October 5, 2021

The Myth of Bootstraps

Maid (Netflix)

The Netflix television series Maid lays out the stark reality of poverty. The show, based on the memoir of the same title by Stephanie Land, follows the story of Alex as she leaves an abusive marriage as she tries to build a better life for herself and her daughter.

But every time she seems to pull herself up just a little bit, something knocks her back down. Her daughter is sick. Her apartment is filled with toxic mold. Her mother is now homeless. Her ex falls off the wagon with alcoholism. A car accident. 

Everything pushes Alex back into the extreme poverty she’s trying so hard to find her way out of. The show shows us her calculations on the screen — hard math, adding and subtracting, her worth and her survival. 

At one point, an unsympathetic doctor tells her, “Your daughter needs you to do better.”

But Alex is doing everything she can do. Trying harder is not the problem. It’s the system that is the problem. A system that exploits Alex’s labor and leaves her with few means of escape.

Watching the show as a single mother was a familiar jolt of recognition. I got out of my marriage with no money. After 12 years of marriage, I woke up one day realizing that I had no control over our mutual finances. I had to set up a secret bank account and I was lucky enough to have friends who could help me build up enough savings to scramble my way out.

But even then, the divorce was expensive and I built up credit card debt and had parents who helped me buy Christmas presents and friends who helped me buy groceries. The past two years, I’ve felt like I’m finally back on my feet. I built up savings and have been trying to plan for the future. But even then, this year, a broken wrist, a new air conditioner, a broken dishwasher, and now $3,000 worth of dental work (damage built up from when I had no insurance and couldn’t afford to go to the dentist), have set me back again.

While Maid is a moving and urgent story of poverty in America, it’s a reminder that so many Americans are all one emergency away from financial devastation.

Studies show that the number of individuals able to out earn their parents, a sign of social mobility, is on the decline. This isn’t because millennials are buying too much avocado toast, it’s because of stagnating wages and income inequality. All of this is being made even more complicated from the pandemic and the subsequent job loss and illness. The bills rack up. 

The stigma of poverty is that people who are poor are somehow not working hard enough. And the lie of America is that if we work hard enough, we can make it. Rags to riches. The myth of bootstraps.

I am so lucky I had people to help me. Not many people do.  But if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have been able to do it. Even now, I feel like I am teetering on the edge of stability. 

What individual wealth advice misses out on is the systemic reasons people are poor and are in debt. And as a result, so many financial services focus on what individuals can do, rather than how institutions must change.  It’s easier for someone to look a poor mother in the eye and tell her to work harder than to try and help her. 

And telling women to work harder, keeps them trapped in the same systems that put them there in the first place.