STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

"Up By Your Bootstraps:" a State of Opportunity special


"Up by your bootstraps," that ubiquitous phrase that has come to function basically as shorthand for the American Dream, first came onto the scene in 1834.  

Linguist Anne Curzan says at that point, it was basically an insult. It described somebody delusional enough to think they could defy the laws of physics and pull themselves up in the air by the very things anchoring them to the ground. 

Since the middle of the 19th century, the meaning of that phrase has changed so much that now it describes the path we expect people to take to get out of poverty. 

Poverty researcher Kristin Seefeldtcalls this "policymaking by anecdote." She says this kind of thing drives her crazy. Seefeldt says the number-one myth about poverty she sees making its way into policy is the idea that low-income people don't work, when in fact the vast majority are working but not earning enough to move them up the economic ladder.

Listen to Anne Curzan and Kristin Seefeldt talk about these ideas:

A lot of the stories about poverty, particularly those "bootstraps" stories, are basically, myths.

But of course there are people who totally beat the odds. And it turns out if ever there was a bootstrapping story, it would be the story of host Jennifer White’s parents, Henry and Bessie White.

Jennifer White interviewed her parents about their path to success. Her father was the son of a sharecropper and, because he had polio as a child, he was kept out of school until he was 8 years old. After moving to Detroit as a young child, he made it into General Motors and raised a family of successful children. But he and his wife Bessie do not see their story as a “bootstraps” story. Instead, they see it as a story about education, civil rights, and faith.

One of the ways the Whites escaped poverty was to consciously model behavior they believed would lead to success. They both said they grew up in “dysfunctional” homes where alcoholism was a problem. Neither of them wanted their kids to grow up that way.

Harvard sociologist Mario Smallsays when looking at a story like the Whites, it’s easy to think that what they escaped was a “culture of poverty.” But Small thinks this idea that people in poverty have different values than people in the middle class, and that’s what explains their economic success, is totally wrong.

Small is among a new breed of sociologist that studies how culture and poverty mix and influence each other. He says the idea that there is a culture of poverty is unsupported by research and is often used to judge low-income African-American communities.

It turns out that people in poverty and people who aren’t want very similar things. The difference between these groups, says Small, is in “cultural knowledge.”

To hear him explain the idea of cultural knowledge, and to hear the Whites' story, listen here. You’ll also hear David Huynh explain how painful it can be to climb the economic ladder and realize you might be leaving part of your community and yourself behind.


The distance between those who do and don’t live in poverty is getting harder to breach because it's not just emotional anymore. It's geographic. Poverty in America is growing more and more concentrated, more and more suburban.

Anne Kalas runs Starfish Family Services, a kind of a one-stop shop for low-income families in Inkster. She describes poverty there as “an epidemic” that affects almost everyone. Kalas says in this context, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps would be almost impossible.

Robert Putnam, the author of Bowling Alone and the new book Our Kids backs this idea up. He says as poverty gets concentrated, it seems that people’s empathy for kids in poverty is shrinking.

Hass Abraham and Chris Reynolds are all in the middle of their journeys up the economic ladder. They both describe in incredible candor exactly what it feels like to be a child dealing with the social exclusion and in Abraham’s case, the health effects, of growing up in poverty.

Listen to their powerful stories along with Robert Putnam and Anne Kalas and Heather Brown from Starfish family services.


What do you think about these stories and what questions, or experiences do they bring up for you?  Let us know and you can join us for a live listening session with experts, including some heard in this special, at the Ann Arbor District Library main branch on Thursday, April 23 at 7:00 p.m.

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