On Bootstraps and Basic Needs

There is a certain philosophy very popular in America, that all one needs in order to overcome tremendous adversity and achieve wild riches is to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” If you’ve followed me for any length of time, you know I’m not a fan. But I think I need to explain more fully why I loathe this particular victim-blaming expression as much as I do.

This is basically me with a better beard.

There are certain basic needs humans have. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a widely accepted standard detailing these basic needs for safety, sex, and satisfaction. I am only going to be talking about the bottom two layers of Maslow’s pyramid, the most basic of human survival needs.

  • Physiological needs – breathing, food, water, sex, sleep, homeostasis, excretion
  • Safety needs – security of: body, employment, resources, morality, the family, health, property.

I have never in my life fully achieved having either one of these basic need categories met. Ever. I was born into poverty. I am fatalistically convinced I will die in poverty, probably well before my time of something treatable and preventable. I have been homeless, with a child. I have never been “safe.” I have never had two month’s worth of bills sitting in a savings account somewhere. I have been evicted from two apartments and kicked out by family so many times I lost count (and keeping track was depressing.) I have been abused by parents and lovers. I have lived in trailer parks, duplexes, four-story walk-ups and places infested with roaches. I have lived in a car. I have slept in bushes. I have worked for less than minimum wage. I have worked under the table. I have worked as a C-level executive, and now at the ripe old age of 29, I am disabled to the degree I cannot work outside the home. My pain is so bad most days I don’t get out of bed before the afternoon, when my son comes home from school and needs me, no matter how much pain I’m in. So, to save money I make things myself – like shampoo and laundry detergent and dish soap. My fiancee makes all our bread by hand, from scratch, and shops around and clips coupons on our produce. We make a four pound chicken feed a family of three, for five days at least.

At no point in time did I ever find those magical “bootstraps” people speak of. I have not at any point in time in my life had enough sleep, medical care, enough food, and secure shelter I knew I was going to have come next’s month rent too, all at the same time. If you have ever had this combination – of shelter, food, and medicine, at once – you can kindly shut the fuck up forever about goddamned bootstraps. Some of us have never even had boots.

3 thoughts on “On Bootstraps and Basic Needs

  1. An excellent rant, Angie, and spot on. People who pound the “up by your bootstraps” drums are compete idiots. It’s one of the most ridiculous metaphors ever devised and I’d like to chuck those people in a thirty foot well with their boots and say, “Go ahead, start pulling yourself up.”

  2. Even if you are fortunate enough to have those things all at once, it is SO very easy to lose them! Even when you are doing what you are suppose to be doing. You can be a healthy, well adjusted adult with people who love you, but a nasty stint of unemployment, illness, or an accident, can easily leave you both broke and homeless, often with ruined credit to boot. Those who have added struggles like physical or mental illness, disabilities, no family support, etc, are hit even harder because they had even less to start with. WHY people don’t get this, I just have no clue.

    I grew up with security, but have had a hard time being able to sustain it as an adult. Some years I do fabulously well, I can save money and get ahead. I’m not a wasteful person who buys expensive stuff I don’t need, and I do my best to plan ahead. Still, every few years I get hit and brought right back to zero by a nasty case of bipolar (and formerly pain issues, I have since resolved these for the most part, thank you methadone!). All it takes is a few months without a job or ability to work to get behind, a few more to go through the few things I have acquired, and a few more to burn through help from family and friends.

    I HATE the attitude that all you need is “bootstraps”, its is nothing but a mean way to blame people so that you can ignore their plight.

  3. There was an article on Cracked titled “6 things Rich People Need to Stop Saying” and this bootstrap bullshit is on there. Some people just can’t comprehend that they lucked out in life and got a lot of advantages and opportunities that some people never have.

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