The Bootstrap Problem
I’m sick of having to take care of people who don’t want to take care of themselves! They’re poor because they’re just lazy and won’t get a job; there are plenty of jobs out there! How many times have you heard — more often than not during an election year — someone exclaim some variation of those words?
For 2017, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defines the poverty level for a single person, as an income of $12,060 annually . The American poverty rate stands at 12.7%, or, demonstrated in a more meaningful way: 40.6 million people . A subset of this group is referred to as the working poor, or “people who [have] spent at least 27 weeks in the labor force (that is, working or looking for work) but whose incomes still fell below the official poverty level,” — a total number of 8.6 million people. While, (since a spike up during, and after the Great Recession) these groups have been shrinking in overall size, it remains a significant national challenge to have a population the size of — at least — that of the State of Virginia, or New Jersey, struggling to make it from day-to-day ; a problem deserving of a discussion on the treatment of this group.
Take a few moments and think about these questions: Do you know someone who is poor? Are they lazy? Are they worth less than you? Are you poor? Are you lazy? Do you consider yourself worth, less than someone who is rich? Can a rich person be lazy? Can a poor person be hardworking?
Now think about your friends, and your family. Can you apply any of those questions to them? Chances are, even when our friends and family are more, or less well off than we are, we tend not to make judgments that devalue their character as we might when evaluating someone we don’t know, and that’s the key. We may believe they need to get off their behinds more often, but we still care about them as human beings that matter to us.
Since humanity’s earliest days we’ve had to organize to survive and thrive, and organizing has meant placing each other into hierarchies, and boxes. More than 3,700 years ago, Hammurabi’s code defined groups of Superiors, Commoners, and Slaves  and too, since our earliest days we’ve been subtracting and adding worth to those who find themselves in other boxes. And, we’ve been mistreating, and dehumanizing those others as well .
We have an extensive history of dehumanizing our fellow men and women when it suits our needs. Examples include: slavery (including modern-day human trafficking), exploitation of the Global South for raw materials and labor forces, sexism, racism, as well as prejudice against the mentally ill, the disabled, refugee populations, and indeed, debasing our own selves. People are routinely seen in corporations large, and small, as figures on balance sheets, as liabilities and burdens to be alleviated, rather than those who were born into less lucky, more dependent, life-situations; people who share the same air, and chemical makeup as those who happen to be more fortunate in their opportunities .
Most of us, though, live somewhere in the middle and have never known a slave, or a fantastically rich person, and unless you’re living in poverty, or working with those afflicted by its hardships, you’re highly unlikely to cross paths with those significantly outside (above or below) your place in the socioeconomic system [7, 8].
Looking to Nobel laureate Herbert A. Simon’s  concept of Bounded Rationality —
“…means that people make quite reasonable decisions based on the information they have. But they don’t have perfect information, especially about more distant parts of the system. Fishermen don’t know how many fish there are, much less how many fish there will be caught by other fishermen that same day. ”
Knowing that we don’t necessarily have a good grasp on much outside our own small domains. It stands to reason that our own judgments, and moreover our government’s judgments on a poor person’s self-efficacy may be lacking and presumptive. Self-efficacy: a person’s belief that they can accomplish a task (get out of debt, get a job, go to college) in a particular setting. This belief changes how tasks and goals are undertaken, or if they are attempted at all .
Additionally, in debates on the subject of the poor and poverty, you’ll often hear politicians misrepresent another academic term: learned helplessness . The inaccurate assertion is that the government and its excess of social programs have so taken care of people that they have “learned” to be dependent on those programs, and can now afford to discontinue their search for employment and self-sufficiency; these people have a behavior problem in that they’ve forgotten how to help themselves. In reality, learned helplessness is a state in which an organism — in this case a human person — has borne an unpleasant situation to the point where they believe they can no longer change their circumstances, and therefore resign themselves to existing within it, even when there is a way out [13, 14].
What I refer to as the Bootstrap Problem. American culture is famously (though somewhat inaccurately) known for its self-starters. It’s “self-made” men and women. Those who come from nothing, work hard, and “pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” to pursue and attain the American Dream. That phrase connotes your ability to pick yourself up and succeed, on your own. Unfortunately, in America, not everyone is born with bootstraps, let alone boots — that’s the problem. It’s no surprise that this phrase was originally used as an insult to mock those trying to do the impossible without help from others . If we were all honest with each other, the American Dream, and America itself is, has always been a team effort. And, to belabor the metaphor a bit further, we’re not all picked to join the winning teams, or any team at all. Think about the last time you did anything of substance, all on your own, with no help from anyone else, at all.
While the idea of an entirely equal society is an impossible and bad idea for a number of reasons, the equality of opportunity in society is absolutely attainable, and should be what we strive for. To be clear, this is no quasi-Marxist vision of central control with planners in their hallowed halls presiding over the destitute (though equally) peasants in the streets. It has, can, and should be argued that in our current state of enlightenment, power corrupts too thoroughly for that kind of system to work effectively, the people must be allowed to push back. Democracy and capitalism, have given us much more than they have taken. But those institutions do need a sturdy set of rules to remind us all that there’s no point to any of it if we ignore the humans in the system. Or, put another way: while we may not all be equal in ability, are, all equal in humanity.
Looking back to the questions: Are those on the bottom rungs of the socioeconomic ladder lazy, non self-starters, or are they just paralyzed in a system that is structured to favor someone else? Are the wealthy greedy, and willfully ignorant of their privilege? Or just overwhelmed by a problem within the system they don’t believe they have the ability, or desire to fix, in a world in where they know all too well, they could just as easily have nothing . . . so count your blessings, and don’t rock the boat. Naïve? Perhaps.
What’s to be done?
To put an end to this cycle of inequality, we need to step back and realize what we’re doing. We do, whether we feel comfortable about it or not, place less value on the lives of those who have less material (and educational) wealth than we do . And, believe that those who have not achieved the riches we have achieved are in some way separate from us, to be discarded or shunned. By virtue of wanting to achieve as comfortable, a life as we can, and to share our own cultural traditions, we tend to separate ourselves physically as well . This leads to further loss of understanding, and awareness of those who aren’t like us. We have to make a concerted effort to bring groups back together, into a mindset of: One Humanity.
Just a couple, fairly straightforward methods of doing this in practical terms include, mentoring — both formally and informally, and just plain old physical proximity, both of which have solid working models up and running throughout our society.
Studies of mentoring show that the formal kind works better . Big Brothers & Big Sisters, an organization well known for its school and community-based mentoring, is one such example of exactly the kind of contact needed to narrow gaps of opportunity [18, 19]. By not only mentoring life-skills, the program also places those with fewer means and connections, with adults who have more of both.
In the workplace, Chief Executive Officers and other C-suite occupants, can break down the barriers of the hierarchy to give lower-level workers face time with executives and managers. And, they can make efforts to foster ideas and creativity, through company sanctioned forums with employees and via mentoring programs, perhaps encouraging employees to ask for an advisor on subject matter of their choice, and to foster those relationships and the new social networks to spring from them.
Financial industry leader, and former mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg, has utilized an open office plan for years, not only during his days running the Bloomberg company, but famously dismantling city offices to build a bullpen, in which he took a cubical and made himself available to any and all comers .
On a larger-scale, we can look to the East Lake community in Atlanta, Georgia. Thomas Cousins, a philanthropist and real estate developer founded Purpose Built Communities. This organization looks to strike right at the heart of opportunity inequality, and the proximity gap. They accomplish this by explicitly building neighborhoods and communities with a rich diversity of people of all economic, and educational backgrounds. This group is now operating in sixteen population centers battling against all forms of inequality. And, it’s working! Since 1995 when the East Lake project began not only are lower-income children fairing just as well in school as their higher-income neighbors, the area’s overall crime rate is down more than 70%, and the employment rate went from 13% to 100% !
Let’s Stick Together
By viewing others as, “less than” we’re being selfish, and it’s selfish in the wrong direction. Want to have more? Want to be richer? Then work enrich everyone’s lives, and by doing so bolster the whole system, the money-economy, the knowledge-economy, and humanity. At a material level, think of all the new consumers to buy the products you or the company you work for sells. At an educational level, the smarter we all are, the better lives we can construct. Intelligence and knowledge is not a zero-sum game, and should not be horded; it grows and compounds exponentially. Right now, humanity creates as much data every two days as it did from the start of civilization to the present millennium . At that rate, just imagine the art we could create, the technology we could build, the cures for disease we could find, and what we’ll discover if we can learn to do it together!
Relationships based on an equality of opportunity are what will drive our success as a society, culture, and species. If we were at once moved to cease with the convictions of: Us vs. Them, the Givers and The Takers, and instead substitute it for the All of Us Together. By sharing just some of the benefits of being wealthy, the less fortunate can capture just that one — bootstrap — and start pulling. Creating prosperity for everyone, and more for those who already have so much. This is a long-term game we’re all playing, by thinking of everyone, by giving a little to each other now we’ll find there are massive rewards waiting for us, our children, and the many generations to follow.
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