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Beyond Bootstraps: Expanding Opportunities for All

by | Apr 4, 2024

Some people argue that those in difficult situations are there because of the choices they’ve made. This perspective assumes life is a level playing field where we all have equal opportunities to succeed. However, this viewpoint is flawed and overlooks the systemic barriers many face through no fault of their own.

On the Rethreading Live Podcast, we recently spoke with Travis Williams, Vice President of Operations and Impact at LiftJax, and a member of the Rethreaded board about the availability of opportunities, and the problem with the commonplace idiom “lifting oneself by their own bootstraps”.

The Bootstrap Fallacy

The idea that people just need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps is a fallacy, as Martin Luther King Jr. highlighted, saying, “It is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.”

Not everyone has the resources and opportunities in life to attain stability and success through independent effort alone.

Many of us benefit from some form of help, whether it’s from government programs, financial support from family, quality education, social capital, or other advantages that create a safety net. This enables taking risks and increasing opportunities for advancement.

However, some communities have faced systemic discrimination and lack of investment that limit access to those springboards to success.

Blaming the Victim

When we blame people for their circumstances, it’s like blaming the victim. As Travis points out, just because some people can overcome challenging situations doesn’t mean everyone can.

“The logic is flawed,” said Travis. He points out that inverting the logic shows how wrong it is. “No one says, “I’ve been drinking and driving for years, why doesn’t everyone do it?” Just because circumstances have favored one person, does not mean circumstances will favor all people.

A Subsidized Society

The truth is we live in a subsidized society where progress has come through granting opportunities, not just expecting people to lift themselves unaided. From westward expansion aided by government land grants to New Deal programs and ongoing initiatives that expand access to housing, healthcare and education, we, as a society, have continually expanded opportunities.

The problem is that access to those opportunities has not been evenly distributed to all.

Expanding Opportunity

Organizations like LiftJax and Rethreaded understand that casting blame on individuals in difficult situations is unproductive. Instead, they work to address the systemic issues and constraints and ensure opportunities are more equitably distributed so everyone has a real chance at stability and advancement.

As Kristin says, when you help re-thread the fabric of a community, potential expands, and options expand. That not only helps individuals immediately but also the community overall. More options and pathways to success benefit everyone.

The myth of bootstraps ignores the web of support and resources many have accessed on the road to stability. But by coming together and expanding opportunities, we can help more people overcome challenges and thread their way to success, not just for some but for all. That reweaving makes the entire community fabric stronger.

To listen to the full conversation click here.

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