Horatio Alger is the worst thing that ever happened to poor Americans.
In the late 19th century Alger wrote and published more than 100 novels, most notably “Ragged Dick” (stop laughing), almost all centering on some poverty-ridden miscreant, who, through hard work, moral rectitude and dedication, pulls himself up by his own bootstraps into the middle, if not the upper classes of American life. Alger doesn’t use the term “pulled himself up by his own bootstraps,” but he certainly popularized the concept.
Because of Alger (and our Puritan/Calvinist heritage) we not only find the bootstrapper admirable, we have decided that those who don’t follow-suit must just be lazy, or at the very least unmotivated.
The theory, nearly inseparable from the concept of the American Dream, is that in America, where the streets are paved with gold, a hard-working, goal-oriented young man (yeah, there’s a different standard entirely for women, and that’s a topic for another day) ought to be able to rise above whatever sad circumstance he was born into by sheer force of will. We buy into that concept here in the US of A. We believe it with the fervor of a snake-handling hillbilly preacher on the last night of the Summer tent-revival.
The hard truth of it is that – if you were male and white, like all the Alger leading men – it was based on a kernel of truth. At various times in American history it was honestly possible to climb the socioeconomic ladder on your own. If, by “on your own” you mean with a heaping helping of assistance from the Federal government.
Throughout the 19th century sweat equity would get you a sizable plot of land to call your own and will to your descendents out in the wilderness. With the help of taxpayer-funded federal troops to keep you alive and to keep the transportation routes open back to civilization.
After WWII a kid from the wrong side of the tracks could make it big in business entirely by the sweat of his brow and his determination to improve himself through education. With the help of the GI bill and massive Federal infrastructure investments.
The point is that in those epochs of American history where it was possible for a poor kid to pull himself up by his own bootstraps, it was only possible because the federal government gave him the boots.
We don’t do that anymore. As Everblog’s own Bobby Daniels pointed out earlier this week in highlighting this viral video, the gap between the have-it-alls and the don’t-have-much’s is frightening … and it’s growing. And we’re not doing a single thing of substance about it. As a matter of fact, here in 21st century America, we’re allowing the government to make it worse.
We were all secretly kind of happy when Uncle Sam walked away from the War on Poverty. We whistled past the graveyard as college costs skyrocketed. We stood by and looked the other way while our neighbors lost their homes to banks that made sweetheart deals with our Congress.
We can do better. We must do better. Horatio Alger’s characters can live again. Poor Americans can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. But we’re going to have to put Uncle Sam back in the boot-distribution business again.
The Everblog Poverty series:
And coming on March 17, What Can We Do About It?
In addition to writing here at Everblog, Harvey Ward writes about his efforts to live healthier and better at SkippingDessert.Com. You can also find him on Twitter @hlward.