It’s long past time to challenge the American Dream. Alissa Quart reveals its harsh realities and calls for a new ethos that values community, fairness, and class worth.
In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, Alissa Quart, author of Bootstrapped: Liberating Ourselves from the American Dream, looks at the historical lineage of American individualism, cutting through the illusion of the Horatio Alger myth to reveal a sobering truth: The age-old belief that hard work leads to success has frayed in the face of today’s economic reality.
She dissects the challenges faced by a generation encountering diminishing economic mobility, including parental worries, the pandemic’s lasting impacts, and technology’s dual-edged role in modern life. Quart also examines the corporate response to societal shifts, pinpointing the over-commercialization of “hustle” culture.
The discussion extends to the nationwide housing shortage, the need for cooperative efforts to secure economic opportunities for all, and the necessity for a more equitable tax structure. Quart’s analysis underscores the urgency of new policies such as participatory budgeting and greater community engagement.
In the realm of politics, Quart identifies a disconnect between societal needs and governmental action. She emphasizes the critical importance of collective action, challenging the outmoded myth of the totally self-made individual.
Quart calls for a reimagining of the American Dream. One that fosters interdependence, values collaboration, and recognizes the inherent dignity of all working individuals. It’s a call for a more grounded, resilient future, where the myth is replaced by reality, and individual triumph is redefined as collective progress.
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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. For centuries, the fundamental mythology of American individualism has prevailed and has been deeply rooted in our culture. From the move westward, Manifest Destiny and the Puritan ideology of self-reliance, it’s all shaped what is represented, the American dream. The Horatio Alger story has perhaps, more than any other story, saturated every aspect of American life and culture. Today, this seems to be changing. Poll after poll shows that young Americans in record numbers are rejecting this, rejecting what had been thought of as the American dream.
But why? What’s changed? Has America changed? Has generational change been that dramatic? Has our society gotten so complex and interconnected that individualism is no longer a valid model? Have the values and talk of the ‘60s and the boomers finally, after 60 years been absorbed into the culture? And if any of this is true, why is it not more profoundly reflected in our politics? We’re going to talk about all of this today with my guest, Alissa Quart. Alissa is the author of four previous books including Squeezed and Branded. She’s also the author of two books of poetry and most recently, Thoughts and Prayers. She’s written for numerous publications and is the Executive Director of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.
It is my pleasure to welcome Alissa Quart here to the WhoWhatWhy podcast, to talk about her newest work Bootstrapped: Liberating Ourselves from the American Dream. Alissa, thanks so much for joining us.
Alissa Quart: Oh, it’s great to be here, Jeff.
Jeff: It’s a delight to have you here. It does seem like when one talks about self-reliance and bootstrapping as the title of your book implies that somehow it is antithetical to what we’ve grown up with and to the fundamental American dream. Talk a little bit about that first.
Alissa: So the original American Dream, as it was coined in 1931, was a very inclusive one. It was talking about our American dream rather than my American dream, and that’s really important. And then over time, it’s become this insistence that we achieve on our own, or that we have achieved on our own, if we’re financially and professionally successful, that we don’t depend on others for a whole slew of other things like childcare, medical care, that basically, we’re utterly self-sufficient in our own families and in our own professional lives. And I’ve seen from my reporting that this is impossible for many, many Americans, this particular demand.
Jeff: Is it that America has changed or is it the nature of Americans that have changed?
Alissa: I think it’s that they have so little mobility. They have so much less economic mobility than their parents and grandparents did. Just that there’s been studies of this that you have a 50 percent chance of exceeding your parents financially if you’re born in the 1980s. And that understanding, you can see it in the young people in your life who can’t afford to own a home and can’t afford to leave their parents’ homes sometimes and yet have “done everything right” that there’s going to be cynicism about this model because it hasn’t worked for them. I’d argue it hasn’t worked for most of us, but it’s very explicitly not worked for them. Like the fact that they’re not investing in the stock market.
Their careers aren’t going in a straight line. I called it in my book, Squeezed, my previous book, “the narrative of their lives” it is just not making the same sense that it might’ve made to their parents. Like they’re working multiple jobs often, they can’t pay for three months of emergencies. So I think that is a kind of awakening for a certain young person, or not even young, it’s sort of young, quite the young person.
Jeff: What are you finding in terms of the way the parents of these young people look at the world today? The way they look at their children, the way they look at their opportunities today, all the things you’ve been talking about, how is that seen by their millennial or boomer parents?
Alissa: I could talk about my own experience as a parent here. I look at my daughter, and I worry about what we’re going to do for college, for debt, for what professional life could she possibly have that would be solvent and satisfying and in any way ethically satisfying in a climate that’s on fire. So there’s a lot of concerns for parents and plus of this generation. If it’s children, if it’s Gen Z and younger, is it that they’ve already survived this pandemic? And what is going to be the legacy of that anxiety along with all these economic and environmental afflictions that they’re going to be carrying with them?
So I do think some of the collective actions that I’ve been seeing, in what I reported in my book, I call it a New American Dream, reflect people of my generation and a little younger being like, “We’ve got to offer other kinds of ways of getting through this together.” That there’s got to be more collective action and yes, the bigger collective action is necessary, higher taxes for the Elon Musks of the world and anybody in the top 10 percentile. But also just things like mutual aid or worker cooperatives or other models of survival that we think our children are probably going to need.
Jeff: How has corporate America begun to deal with this? One of the things you talk about is the way corporate America has tried to co-opt it in some ways.
Alissa: You could see it in advertising. There was a hilarious moment in the Super Bowl when the wonderful Dolly Parton had, saying a version of hustling, the hustle culture song. So she did “9 to 5”. Working 5:00 to 9:00, a whole new way to make a living, going to change your life, be your own boss and climb your own ladder. But if you look closely at what this working-class patron saint Dolly Parton was saying, what she was saying, “You got to grind.” Working 5:00 to 9:00? So this is after your workday is over you have the second day. It was for, I think, it was a psych Squarespace, a web hosting platform. You’re going to have your side hustle business and you’ll be doing your extra work.
So that was one terrible example. Another was, at some point, there’s T-shirts that would say things like “9:00 to 5:00 is for the weak”. Brandy Melville, which is a brand that my daughter loves, its preteens wear has all these Ayn Rand slogans on their clothes. They’re big libertarians, and they’re all saying, “Don’t be a weakling,” kind of thing. And this been interesting to me to see how this creeps into today’s popular culture. And I compare it, of course, in the book to how it creeped into the popular culture of my youth, the Little House on the Prairie television show, and so forth.
Jeff: And do you see any of this reflected in our politics today? There are moments of it, but there seems to be more of this attitude that we’ve been talking about, more of this change going on than we really see reflected in politics.
Alissa: Absolutely. This is a huge change. There’s an awareness of housing insecurity that there’s never been before. And of course, it was reflected during the pandemic by the eviction moratorium, but now that’s over. And you have people organizing saying, “We can’t afford our rent,” especially in these big cities doing amazing actions. I’m thinking also in Kansas City, there’s a particularly remarkable Housing Justice Group that has done great actions to try to get affordable housing for people, including people who are homeless. And we haven’t had adjustments in the cost of our housing or the growth of affordable housing that would make this helpful for people.
So I think we need to really rethink why and how we can take advantage of some of the things we learned during the pandemic. And that is a big emphasis for me. I think we learned a lot about interdependence. I don’t know about you, but I was very dependent on frontline workers. I was very dependent on my friends and the parents at my children’s school in a way that I had never been before. And of course, on the idea of medical workers if I needed them and so forth. And I think we need to keep that recognition. We got child tax credits. There’s an American Rescue Plan that helped people out, and we need some of those supports on a regular basis.
Jeff: How much of that ethos that came out of the pandemic, exactly what you’re talking about, how much of that do you think is still with us? Do you think it’s hanging on?
Alissa: I feel like there’s an amnesia. I feel like there’s a fear of what we know from the pandemic and it’s traumatic. People try to hide their memories of trauma. They try to bury them. We know this from people who fought wars. Nobody wants to think about this thing that took away their joy for years and their children’s joy. But the things that gave us joy during the pandemic and gave us support, I think we need to remember them. I think we need to remember the forgiveness that things like SNAP and Medicaid offered to people who were recipients during the pandemic. It made it much easier for people to receive aid that they needed. I think it was much easier to organize around various needs in that time.
People understood mutual aid. You have to go help your neighbors. So let’s try to remember that. And if we can even remember it, each of us can remember it as psychological beings and also as voters. I think that would be good. Because, for me, a lot of this is also about remembering to credit others rather than just say you’re doing it by yourself. And I write about that at the end of my book. That was what all this research led me to, to think about 25 people who went into making the book that I’m talking about today, or the hundreds of people that go into the organization I run, the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, which is a poverty reporting organization.
Or the people who’ve gone into making me who I am like my grandparents, my teacher, the writer, Frank McCourt who wrote Angela’s Ashes, who was a public high school teacher when I was 13 years old. So to think that way rather than just think, “What have I accomplished?”
Jeff: Has the complexity of society today, the interconnectedness because of technology, the complexity because of technology, has all of that in some way contributed, hopefully, to a greater understanding of the way that individuals are connected to each other? And it is inherently some kind of pushback to this notion of just the rugged individual.
Alissa: I think it cuts both ways, honestly, Jeff. I think we have, again, Elon Musk is on my mind as he always is on others because he insists we pay attention to him [chuckles]. But you can see with how he’s manipulating Twitter or other people have manipulated various platforms over time and scraped our information and mined it and surveilled us in our workplace. Technology can actually be quite alienating. It doesn’t always lead to us feeling more connected. It can also lead to us being exploited. Economically exploited and exploited in other ways.
But I think things like those mutual aids that I was talking about, or other sorts of groups that have sprung up, like Reddit groups after the Dobbs ruling or Reddit groups that were helping women get reproductive needs that they had met that were volunteer groups that existed on a platform. And that’s what we can see more and more of. We can see people also organizing platform cooperativism, which is worker cooperatives that are entirely on worker-owned apps. And again, that’s not something that you could have had in the past. What that means, of course, is instead of taking a Lyft or an Uber, you might take something that’s owned by the workers, so the workers don’t have to give a huge amount of every fare to Lyft or Uber.
So that kind of thing has been flourishing in this period. At the same time, of course, we have these huge digital monopolies that are threatening to suffocate democracy. So it’s a mixed bag, I’d say. [chuckles]
Jeff: To what extent is there even an interest in politics anymore given this shift that we’re talking about, this sense of collective action by groups apart from traditional institutions?
Alissa: Yes. So I’ve mentioned a few of them, but there’s others. There’s so many others, and that was part of what was so inspiring to me. There are people who are doing pure counseling therapy, again, online as you were pointing out. During the pandemic, they were helping other people who had survived terrible trauma. Much of it starting with economic struggle like coming from poverty, and they help each other. And that way, they get around the difficulty of accessing therapists or other people who might help them and the high cost of such a thing. That was one thing that was new to me. I call it inequality therapy.
And then there’s something else, participatory budgeting where people take part in their budget groups for their local government. And in hundreds of cities around the country, people are doing this. They’re making judgments about millions of dollars a year in local spending, which I thought was — I didn’t know about it either before I started reporting this. I was like, “Well, this is amazing. These are citizens who are becoming politically involved and engaged.” And there are a bunch of other examples from my book and just that I’ve come across in the meanwhile, but there are reasons to be optimistic when you see some of these ways in which people are coming together.
There are groups of parents during the pandemic who organized. They have groups like Strolling Thunder. I thought that was a great name. And they were organizing to get more money from the federal government but also to support each other to get access when there is no daycare during the pandemic. And now that there’s very little daycare or little affordable daycare. So it was another reason to be optimistic.
Jeff: Does this new framework necessitate a rejection of the Horatio Alger story, a rejection of this Randian individualism? Or can the two coexist together in some way, I wonder?
Alissa: But I’ve been giving these events around the country and one person at a reading was like, “I’m both self-made and interdependent.” And I was like, “Okay, maybe that’s true.” So yeah, personally, I don’t think the Horatio Alger story can coexist because as I write about in the book, the Horatio Alger story is not what we think it is. And so I blow the lid off the Horatio Alger story. Horatio Alger was a pedophile, and the Horatio Alger story was a story of older, wealthy men rescuing teenage boys who were very handsome. So it was a very weird story. It wasn’t actually what it’s come to mean.
Trump calls himself a Horatio Alger story of his father. He called Fred Trump, a Horatio Alger story. And Clarence Thomas considers himself a Horatio Alger story. Reagan thought he was a Horatio Alger story. But I think if we know what a Horatio Alger story means, it means you’re basically aided by somebody very wealthy, a great deal older than you. [chuckles] It can’t coexist really with what we’re talking about. But… [crosstalk]
Jeff: I guess it’s the Horatio Alger myth, not the actual story.
Alissa: The myth, yes. So the Horatio Alger myth, can it coexist? I think being successful and having mastery and working really hard can definitely coexist with working together and crediting people constantly for your own success and involving groups of people in your work and in your life and in your really basic needs. Involving other people in them. I think that can definitely exist with being an achiever. I think the myth itself is a lie. So that, to me, needs to be dispelled. And it’s done a great deal of damage. You have candidates like Donald Trump walking around saying they’re self-made men and getting a lot of traction with voters because of that.
And we have some of the wealthiest people in this country claiming to be self-made. Usually, it’s not even the case, but let’s say it was, I don’t think it needs to be as important a consideration. In fact, I think it’s kind of alienating because there are a lot of people who are just getting by and that’s okay. That’s not okay politically and psychologically, but that’s okay morally. There’s nothing wrong with being a working-class person who hasn’t actually made it, so to speak.
Jeff: To what extent do you think that the inequality, the extreme inequality that we see in the country today is really providing fuel to this change we’re talking about?
Alissa: I think it definitely is. In 2021, CEOs were paid 399 times as much as typical workers, and they made on average 15.6 million in 2021. So, I think, how can you be one of the fewer than half of American adults that say they have enough emergency funds to cover three months of expenses and look at that and not be angry or feel that there’s something on it wrong? And part of my point with this book was we have to go back into the past to get to the future. And the way we do that is we look at some of the social programs that did help people. First of all, there was great unionism in the early part of the 20th century, and that was very helpful at keeping people’s wages up and protecting their workplaces, and also just creating a feeling of solidarity among workers.
They didn’t feel alone. We could go back into the Homestead Act of 1862, where there was the biggest land giveaway in American history, and that was millions of acres of land in the West given away for free. So that we’ve had a history of social generosity. We had the GI Bill that created a thriving American middle class. And we need to remember those earlier moments, too, when we go forward.
Jeff: I guess one of the things that we also have to think about is the way in which going back and looking at these successful programs from the past can be, not recycled necessarily today, but modernized today. That the framework of those programs, the reason for being for those programs can be certainly valid today, but that there needs to be a more modern version of those as opposed to just trying to pull those back from the past.
Alissa: Yes, I definitely think the modern version, some of them were actually from the Biden administration. We had American Rescue, as I mentioned, and also the Child Tax Credit. And we could extend some of these things. They exist. People have mocked UBI, Universal Basic Income, but I’ve all long argued that we need that for parents. The Child Tax Credit in a sense is UBI. It’s giving parents additional funds a month because we don’t have daycare. We have some of the lowest amount of our overall GDP going to daycare and childcare for families.
And that’s actually, it doesn’t make economic sense. Because then you have female workers who are unable to do their jobs, who have to stay furloughed or what have you after the pandemic. And I think that, to me, is a modern version. Let’s continue to have economic support for parents of young children.
Jeff: Talk about what you see around the world, other models, other countries that are doing some of these things. Some successfully, some not quite as successfully.
Alissa: Yes. I was struck by… First of all, so I talk about volunteerism a lot in my book. People who volunteer, that’s part of this economy, this alternative solidarity world where everybody’s taking care of each other, but they’re doing it for free. And that it’s not entirely good, because I think the most important thing is that we also give a handout as well as a hand-up. That if it’s just 1,000 points of light, as George Bush said, then we’re depending on people who are already overextended, ordinary citizens, to take up the slack that should also be the job of our government.
So what I looked at internationally, I saw that people at some of the countries that had the best social safety net, New Zealand, so forth, they actually had the highest levels of volunteerism. So you could have a country which, like ours, is very generous and thinks about their neighbor. And I think that’s the way a lot of Americans see themselves. And you can also get support from your government that they’re not separate things. And that was insight for me.
Jeff: I guess part of it is that we have to find a new American dream that it’s not so much an American dream that needs to go away, but we have to find a new one.
Alissa: Yes, absolutely. Or, as I said, also return to the old one. [chuckles] So there’s two movements that can take place, go back to the one from 1931 and go forward to the future to the new American dream that would include, as you were saying, technological levels of togetherness and freedoms like the cooperatives online that I mentioned or go to a future that has an understanding of mothers’ needs as workers, which wasn’t the strong weapon [chuckles] of the 19th century or the early 20th century. But that includes these groups that have been left out of other moments of generosity.
I talked about the GI Bill, but it didn’t offer the same help for Black veterans that it did for White veterans. Any of these programs going forward would obviously be correcting some of that as well.
Jeff: I guess the other part of it, too, is to find a way in which it can also be a solution to the polarization that we see today because that’s really stands in the way of so much of it.
Alissa: Yes. It could be a solution to polarization. Unfortunately, I do think some of what has to happen, has to happen on the level of opinion, though. Because you still have recent studies where 42 percent of Republicans said that the poor are that way because they’ve not worked as hard as most others, but another one said that Republicans believe people get stuck in poverty because they make bad decisions or lack the ambition to do better in life. So we need to have a hearts and minds campaign as well, which is part of why I really think we need to dedicate ourselves to puncturing the self-made myth and all the falsehoods around that as well as building something new.
We also need to run candidates who are willing to say things like Maxwell Alejandro Frost did. He’s a representative from Florida, and he came out and said, “I can’t afford to pay my rent in DC. I’m going to sleep on my friend’s couches.” And he got attacked for that. But to me, that was very salutatory. It’s like you say this, you’re like most Americans. You can’t pay thousands of dollars of rent off the bat, and you’re explaining why and you’re relying on others in the meanwhile. And he actually said to Republicans who mocked him, “I don’t fall for this bootstrap stuff.” So I think we need more candidates and elected officials who are willing to say things like this.
Jeff: Alissa Quart, her book is Bootstrapped: Liberating Ourselves from the American Dream. Alissa, thank you so much for spending time with us today here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.
Alissa: Oh, you’re welcome. It was great.
Jeff: Thank you. And thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I hope you join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy podcast, I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.