This Is Everything That’s Wrong With America’s ‘Pull Yourself Up By The Bootstraps’ Mentality

Man on a bicycle followed by a woman running with US flags at Shell Beach shoreline path
frank mckenna / Unsplash

The idea of pulling yourself up by the bootstraps appeals to the American fighting spirit, nevermind the fact linguists have correctly pointed out that pulling yourself up by straps attached to your own feet is physically impossible. We’ve all heard inspirational stories of people who came from humble beginnings and amassed fortunes through sheer force of will and maybe a little sprinkling of luck.

That’s cool. Bully for them. For a large segment of our population, however, I’m selling. It ain’t gonna happen.

If you disagree, I’m not saying you’re wrong, but you’re wrong. It’s all about perspective, though, and maybe you just haven’t seen the things I’ve seen.

I’ve worked for two social services agencies in one of Honolulu’s poorest neighborhoods. Despite millions spent annually on cleverly marketing itself as paradise, Hawaii has a poverty problem on par with the worst in the country.

The Kalihi area is home to a mid-sized health center that treats about 25,000 people a year. Since it receives federal funding, the health center must treat anyone who walks through its doors, regardless of ability to pay. Kalihi is also the site of a 400-bed homeless shelter – by far the largest in Hawaii. I’ve worked for both, trying to help them raise money to support their operations.

I literally stepped over homeless people lying on the sidewalks every day on my way to and from work. If I wanted to, I’m certain I could’ve encountered 500 or more homeless people, all within a short walk of either office.

Some are drug addicts, and some are mentally ill. Some are both, and some are neither. Some were born here, and some moved here.

There’s a story behind how every one of them got to this point, but it’s often buried deep under layers of trauma and abuse. Some of that is self-inflicted, and some of it isn’t.

If we’re asking how they got here, we’re asking the wrong question anyway. It’s too late for that to matter. With the chronically homeless, the “find the problem and fix it” ship sailed years ago.

They’re not pulling themselves up by the bootstraps. There aren’t even any boots, never mind these stupid straps we insist on referencing.

When I say there are no boots, I mean it literally. Most of these people are barefoot, hobbling and shuffling along on bloody stumps they call feet.

If you’ve lived in a city your whole life, maybe this isn’t news to you. For a person who spent his entire life in small towns in the Mid-Atlantic region, seeing it for the first time was shocking.

Don’t misunderstand me; Appalachia has more than its fair share of poverty, too. You just have to dig a little deeper. The nooks and crannies of our hills allow us to hide it from naive eyes a little more easily.

Whether we find it in Hawaii or Appalachia or the midwestern Farm Belt, we need more social services to address generational poverty, not less. Okay, but where are we going to get the money?

America’s middle class is hurting, too. Asking them to foot the bill seems like a recipe to push them closer to the brink of their own looming financial disasters.

What about the rich? How about asking billionaires to part with one yacht from the fleet? Nice thought, but most rich people I’ve met loathe the poor or at least think “they did it to themselves.”

Maybe it goes back to that perspective thing I mentioned earlier, and those who come from wealth and privilege just don’t often have the necessary perspective to empathize with the poor. On top of not feeling much urgency to help, the rich are notoriously savvy at finding tax loopholes to circumvent even small wealth redistribution measures that might pass for the mythical bootstraps if they could only operate as intended.

We should all consider taking a lesson here from pointless arguments we’ve had over religion or politics. Deeply ingrained opinions, including those about class structure, aren’t likely to change.

We may as well quit beating our heads off the wall of reason, because the message, no matter how profound, is simply not going to get through. Let the rich keep their money. Prying a few bills from their tightly clinched fists isn’t worth the hassle.

The few from the ranks of the mega-rich who actually do care have proven to be quite generous givers to all sorts of worthy causes through charitable foundations they’ve established. We’ll have to find the funds to fight poverty somewhere else while wealthy philanthropists continue their efforts privately, in keeping with their small government battle cry.

Okay, so it’s not coming from the middle class, and it’s not coming from the rich. Well, where the hell are we getting this money???

Like a family budget, if we’re going to spend more in one area, we’ll have to cut in another. Johnny needs to go to soccer camp or he won’t make the team. There goes the family vacation. Simple. Not easy, but at least straightforward.

Need to feed more people. Here’s an idea… kill less.

Huh?

Less wars, I mean. They cost trillions of dollars. They don’t seem to accomplish much, either.

I realize this might not be a very popular idea to float right around Independence Day. We’re blasting fireworks all month long in celebration of ’Merica’s military might, and maybe we don’t want some liberal twit running off with our matches.

Sorry not sorry. This needs to be said regardless of the timing.

Here’s the simplistic way I think about large-scale military intervention abroad, specifically in the Middle East. Is that part of the world any better off than it was ten or twenty or thirty years ago?

Sure doesn’t seem like it is to me. As a matter of fact, I think all these wars just destabilize it further.

So do some covert ops and forget the big, costly troop movements. Sticking with the idiotic footwear metaphors, less boots on the ground. Send in small teams of elite fighting units to take out the really nasty targets we need to eliminate.

Continue providing these soldiers first-rate training and intelligence. I’m all for that. But drastically cut back on the tanks and guns and planes and people we ship over there.

I know that even suggesting such logical notions makes some immediately question your patriotism. Being a patriot has nothing to do with logic, dammit! It’s all about shoving a boot in someone’s ass. Yeah, well, here’s another thought… extreme nationalism of the irrational kind is dangerous!

You can debate exact figures until you’re blue in the face, but here are summary findings of the cost of war in the Middle East from one often-cited study:

“As of August 2016, the US has already appropriated, spent, or taken on obligations to spend more than $3.6 trillion in current dollars on the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria and on Homeland Security (2001 through fiscal year 2016).”

Source: “US Budgetary Costs of Wars through 2016: $4.79 Trillion and Counting,” Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, September 2016.

Even if the study missed the mark by a whopping 50%, that’s still $1.8 trillion dollars spent. Wouldn’t it be nice to go back in time and cut that figure in half again?

Spend $900 billion war mongering and $900 billion over 16 years feeding and housing our own citizens. Get ’em off the streets; no questions asked.

How’d you get here? Nevermind. Deserve’s got nothing to do with it. We don’t even care if Richie Rich is right and you did clearly put yourself in this predicament with one vice or another. You’re here now, and it ends now.

How far would an additional $56.25 billion dollars a year go in addressing hunger and homelessness? And really, if you want to talk about patriotism, what’s more patriotic than taking care of our own who are most in need of help?

I’ll close with a far heavier hitter than me. If my words don’t persuade anyone, perhaps Pope Francis’ thoughts on the topic will. In a March 2017 interview, he said that giving to someone in need is “always right,” regardless of how they got there or how they intend to spend the money. You can read more of the Pope’s thoughts on helping the poor in this NY Times article.

Agree with me or don’t. Agree with the Pope or don’t. But let’s stop kidding ourselves that the poorest of the poor have any chance whatsoever to pull themselves up by the bootstraps and see our actions in turning our backs on them exactly for what they are.

We’re letting our own citizens die slow deaths hungry and homeless in the streets, because we’re too greedy and too misguided in our priorities to help them. Call it what it is and stop blaming them for failing to tug at these bootstraps that don’t even exist. TC mark

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