“Pull Yourself Up by the Bootstraps” Saying Explained

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Maid" by Stephanie Land. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What does “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” mean? Why is Stephanie Land so critical of it?

Stephanie Land, the author of the memoir Maid, criticizes the “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” mentality in America. The saying insinuates that people in poverty are lazy and make bad choices.

Read more about why this mentality is outdated and offensive to people living in poverty.

“Pull Yourself Up by the Bootstraps” in Maid

While it’s not meant to be political, Land’s story does present a broader social commentary on the American “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” mentality. There’s a common perception that poverty is the result of laziness or bad choices. Land puts forth her own life as an example of how circumstances beyond a person’s control can force them into poverty and keep them there. She demonstrates how factors such as domestic abuse, lack of a support system, a weak labor market, and flawed government policies make it extremely difficult for her to lift herself out of poverty, no matter how hard she works.

Work and Upward Mobility in America

The concept of “bootstrapping” dates back to the 1800s, when American author Horatio Alger wrote popular young-adult novels about boys who rose from poverty to a comfortable, middle-class existence through their own hard work and good deeds.

Since then, the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” narrative has become pervasive in American culture. The idea is often politicized in the context of government assistance. Conservatives tend to argue that hard work and individual initiative are sufficient to achieve upward mobility. They also think government aid encourages dependency. Liberals tend to argue that hard work is not enough. Without that assistance, structural forces keep people from rising above the poverty line.

Much of Maid shows how no amount of hard work and initiative can lift her out of poverty. J.D. Vance presents an alternate viewpoint in Hillbilly Elegy, his memoir about growing up as a member of the Appalachian white working class. Vance argues that his community’s inability to achieve upward mobility is due (in part) to a lack of personal responsibility and an aversion to hard work. Unlike Land, he blames individual moral failings, rather than systemic problems, for economic stagnation. 

Data shows that upward economic mobility is harder to achieve in America than it used to be. The percentage of Americans who earn more than their parents has shrunk by more than 40% from the 1940s to the 1980s. Studies also show that, while there is some opportunity for upward mobility within the middle class, people who are born into low-income families tend to remain at the bottom of the economic ladder from one generation to the next, while people who are born into wealth tend to stay wealthy.

Weak Labor Market

The lack of jobs in Land’s area contributes to her poverty. The town where Land lives at the outset of the book, Port Townsend, is a small, seaside community that caters to tourists. Most of the available jobs are low-wage positions in the service industry, and there aren’t many jobs with flexible, part-time work schedules that can accommodate a single parent.

In fact, when Land becomes a maid, she notices that three of the women she encounters in her work are single moms, as housekeeping is one of the few jobs flexible enough to allow employees to juggle working and caring for a child.

Besides the labor market in her local area, the 2008 recession means many people are unemployed and looking for work throughout the US at the time Maid takes place. This is another example of why the “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” mentality is flawed. Most people can’t control the availability of well-paying jobs and have to work with what they got.

(Shortform note: The financial crisis that officially began in December 2007 and lasted until June 2009 is often referred to as the Great Recession, as it was the most significant economic downturn since the Great Depression. During this time, wages dropped significantly, unemployment rose, and poverty increased. Research shows that expanded government assistance programs mitigated some of the worst effects of the Great Recession, preventing many low-income families from sinking below the poverty line.)

“Pull Yourself Up by the Bootstraps” Saying Explained

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Stephanie Land's "Maid" at Shortform .

Here's what you'll find in our full Maid summary :

  • The true story of a single mother who struggled to make ends meet as a housekeeper
  • A social commentary on the American “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality
  • Background information, research, and statistics on the key themes in the memoir

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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