There should be no shame in asking for help.

There are a couple of troubling concepts that are a part of the American mythos: “Bootstrap Mentality” and “Rugged American Individualism”.

The phrase “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” is often touted by libertarians [Note 1] and conservatives, trying to give the idea of improving one’s own situation by one’s own efforts. Except the problem with that is the fact that the act of pulling oneself up by their own bootstraps is impossible - if someone somehow did that, they would be levitating. Even the original meaning was to point out the absurdity of the situation. It’s a metaphor for doing the impossible.

None of us got where we are solely by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. We got here because somebody - a parent, a teacher, an Ivy League crony or a few nuns - bent down and helped us pick up our boots.
— Thurgood Marshall

One of the issues with this idea is that it is an argument that is made in bad faith. This phrase is often used in derision, indicating that a person who has been working hard just to squeak by isn't working hard enough. It's akin to saying "snap out of it" to someone suffering from depression or another mental illness. Granted, America is still beginning to understand that mental illness is an illness - perhaps a better metaphor is to say that it is akin to saying to someone who is having a heart attack to just stop having a heart attack.

Another issue with this idea is that it is essentially saying that if one isn’t successful at surviving, one isn’t actually trying hard enough. In reality, many people are working two jobs, are having doors shut in their faces, and are regulated to having to get what they can because they are working themselves sick. And that’s if they are physically able to work two jobs - not everyone is. On top of those issues, there are many others, which include: there being a lack of paying jobs; entry-level positions now require multiple years of experience; being at “full employment” because so many of us have to take on part-time jobs to survive; and the fact that many people are over-educated for their positions because they can’t get work in their fields [Note 2].

It's also difficult to pull oneself up with their own bootstraps when someone stole the boots. The system is rigged in such a way that it is becoming harder to survive because of things like systemic racism, wage theft, tax cuts, and an ever-shrinking social net.

And when white Americans tell the Negro to “lift himself by his own bootstraps”, they don’t oh, they don’t look over the legacy of slavery and segregation. I believe we ought to do all we can and seek to lift ourselves by our own boot straps, but it’s a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.
And many Negroes by the thousands and millions have been left bootless as a result of all of these years of Oppression and as a result of a society that deliberately made his color a stigma and something worthless and degrading.
— Martin Luther King Jr.

Rugged individualism is incredibly awful. The so-called “Self-Made Men” [Note 3] are people who stood on the achievements of others, received help, and then declared that they did it all themselves without any help. They have this imaginary idea that there is a zero-sum struggle where only the strongest survive, when in actuality it takes a community to survive; a belief that all individuals, or nearly all individuals, can succeed on their own and that government help for people should be minimal - something used by Herbert Hoover’s Republican Party, leading into the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression. Unfortunately, this has fostered a social structure with a broadly dismantled safety net.

Somehow the mentality that accepting help is somehow bad, and that giving help is also bad, has made it into the ethos of certain groups. But none of us are truly alone - we have a team in everything that we do, whether it is noticed immediately or not. There is someone who helps you try, who has taught you, has been there to set you up to move forward. The only reason why humans survived is because we are an aggressively social species - we help each other and organize when natural disasters would drive other species to extinction. Even in hunter-gatherer days, we saw the value in taking care of each other [Note 4].

All of this is unfortunate.

I do not see a lack of support as an achievement - I see building relationships based in community accountability and collaboration as an achievement. It is not the fault of people who are trapped in faulty economic situations that they are in said situations, and there should be no shame in reaching out for help. Poverty, lack of stability, and the inability to remove oneself from a festering economic situation is not an individual problem; rather, it is a cultural problem.

We do not all have equal opportunities. It is past time that society recognizes that. Hard work does not equal financial success or economic stability - if that were true, then none of us would be hurting. None of us would have to worry about personal health scares, or sudden losses in transportation, or a myriad of other issues that can easily disrupt our lives.

Let's continue to work together to lift each other up. Making it here is much more than hard work - it is working together, loving each other, building community.


The term libertarian as used in the US means something quite different from what it meant historically and still means in the rest of the world. Historically, the libertarian movement has been the anti-statist wing of the socialist movement. In the US, which is a society much more dominated by business, the term has a different meaning. It means eliminating or reducing state controls, mainly controls over private tyrannies. Libertarians in the US don’t say let’s get rid of corporations. It is a sort of ultra-rightism.
— Noam Chomsky
  1. When I say “libertarians”, I mean American libertarians. Outside of the United States, libertarianism is a collection of political philosophies that upholds liberty and anti-state socialism; whereas American libertarianism is against state control and is pro-corporation, a form of ultra-rightism.

  2. For example, there are about 5,000 janitors in the US with PhDs. Approximately 17 million college-educated Americans have jobs that don't require their level of education.

  3. I deliberately use the term “men” because, in my experience, it has almost always been cismen who tout this “self-made” idea.

  4. Hunter-gatherer societies don't actually have to spend all of their time hunting and gathering; in fact, pre-agriculture humans had much more free time than post-agriculture humans.

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