Sunday Times: Bootstraps

In the United States, we love bootstraps.


We love the old west ruggedness they connote.  We love the independence of the idiom.  We love to pull ourselves up by them.

A huge part of our understanding of what makes the United States such a desirable place to make a life is the ability any one person has to use said bootstraps and rise out of material poverty.

Unless you can’t actually do that.

piece in the New York Times last week pointed to a body of research that questions the degree of economic mobility available in the United States.  In particular, the article noted that “at least five large studies in recent years have found the United States to be less mobile than comparable nations.”  Some of the key statistics from these studies include:

  • 42 percent of American men raised in the bottom fifth of incomes stay there as adults. In Denmark the number is 25 percent and in Britain it’s 30 percent.
  • 8 percent of American men at the bottom rose to the top fifth. But the numbers are 12 percent of the British and 14 percent of the Danes.
  • About 62 percent of Americans (male and female) raised in the top fifth of incomes stay in the top two-fifths.  Similarly, 65 percent born in the bottom fifth stay in the bottom two-fifths.
  • 16 percent of Canadian men raised in the bottom tenth of incomes stayed there as adults, compared with 22 percent of Americans.

The author cites a number of variables that should influence how one interprets these numbers.  The statistics are not totally cut and dry.

Nevertheless, the research does challenge the notion that anybody can rise from poverty (and quickly) so long as they maintain a commitment to their bootstraps.

Instead of condemning the poor for lazily neglecting the power of their bootstraps, we may do better to consider what systems and structures stand in the way of mobility.  What might be outside their control and keeping them in material poverty?  Can we do something to remove those obstacles?  And I can’t help but wonder:  to what degree is our relentless commitment to the myth of mobility an obstacle in and of itself?

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