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The Pull Yourself Up from Your Bootstraps Mentality Needs to Be Replaced with Volunteer Work

If you’re down on your luck, then traditional wisdom says you should “pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” The image is so prominent that it’s even common parlance in business and financing. When uttered today, it’s usually a suggestion that you should use what means you have available to turn things around and make your life a success. After all, so many other people did it, why can’t everyone?

What's interesting about the phrase "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" is that the origin of the phrase meant something else entirely. And when you get down to the basic argument, it becomes fairly obvious that 'bootstrapping' isn't a logical approach to much of anything at all.

If you think that other people should pick themselves up and use what they have to make themselves a success, then you may be in need of a lesson in empathy.

Pulling Yourself by Your Bootstraps is Impossible
"Pull yourself up by your bootstraps" is an idiom that took life in the late 19th century. The quote originally came from a physics book that asked: "Why can not a man lift himself by pulling up on his bootstraps?" The answer is obvious: it violates the laws of physics. You physically cannot pull yourself up off the ground by pulling on your shoes.

In the 20th century, the phrase became a colloquial way of describing socioeconomic advancement, but it was said with dripping sarcasm. The problem didn't change: you can't lift yourself off the ground by pulling on your bootstraps. In other words, you can't pull yourself out of poverty with nothing.

The phrase evolved once more, and it's now commonly used seriously. (It's also the thought behind the Bootstrap Method, a mathematical method). When someone advises a person to "pull themselves up by their bootstraps," they're telling them to do so. It's completely evolved beyond its original meaning and the original premise, and it's most commonly used in conservative rhetoric to encourage self-reliance. Today, "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" is meant to be sound advice.

Bootstrapping Doesn't Consider the Cycle of Poverty
Finances aren't physics, so why does the same problem remain? While there's no law of gravity preventing a person from making "more" of their lives, there is a different rule. In the U.S., poverty isn't something that just happens to a person. It's a cycle and moreover a complex network of experiences and circumstances that impact a person's ability to get a job, up-skill, earn more and improve their financial circumstances.

These things can impact every aspect of a person's life from their relationships to their health to their education to their living situation. So it's not a matter of whether or not a person is engaged at their job and what that means for their career satisfaction: telling someone to find a better career or job is skipping over all the important steps required to get there.

While some like to explain it away, research suggests that poverty is usually the result of five important factors:

  • Chronic unemployment

  • Personal debt

  • Breakdown of the family

  • Educational failure

  • Addiction or trauma

If a person comes from a family in poverty, they are far less likely to find their way out of the cycle. In the U.S., nine million kids (one in ten children) will spend over half their childhoods facing poverty. Only 16% of "persistently poor" children can find their way out. Even those children who found their way to socioeconomic success differed from the other cohort: they were less likely to be very poor early in life and they spent fewer years living in poverty. They also had at least one working parent.

Take a moment to think about a time when something didn't go your way. Maybe a bill was much higher than it usually is. Did you ever see your hours cut at work? You might have been able to find your way back to stability, but it was likely difficult. If you did make it, you relied on your resources to help you during a difficult time. Now, imagine not having had that resource: your education, supportive parents who could lend you money, a small bit of savings. If you come from a background where you don't have much, to begin with, you have much more room to lose.

How Volunteering Can Teach Empathy

Supporting people facing an uphill battle with their socioeconomic status requires more than the not-so-sage bootstrap advice. People who don't have boots can't pull themselves up by their bootstraps. If you want to help, why not consider volunteering?

Over 30% of American adults volunteer their time through a charitable organization. While volunteering does take up your time, it also offers real benefits, like improving your self-esteem. But volunteering does something more: it teaches empathy by putting your humanity first.

When you volunteer, you are likely to encounter people who you might not meet within your own community. It demands that you try to understand the world from someone else's perspective. When you can do that, you're less likely to tell someone to help themselves and more likely to say, "How can I help you?"

The empathy you gain through volunteering can help illuminate the cycle of poverty in ways that feel all too real. What's more, you might learn that there's very little separating you from someone who's struggling financially. A bit of bad luck or being born in the wrong place at the wrong time is all it takes to create a long uphill battle.

Posted by Magnolia at March 11, 2020 5:36 PM
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Can “empathy” put food on my table, give me a job, teach me self-reliance?

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Posted by: Sachin at March 16, 2020 11:03 AM
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