An unsparing, incisive, yet ultimately hopeful look at how we can shed the American obsession with self-reliance that has made us less healthy, less secure, and less fulfilled
The promise that you can “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” is central to the story of the American Dream. It’s the belief that if you work hard and rely on your own resources, you will eventually succeed. However, time and again we have seen how this foundational myth, with its emphasis on individual determination, brittle self-sufficiency, and personal accomplishment, does not help us. Instead, as income inequality rises around us, we are left with shame and self-blame for our condition.
Acclaimed journalist Alissa Quart argues that at the heart of our suffering is a do-it-yourself ethos, the misplaced belief in our own independence and the conviction that we must rely on ourselves alone. Looking at a range of delusions and half solutions—from “grit” to the false Horatio Alger story to the rise of GoFundMe—Quart reveals how we have been steered away from robust social programs that would address the root causes of our problems. Meanwhile, the responsibility for survival has been shifted onto the backs of ordinary people, burdening generations with debt instead of providing the social safety net we so desperately need.
Insightful, sharply argued, and characterized by Quart’s lively writing and deep reporting, and for fans of Evicted and Nickel and Dimed, Bootstrapped is a powerful examination of what ails us at a societal level and a plan for how we can free ourselves from these self-defeating narratives.
Alissa Quart is the author of four previous books of nonfiction, including Squeezed: Why Our Families Can't Afford America and Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers, and two books of poetry, most recently Thoughts and Prayers. She is the executive director of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and has written for many publications, including the Washington Post, the New York Times, and Time. Her honors include an Emmy Award, an SPJ Award, and Nieman Fellowship. She lives with her family in Brooklyn.
“In Bootstrapped, Alissa Quart takes you on a wild journey to the ideological heart of the self-made myth. The reporting and storytelling here are incredible; my jaw literally dropped several times. But even as Quart tears down ‘the bootstraps’ con through compelling portraits of lived realities, she also builds up a demonstration — at once realistic and utopian — of the many ‘arts of interdependence,’ as she calls them, on which we rely. Ultimately, this book left me with much-needed hope, resolve, and curiosity about all the things we make possible together.” — Jenny Odell, author of How to Do Nothing
“Alissa Quart is a national treasure. Among other things, she's the foremost chronicler of this country’s increasingly downwardly mobile middle class. Bootstrapped is an incisive and alarming reminder that we deserve more than what this country offers. This stirring book exposes what Quart calls the ‘dystopian social safety net,’ showing that the real way to do better is to work together for the common good." — Astra Taylor, author of Democracy May Not Exist, But We'll Miss It When it's Gone
“Quart shreds the myth that white wealth comes from individualism. She also breaks down how this lie is used to exploit America’s poorest workers, creating unprecedented riches for the few. Clear writing and consequential arguments make Bootstrapped an enlightening and informative page turner.” — Sarah Schulman, author of Let The Record Show
“In this illuminating book, Alissa Quart takes on the most powerful idea in America, exploring the mythology that we become rich through solitary hard work. She also offers more fulfilling community-based ideas that can help us actually achieve a good life. A very important read.” — Arlie Hochschild, author of Strangers In Their Own Land
“Quart’s vision of an America where no one needs to put on “codified theatrical performances via social media” to get the help they need is a breath of fresh air. This eloquent and incisive call to action inspires.” — Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“A contrarian rebuttal of the notion that wealthy Americans deserve everything they have and that the “poor are responsible for their own poverty...A provocative, important repudiation of gig-economy capitalism that proposes utopian rather than dystopian solutions.” — Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“As the heir apparent to the late, great Barbara Ehrenreich, Alissa Quart takes on the American myth of the self-made man. She shows us how taking care of our fellow citizens has been largely left to a ragtag network of nonprofits trying to address structural inequality. A must read for understanding our moment and a fierce wake-up call.” — Beth Macy, author of Dopesick
“How maddening is it that one of the central metaphors of the American Dream started as a joke? In this elegant and incisive book, Quart challenges us to see a through line of self creation from Thoreau to Reagan, weaving together stylish analysis and evocative reporting. Quart is a fantastically entertaining literary class warrior.” — Zephyr Teachout, author of Corruption in America
“Alissa Quart reveals how the shortcomings of social policy have affected real people’s real lives. She shows us the ugly truth: the book is so compelling you can’t look away.” — Ray Suarez, author of Latino Americans
"Alissa Quart is an essential chronicler of American inequality, and at a moment when the schism between the wealthy and everyone else seems to be getting wider and deeper by the hour, we need her work more than ever." — Literary Hub
"Bootstrapped asks readers to begin by simply questioning the dominant narrative of the go-it-alone American success story. Recommended for fans of Matthew Desmond’s Evicted (2016), Linda Tirado’s Hand to Mouth (2014), and Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided (2009)." — Booklist
"If all Bootstrapped aimed to do was expose the hypocrisy of those who promote the myth of total self-reliance, it would still be a well-written and valuable contribution. But Quart’s book has a larger point to make: there is simply no such thing as true independence within the human condition. Everyone requires some sort of help, whether it’s from mothers who perform unpaid care work and raise children, public infrastructure that allows businesses to function, or employees who sacrifice their time and effort — often for poverty wages — in order to make profits for owners who proudly tout their self-made fortunes." — Jacobin
“Bootstrapped puts words to beliefs that I struggled to articulate as a teen and that haunted me into adulthood…Just as important, Bootstrapped urges readers to rethink their narratives of accomplishment. Quart encourages us to stop shaming others, and ourselves, for needing assistance and to acknowledge the ways we are all interdependent.” — The Atlantic
"In Bootstrapped, the author (Squeezed) and executive director of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project brilliantly debunks the American 'fantasy of self-reliance,' which has been around since the 1830s, when the notions of 'pull yourself up by your bootstraps' and become a 'self-made man' first appeared....her book is a thoughtful, nuanced examination of our 'self-punishing' individualism." — New York Journal of Books
“At a time when many are struggling, Quart digs into the idea of the American Dream and asks how we can truly help one another thrive.” — People
"Quart is committed, both literarily and professionally, to describing how things can be made better. She goes deeply into the myth and the system it has helped to build, but she makes real concrete policy suggestions." — Forward
"Quart's case-studies of organizers and rank-and-file in different movements are prescriptions for systemic changes, while her urgent case for reframing how we think of ourselves and our society present an individual-scale project for all of us." — Cory Doctorow, Pluralistic.net
“[Quart] embodies the ethos [of quality journalism] in her own trenchant cultural criticism and reporting, picking apart American delusions…Perhaps alongside Independence Day, we should make a practice of celebrating 'Interdependence Day,' as Quart proposes in the book’s coda.” — The Nation
“This book offers important insights into how our well-being as citizens is made entirely into our own responsibility. It also shows us alternative communities and methods for survival.” — Teen Vogue
“Reading Bootstrapped is a good reminder of how much we depend on one another. Applying the ideas of this book to an academic context might help us understand the structures that stand in the way of success for everyone within our university communities.” — Inside Higher Ed
“Rich with wit, her storytelling mixes historic and contemporary references and carries on her former friend and colleague Barbara Ehrenreich’s searing analysis of ways the rich exploit the poor.” — The Indypendent
"[Quart] writes about what she calls the 'art of dependence'....Quart’s framework extends far beyond friendship, but I now refer to the concept often myself as a sort of internal checkpoint." — Elle
"Quart’s book shows how people help each other through mutual aid and presents an inspiring alternative to the existing vision of the 'American dream.'" — Current Affairs
"Persuasively reported." — Brown Alumni Magazine