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 represent the idea of “pulling yourself up by your boots,” the scholarship honors young people who have overcome adversity, which for me included my parents’ psychological illnesses , time in foster care and homelessness.
In April 2010, the 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 recall shook hands with the boys and hugged the girls. We posed in rented finery ahead of the event’s grand gala, with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice the focus of our group photo. In his opening speech, political commentator Lou Dobbs praised the persistence of the awardees. In the words of the Horatio Alger Association, we were “distinguished scholars” who exemplified “the limitless possibilities available through the American system of free enterprise.” We were proof that anyone can do it.
The Horatio Alger Association is one of the institutions criticized by Alissa Quart, journalist and executive director of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, in her new book. Bootstrapped: We free ourselves from the American dream. Across a sweeping 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 reinforces inequality and encourages policies that harm us. Blaming people for their perceived bad decisions is “a kind of nationwide bullying” that the poor internalize. Bootstrap expresses beliefs I could barely articulate as a teenager and that haunted me into adulthood: both success and failure were my own business, I was only valuable if I triumphed, and if I couldn’t overcome I’d better be dead from now on .
Quart begins by examining the origins of the phrase “pull yourself up by your boots” and how our culture began to idolize the so-called self-made man. The magazine was published in 1834 Worker’s Attorney mocked a local inventor by suggesting that a contraption he made would allow him to “throw himself up across the Cumberland River…on the strap of his boots” – a ridiculous impossibility, of course, since you can’t lift your whole body on it can your shoes. But the term stuck and over time became synonymous with independence. Quart then points to a series of cracks in our collective myth of self-sufficiency. While Henry David Thoreau resided in Walden Pond – for many the mecca of American individualism – his mother did his laundry. Ayn Rand, patron saint of libertarians, collected Social Security towards 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 handsome teenage protagonist. (These stories also take on a darker meaning when one considers Alger’s own past: As a Harvard Divinity School-educated pastor, he was forced to resign after being accused of molesting two boys.)
From Alisa Quart
Also, the belief that charitable generosity can help underprivileged teenagers study hard, prove themselves, and gain access to higher education seems increasingly like a fable. Donors give disproportionately to elite schools with massive endowments. Only 1.5 percent of total donations go to two-year colleges—although state and community colleges have some of the highest promotion rates. Not only do the same universities benefit from this over and over again, but often the same students as well. A recent Horatio Alger winner observed to me that a small group of high-performing, low-income students seemed to win several major awards each year. I noticed that as a teenager too. A handful of my colleagues have been singled out and repeatedly celebrated by various non-profit organizations. Many of them came to prestigious universities that offered full financial support, which made the prices questionable.
I was one of those students: I got a full ride to Harvard. At the Horatio Alger conference, the wife of a respected American offered me another scholarship that meant I didn’t have to take a semester job; I barely touched Horatio Alger’s money. I sat uncomfortably with all the advantages I had. Yes, I had filmed between friends’ sofas and slept in my car last summer. But I also had a grandmother who took an interest in me, insisted I get a good A, and paid for a church elementary school. I had left the foster family because of the financial support of the boarding school. For me, as for most of my multiple scholarship holders, lucky cases increased. Our climbs were the opposite of self-sufficiency; If someone had been paying attention, they might have studied us to understand which interventions worked—and what held others back.
But for many people who insist modern America is a meritocracy, the responsibility lies with those who need help to prove they need it. One of Quart’s sharpest points is that the administrative burden forces disadvantaged people to keep proving their worthiness. For example, Medicaid requires participants to recertify frequently (a practice suspended during the pandemic) to receive benefits. In recent years, more than 220,000 children in Tennessee alone have lost insurance due to clerical errors. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said the unemployment insurance system is designed to “put up as many pointless roadblocks as possible” to get the unemployed to give up. Some of these hurdles — such as some states’ Medicaid work requirements, which have been shown to have a negligible impact on employment rates — are simply a punishment for poverty.
Quart primarily criticizes such policy failures, but also shows how widespread the tendency is to overemphasize personal responsibility. She condemns, for example, the “dystopian social safety net” that stretches beneath the abyss of unmet needs. Epitomized by GoFundMe fundraising (where people solicit donations from friends, family, and strangers to help meet the cost of basic necessities like shelter, car repairs, and expensive medical procedures), getting help often means “turning our suffering into a commodity”—it doesn’t unlike students swinging their trauma for a semester of classes at a private college.
Glorifying courage is rampant in our culture — the fantasy of self-sufficiency is so pervasive because it feels good to both experience and experience. Quart exclaims the “hygge” of Little house on the prairie, which shows a pioneer family surviving alone on the frontier, salt pork crackling over their home-lit fire. I swelled with pride as my scholarship application essay, in which I compared my life to that of Horatio Alger Prize winner Buzz Aldrin, led me into a State Department dining room. Growing up in a society that idolized individual achievement, I’ve never failed to notice moments of seemingly sole success and cling to them.
And when things went wrong, I blamed myself — when I was raped a few months after the conference, when I had no place to stay during the school holidays, when I nearly broke from a mouthful of root canals and fillings after years of sporadic dental care. I was committed to the intoxicating fiction that I was the master of my destiny. When it turned out I wasn’t, failure felt personal.
By the time I graduated college, my shame at not being a smiling conqueror became unbearable. The only way I was able to let it go was to see the dark side of our obsession with independence — a message Quart gets to far more directly than I could. She proposes sensible changes to improve the social safety net, most of which are extensions to COVID-era guidelines: expanding the child tax credit, less onerous recertification for Medicaid, and reducing administrative hurdles to seeking help.
Just as important, Bootstrap encourages readers to reconsider their success stories. Quart encourages us to stop shaming others and ourselves for needing help and to acknowledge that we are all interdependent. When I was a teenager, no 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 at an animal shelter and, yes, theirs financial support for Let me graduate with no debt – a modern day marvel. There is a clear irony to a charity that rewards ‘self-reliance’, even as it testifies to our deep drive to help others.
At the Horatio Alger Gala, a falconer released a bald eagle that flew across the auditorium to the sound of the national anthem. The audience erupted in thunderous applause. As I watched the bird, I assumed it represented the individual triumphs of each of the scholarship winners. But maybe I should’ve looked at the crowd that’s huddled in amazement, after all, none of us are that lonely.
If you buy a book through a link on this site, we will receive a commission. Thanks for the support The Atlantic.