On Air
0:00
0:00
Open In Popup
MPR News

Flyover: The myth of a 'bootstraps' America

Share story

Flyover from MPR News
Flyover from MPR News
MPR News

Here's what you had to say during this week's Flyover. Use the audio player above to hear the show. 

The fabled American dream suggests that grit, determination and hard work are all it takes to be successful in this country. 

But there's one other little thing you need for this bootstraps theory of to work out: money.

And even if you have some cash to start, social mobility seems to be getting worse in the U.S. Here's some analysis from The Washington Center for Equitable Growth:

"One of the defining features of the 'American Dream' is the ideal that children have a higher standard of living than their parents. We assess whether the United States is living up to this ideal by estimating rates of 'absolute income mobility,' or the fraction of children who earn more than their parents, since 1940. ... We find that rates of absolute mobility have fallen from approximately 90 percent for children born in 1940 to 50 percent for children born in the 1980s. Absolute income mobility has fallen across the entire income distribution, with the largest declines for families in the middle class."

Over 8 million families live in poverty in the U.S., and there's glaring racial inequity. The U.S. Census Bureau last week dumped a massive data set studying Americans from 2011 through 2016. 

While overall median household income increased to $59,039 in 2016, it's crucial to take note of the racial disparities. Here's the census' breakdown for median household income by race: 

• Asian — $81,431

• Non-Hispanic white — $65,041

• Hispanic — $47,675

• Black — $39,490

Then there's the gender gap: men's median annual income was $10,000 more than women's in 2016, per the census. (Disclaimer: The census only offered data for these four broad racial groups and two sexes.)

Considering all this, we have some questions: Does accepting the American dream mean that we're willing to say that the people who are struggling don't deserve to succeed? Does the allure of the American dream cloud our ability to recognize systems that foster disparities? 

This week on Flyover, we want to hear about your experiences living in a world that assumes a bootstraps-focused meritocracy is the reality, not just the myth it appears to be.

This week's guests:

• Stephen Henderson — Editorial page editor for the Detroit Free Press and host of WDET's Detroit Today with Stephen Henderson 

• Linda Tirado — Author of "Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America"

Here's some of what you had to say on this week's program:




"Even holier-than-thou acquaintances who think they made it on their own had help. Loved book Nickled and Dimed On (Not) Getting by in America by Barbara Ehrenreich. Points she made about how to improve one's lot in life on minimum wage."

— User ArkansasBabyBoomerBlueInARedState via our live blog


"As an historian who has studied 19th century "success," I suggest that pulling oneself up by the bootstraps did not work then any better than now. Yes, working hard was important, but not the only and often not the most important. Many people worked as hard as they could and didn't get ahead (farmers who got hit by grasshoppers, hail, too much rain, too little, etc.), factory workers who worked 60 hours a week and kept working at those jobs for their lives. Among the factors that contributed to success in America -- ability to speak English, ability to learn to read, being able-bodied, being healthy, being male, being white, being born into money, LUCK, marrying well, being in the right place at the right time. If we use false pictures of the past, we can't correctly diagnose or even address our problems. (Annette Atkins, Professor Emerita of History, Saint John's University/College of Saint Benedict, author of Creating Minnesota: A History from the Inside Out.)"

 Anette via our live blog


"A lot of people, particularly in older generations ... I feel like they have a different view on how success can be made."

— Hannah, a caller from Wisconsin Dells, Wis.


"I work in the travel industry and am amazed at the freebies rich people get."

— Laura Nelson  via our live blog



Juan, a caller from North Carolina, said he's a first-generation immigrant from South America. He told Kerri that his family was able to pull itself up by the bootstraps, in a sense. They focused on education and hard work, he said.

"The focus regardless of the resources was to always look for a way to open up the opportunity for us to attain or reach our goals."



Dustin, a caller from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, said he and his wife grew up in poverty in Detroit. They didn't want that for their family.

So, he told Kerri, "We did what we could to get out of Detroit." They took any job they could to get out of that city. They took help when they could, and they lived places they could barely afford. Dustin said some of his friends back in Detroit had some of the same opportunity he and his wife had, but they didn't use it.