Though enlightening in some respects, Dan Herrera’s Up Front series on “rising out” of poverty, published recently in the Albuquerque Journal, ultimately serves to promote the “bootstraps” myth, or the sociological trope that presupposes that individuals born into poverty are largely to blame for their condition and are therefore responsible for “rising out” of it. In fact, Mr. Herrera asserts that poverty is a “go-to excuse” and a “crutch” that the poor use to absolve themselves of personal responsibility. What Mr. Herrera and others choose not to discuss, however, is the fact that the vast majority of people born into poverty remain in poverty unless their hard work to overcome it is accompanied by other key factors, such as being born white, being born a U.S. citizen, being Christian, possessing English as their native language, and often just good luck.
My father was a good example of this. He was born into extreme poverty in Waco, Texas in 1926 and soon became even poorer during the Great Depression. The same was true of the African American and Mexican American children who lived on the other side of Elm Street. However, my father was born a white U.S. citizen, spoke white English, went to a white Methodist church, and served in the Navy during WWII long enough to avail himself of the brand new GI Bill, which financed his undergraduate and graduate studies. He later became a college professor. This was not the case for the children on the other side of Elm Street, most of whom, like my father, also aspired to a life free of want. Were Mr. Herrera to request bootstraps stories for the Waco Tribune, doubtless few if any of my father’s counterparts of color would be able to contribute.
It is not surprising that the Albuquerque Journal is running such a series. The bootstraps myth conforms to the editorial staff’s conservative ideological agenda, which promotes an extremely limited role of governments in addressing social and economic disparities and injustices. This agenda is clearly evident in the editorial staff’s misguided support of the current corporate education “reforms” of both Governor Martinez and President Obama. These “reforms” reject poverty as a part of a complex of phenomena that contribute to academic under achievement. As the “reform” ideology goes, if a child living in poverty is unable to achieve on par with those living in relative wealth, it is her own fault (and, increasingly, the fault of her teacher). The more she—and she alone—is held accountable for her fate, the more those living in comfort can escape accountability and continue to sleep soundly, convinced that her poverty persists simply because she has not yet tried hard enough to overcome it.The bootstraps stories included in Mr. Herrer's series are heartwarming and inspirational. For every success story, however, there are scores of other stories that will never be written. If they were, they would likely attest to poverty as a nearly inescapable condition maintained by powerful economic and political forces that benefit from a persistent and chronic underclass. Readers of Mr. Herrera's column would be well advised to keep these unwritten stories in mind as they read the Journal's carefully selected success stories that feature individual initiative as the sole mechanism for "rising out of poverty."