The Bootstrap Illusion

America: The country where anyone–even the poorest of the poor–can make it. The land of opportunity. Ah yes, using our superior free-market system, the ones on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder can “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” into the middle class, or even wealth. But this America, characterized by a vast, even playing field, is no more. No, that America is long dead, and in its place is a new land, filled with inaccessible privilege and growing poverty. The love-affair we’ve had with bootstraps exists only as an illusion.

I was browsing through Facebook the other day, and the below image popped up in my News Feed. It’s a map of these great United States–each state is color-coded according to the work hours per week at minimum wage required to afford Fair Market Rent. The data is really quite striking:

Source: National Low Income Housing Coalition

Source: National Low Income Housing Coalition

In the United States, it is impossible to afford a two-bedroom unit at Fair Market Rent by working a minimum wage job for forty hours a week. In most cases, working well over the forty-hour threshold, or even taking on additional jobs (a difficult prospect where there are children to raise), is required. Admittedly, my knowledge of the history of minimum wage is rusty, but I’m almost certain that it was established as a safety net for workers–a means of protecting them from being paid wages that would nearly force them into poverty. Minimum wage, however, has not been doing its job in this respect. What happens when groceries, transportation, medical bills, daycare, and other expenditures are added into a minimum wage workers’ budget? Enrollment in social programs such as welfare and food stamps nearly becomes a necessity.

This is not “pulling yourself up by the bootstraps”–at least not in the traditional sense of the phrase. We’ve heard stories from politicians and other successful businessmen and -women that go something like “I started out in the lowest levels of the company, and then used old-fashioned hard work and determination to rise through the ranks and be successful.” Usually included in these stories is how they waited tables to pay for school and things of that nature. (I won’t even go into the exorbitant price of a college education and how waiting tables would never pay anyone’s way through most public four-year institutions in the present day.

How are we to fix this problem reasonably? Some (such as myself) advocate for a living wage–a wage that allows workers to meet all the necessities of life through that wage alone. I recommend taking a look at the Living Wage Calculator created by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In Syracuse, New York (where I go to school), the living wage required for a single parent and two children is $27.81 an hour–much higher than the existing $7.25 an hour minimum wage in New York State.

The drawback for living wages, however, is cost. Even in the city of Syracuse, living wages are much greater than minimum wage, and this added cost is seen as a burden on businesses. For some small businesses who are already struggling, paying a living wage to workers isn’t always a possibility. It’s quite the conundrum–if not a living wage, then how are the poor to rise out of poverty?

Impoverished Americans exist in what I call a state of institutionalized poverty–that is, they are in a nearly-perpetual (and permanent) state of poverty because of existing public policy. An alternative to requiring a living wage is raising current minimum wages–especially as inflation continues to rise. Although this seems like a reasonable plan to some, such proposals nearly always result in a political slugfest where the rhetoric is peppered with references to “burdening employers.” In addition to this argument, some opponents to raising minimum wage actually argue that they have the best interests of workers in mind. In 2012, Republicans in the New York Legislature blocked a plan that would raise minimum wage to $8.50 an hour, arguing that raising wages to that level would hurt workers in the form of having to pay more in taxes.

So if raising minimum wage is too difficult, what about increasing the strength of social safety nets? No, this can’t be done, either. According to the rhetoric of the right, social programs such as welfare and food stamps must be cut, because they’re burdening budgets and are ineffective at teaching the impoverished to take care of themselves (I’ve heard the argument that National Parks tell visitors not to feed wildlife for the exact reason). Moreover, opponents of social safety nets often argue that the system is full of people who abuse it, and therefore these programs should be weakened or eliminated altogether. The possibility of strengthening these programs only looks politically salient in perhaps the most liberal of states.

With the prospect of strengthening social programs looking like a long shot, how about addressing the problem of rent? If we aren’t to pay a living wage, raise minimum wage for inflation, or strengthen social safety nets, then subsidizing housing could help alleviate the problem, right? The construction of government-owned housing with reduced rent means more money in the pockets of individuals working at minimum wage living in those complexes. Such plans, however, are often met with resistance. Besides the issues of increased spending for these projects (remember that spending is evil and must be gutted, unless it’s for military purposes), there are deeply rooted cultural stigmas attached to them–the common complaint is that they attract “undesirables.” And I won’t even get into the whole other can of worms that is the “this is socialism” school of thought. This course of action, like the others, looks to be largely implausible, at least on a broad level.

Such is the state of institutionalized poverty–nearly every sort of proposal to help the poor rise out of this state of existence is met with opposition that sometimes borders on fierce. Can we raise wages? No, it’s a burden on those paying the wages. Can we strengthen social programs? No, it’s a burden on the budget, and those on them are parasites, anyway. Can we subsidize housing? No, it’s also a burden on the budget, and the people who live in the housing aren’t desirable to have around. When so many potential solutions to help the poor out of their current situation are shot down, poverty almost becomes state sanctioned–no solution is good enough, so the poor must find their own way into the middle class. We can just ignore the fact that it’s nearly impossible to get there.

A minimum wage worker shouldn’t need to put in hundreds of hours per week in order to be able to afford their rent (in addition to every other necessary expense). Making a living on a forty hour work week is the standard in this country, and our wages should reflect this by allowing those who earn the very lowest wages to do just that: make a living. Whatever course of action is taken must be comprehensive, and truly accomplish the goal of helping the poor out of poverty through their own hard work. We live in the world of the bootstrap illusion–getting out of poverty with no assistance is a near impossibility. I dream of an America where the poor can truly raise themselves out of poverty–even if government is giving their bootstraps a little tug along the way.

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