but thriving – the ability to be secure without needing to sacrifice. We do not need to pull ourselves by our bootstraps to survive; we need to pull each other up by the hand, because we all need help to survive in this economic climate, and there is nothing wrong with that.