March 28, 2024

Author of “Bootstrapped: Liberating Ourselves from the American Dream”

Dana Bernardino

1Huddle Podcast Episode #126

On this episode of the Bring It In podcast, 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder, Sam Caucci, sat down with Alissa Quart, author of Bootstrapped: Liberating Ourselves from the American Dream, and Executive Director of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. In this podcast episode, Alissa Quart discusses the inspiration behind her book, Bootstrapped, which explores societal attitudes towards poverty and financial instability.

Drawing from her experience running the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, Quart highlights the contempt many hold towards those facing economic challenges, attributing it to a fear of loss aversion and entrenched cultural narratives promoting individualism. She advocates for a reevaluation of the American Dream, emphasizing the need for more inclusive narratives that acknowledge collective support systems. The conversation also addresses the challenges faced by low-wage workers and the importance of grassroots organizing and media advocacy in shaping a more equitable future for work and society.

Audio available on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and Spotify.


Below are some of the insights Cody shared during our chat, edited for length and clarity. You can find more Bring It In podcast episodes here.

  • “We call them frontline workers and essential workers, and they’ve always already been essential workers.”
  • “We need to start questioning the American dream as it’s come to be because what it was initially was something different.”
  • “47% of Americans can’t afford three months of expenses.”

Sam Caucci: Right out of the gate, Alissa, I’m sure you’ve heard this question before, but why’d you write Bootstrapped?

Alissa Quart: Yeah, so I run an organization called the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. And you know, we’re basically a poverty and financial instability organization. In the sense that we get people to write about inequality, take photos, do films, but also to write their own stories and to shoot images of their own lives of their images of the opioid crisis that somebody’s family in Ohio, that was one photographer, another person did a story on their own eviction.

And because I edit these folks for the last 10 years, I created this organization with Barbara Ehrenreich, the late great Barbara Ehrenreich. I got a kind of taste of America’s contempt for people who are financially unstable and not just America per se, historically in terms of our mythos are, you know, classic novels.

I can get into that later. But also just public opinion and political opinion because, you know, I’m getting these emails and comments about our contributors who many of whom are working poor, like, what is wrong with them? Basically, why are they single? Why do they have different husbands? Why do they have kids on their own?

Why did they go to college and rack up debt? Why didn’t they go to college? And just, why didn’t they just, you know, better themselves?  Why do they own their homes? Why don’t they own their homes? So it’s, you’re getting these comments from other Americans that are sort of trying to find a reason why other people are struggling to try to protect themselves.

I think it’s basic human psychology. There’s a name for it. It’s called lost aversion and it’s that the fear of losing what you have is greater than the desire to gain. And I think a lot of the contempt that people express about people who are poor and, you know, not wanting college debt relief, not wanting to have favorable welfare policies, you know that kind of thing.

And making these nasty comments about people who are struggling comes from that fear. So that to me was like, okay I want to trace that back. I didn’t understand that then actually the loss aversion as clearly as I do now. And I really wanted to understand where this idea that we’re all supposed to make it on our own and if we don’t we’re somehow undeserving comes from.  

Sam: And I guess, what did you learn about where it comes from? 

Alissa: Yeah, so I found that it came from, you know, great literary tradition in part. It comes from people like Emerson and Thoreau, the transcendentalists. I studied literature at graduate school in literature. I love those guys. But I saw in their writings this kind of do you have to do it on your own and some pretty churlish writing about the poor that surprises me whenever I bring this up with people who love Emerson, they’re like, oh, my God. 

And like, yeah, he really, you know, like, kind of anti charity sentiment. You know, you must do things on your own, look through getting involved in and all that. And then on through, you know, Laura Ingalls Wilder, also Ayn Rand and Horatio Alger, who I can talk more about as well, and political speeches.

So I sort of did these close readings of a lot of political speeches, and they were stressing things like rugged individualism. That was Hoover or A Thousand Points of Light, kind of all about charity and nothing about welfare. That was Bush One. Even, you know, Clinton. It wasn’t just Republicans who were stressing that we’re all supposed to do this on our own, you know.

Let’s end welfare as we know it. So that to me, I was looking at this language and this mythology that was sort of bolstering this twisted pioneer ethic that I think a lot of Americans still have. 

Sam: Yeah. You talk about how America just isn’t the land of bootstraps. It’s wild when, you know, you never really pause and think about the concept of picking yourself up by your bootstraps until you realize that, you know, it’s actually impossible to do that.

But it’s been something that just, you know, you hear, especially in environments with  something where somewhere around half of U. S. workers are in frontline work, you know, many are in hourly work, many in these categories carry not one job, but multiple jobs. I guess, in the process of after you released the book, what surprised you most from some of the feedback, you know, after people were able to process, you know,  some of the revelations that, you know, come out of the book. 

Alissa: Well, I mean, I got some very beautiful notes, you know, about people’s lives. I mean, I could probably find quotes for you from them. I mean, they’re kind of the opposite of these nasty comments. They were saying, you know, thank you. I was always ashamed of needing therapy, like, you know, like I was ashamed of, you know, my father told me I was supposed to, you know, make it on my own and I was never able to and he wasn’t either.

And I’ve always blamed myself and, you know, thank you for deconstructing, really this mythology. So some of those were incredibly moving. I also, I’ve been really happy to see the Horatio Alger myth, you know, they haven’t really mentioned my book, but I was like, wow, Horatio Alger is in the news a lot now. So I do think that there’s been some kind of a rediscovery of everything that was wrong with Horatio Alger. 

There’s reporting on the Horatio Alger Society, which Clarence Thomas was a member of, and was this right wing society that bolstered a lot of, you know, a lot of really creepy politicians. And, you know, to begin with, Horatio Alger himself is  pretty creepy, so to that renewed interest in this twisted figure that’s at the root of American conservative thought, although I don’t actually think Horatio Alger novels are exactly doing what we think the Horatio Alger story is.

But at any rate, as a symbol, it’s kind of, it’s twisted and hilarious. I can get into that, but there’s been renewed interest in everything that’s wrong with Horatio Alger.

Sam: What do you think for somebody that’s listening, who, you know, goes out and picks up the book and reads Bootstrapped, that for those that are C level executives. You know, the, Owners in, you know, our communities who own businesses big and small. You know, I guess, what do you,  you know, what do you want them to think about at the end of the day, and consider when they go back to work after reading “Bootstrapped”? 

Alissa: What do I want them to think about? I want them to feel sympathetic towards the people in their communities that need help. And I want to win the hearts and minds in that way. I want them to- if they’re employers, to really think about what they’re asking from their workers. And also if they’re employees, to not be afraid of being dependent on others and showing their vulnerability.

I mean, I think that part of the problem today’s corporate culture is you- like, I write about this in the book. There’s a lot of band aids, there’s things like, you know, kind of mindfulness, corporate mindfulness classes and positive psychology that’s doled out rather than, you know, trying to get to the root of the problem. Which is, you know, a lot of jobs are hourly, they’re not unionized, they don’t give adequate support to their workers of various kinds. And meanwhile, many of us have kids and we don’t have any support for daycare.

So like, I think that’s one thing to be thinking about. Like, can we get daycare on premises? Like, can we recognize  interdependence, dependence, both the employer and the employee in all of this?

Sam: I would say one of the things in the book that stood out to me was, you know, you have this conversation about the fact that certain jobs out there are, you know, looking for workers for essentially low wage work and demanding more credentials than ever. You know, it’s like you’re asking for folks for a $15 an hour job now to have a master’s degree, and it feels like the credentials in many ways keep going up. The wage doesn’t necessarily change. I’m sure as you know, and it’s been what 30 years productivity has gone up and wages have stayed largely flat. 

You know, I guess what– it feels so much about what I read, and the question really is that so many people are not aware of what the majority of workers go through day to day. And I think you do a great job in the book of raising thoughts that people should have about a worker who they may walk by, they may buy something from they may engage with, but may not consider  their pathway to work every day.

I guess, was there anything else that you felt? I mean, tell me what you think about that. I mean, it just feels like so much about the way most workers on, you know, the low wage workers often are paid the least and paid the most in our communities, right?  

Alissa: Yeah, I mean, one of the things that was awakening for me, and this is related to Economic Hardship Reporting Project again, was I had assigned a piece to a writer called Ann Larson.

I think I do mention her in “Bootstrapped.” But she said, like, had this incredible sentence in the piece that I edited of her, so I think it was her first published piece. She was working at a grocery store in Utah. And this was the heart of the pandemic, beginning of the pandemic, putting herself at great risk.

And she said, I am curbside delivery. And it was a real revelation because if you were hanging out with middle class people during the pandemic, they were like boasting about how they found curbside delivery. Do you remember that moment where it’s like, yeah, like, there’s a great health food store, you know, on the, you know, other side of the highway that, you know, we can get curbs– and I was like, this woman who’s a writer and an organizer and a brilliant person is able to say this, like, that’s a human being.

And it’s almost like– even the language had kind of  subtracted the human element. And to me, that was a real revelation. Just to think about curbside delivery is a person. And I think that’s something that I want to keep getting at and phrases like unskilled labor. You know, anybody who’s ever tried to make a pizza knows that there’s no such thing as unskilled labor.

You know, I make pizza for my kid. It’s really hard. It’s like, it is not a thin crust. And I think that the people who make these pizzas are often called unskilled laborers, right? Or people in a department store. This was, you know,  Barbara Ehrenreich’s famous example that, you know, if you work in a lingerie department and you have to give people, you know, not just SKU codes, but tell them where to find the bras.

That’s– I’m not sure I’d be able to do that. Right. That’s a kind of  almost visual thinking. And again, we call that a lot of that kind of work unskilled labor. So, I think that those are things that I’d like to bring to the fore as well, the pull yourself up by your bootstraps idea also rests on the contempt for the people who haven’t done that. 

But the people who haven’t done that and are unskilled are often not as abject as kind of the American system of value would have it. Like we just think of them as low wage workers that are kind of this like faceless mass, but I think some of these things that we need to start doing is using different kinds of language.

And one of the things that struck me about the pandemic language too, is we call them frontline workers and essential workers, and they’ve always already been essential workers right. They’ve- and instead, we’ve called them unskilled often. And there was a moment of romanticization and hazard pay. And that’s obviously been clawed back, but that standing is something that I’d like to keep in our minds.

Employers should be keeping that in their minds, too, that at one point, you know, the people on the bottom of their, you know, whatever pay scale were considered essential often.  

Sam: When you wrote in the title, right, “Liberating Ourselves from–” you know, “the American Dream,”  do you think we need a new American dream? 

Alissa: Yeah, I do. And so I should clarify, like, first of all, the original American dream as it was coined in 1931, the by James Treslow or Trueslow Adams wasn’t our American dream. And it was– he even had a sentence that was something like, you know, for every citizen, no matter rank and status, right? And he really did see it both as a collective dream and also something that everybody had access to and not just the people who worked the hardest or the people who already had an advantage baked in.

And like a lot of these other stories, like meritocracy, which by the way was coined in 1958 as a negative thing. We need to start questioning the American dream as it’s come to be because what it was initially was something different. And when we’re thinking about this new American dream, like I have lots of solutions in my books around that. Many of them are smaller, you know, they’re things like, you know, workers cooperatives or mutual aid or new kinds of philanthropy that is kind of grassroots and like not just giving money to Yale and Johns Hopkins, which is what’s typical, but giving it to community colleges and giving it to apprenticeship programs. 

Giving it to historically black colleges like this is starting to happen. Mackenzie Scott has been doing that. But that’s one way to get to a new American dream, to make it accessible and to make it  supported. So workers cooperatives, again, when somebody owns part of their workplace. And I interviewed people at six different worker co-ops around the country about that, about what it meant to work for an auto shop where you– it’s a co-op or to work for a farm where you sort of own the farm.

You work for a catering company where you own the catering company or work for an app or a driver’s app where you own the app. And the level of pride and also kind of power that you might feel, that you might feel like you’re closing in on that dream. And so these are ways that I was thinking towards a new American dream.

I mean, some of them are also political, some of them are also about mindset. So I have lots of thoughts on that, but I don’t think we should totally give up on the American dream. I think we might have to go back to the earlier version of it to get to the better version that awaits us.  

Sam: You mentioned earlier talking about children. You know, I have a six year old daughter. You know, I think a lot about the kind of work she will be doing. And I think more and more. As I look around, we’re about to be in the midst, I think, in just a few weeks of another presidential election starting up.  What do you say to young people who may be listening, who are in the workforce?

What would you say to them around what they should be? You know, a word of advice or something to be considering as they prepare to go to can’t believe I’m saying this so early–to, you know, to fill that to submit their ballot, for not just for all up and down the ballot, not just the President, but for federal state local. What should they be thinking about at this moment as they think about their future and how they can be a part of maybe amending or creating a better American dream. 

Alissa: Yeah, well, so I wrote a little bit about something called participatory budgeting. And those are these groups that are now in cities where people kind of become engaged in their local government.  And where their budget goes and diverting budgets from say, I mean, this was the one that the famous example in Seattle away from say, policing budgets to and not entirely, but to shift some of that budget to from policing to like other kinds of  housing and other local local matters parks, you know, so that’s one thing that seemed like a new, new thing.

New kind of collective enterprise that was a new kind of American dream. A lot of it’s voting and voting for people who may not be traditionally– who we associate with politicians. I mean, over, I think 51 percent of our representatives are millionaires and above. And that’s– we need to really think about what it means when, you know, 47 percent of Americans can’t afford three months of the expenses and urgency.

And yet our politicians are– more than that number of our politicians, a percent of politicians are billionaires. They’re kind of out of touch with what we need. So when going to the ballot, I think we need to start thinking like forget the self made man myth that Trump was pimping and a lot of our biggest CEOs, Elon Musk, et cetera, kind of trade in their fake self made men.

By the way, they started on the second or third base usually right? And looking to people who actually understand what it means to work for ordinary salary. I’m thinking about Perez who is a representative of Washington state, whose full name is Marie, Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, who was a rep in Washington state who ran an auto body shop and made $34,000.

I think her husband made like $42,000. And she drove only used cars and she even said that and I was like, oh, that’s very powerful, like to have somebody who really understands really what it means to work for an hourly wage. Since this is our big issue right now. I mean, it’s economic for most people.

And then, you know, I bring up this example often. Maxwell Alejandro Frost the representative of Southern Florida, who didn’t have enough money to rent an apartment in D. C. when he was elected. He was 26 years old. He was elected to Congress, so he couch surfed at friends houses, and he came out as doing that, and then was maligned by the RNC and other kinds of like Republican Twitter accounts, and he said, you know, I don’t buy into this bootstrap stuff. And I think it is important to be thinking about voting people who, like millennials and Gen Zers, have not had the financial advantages of  Sexagenarians, you know, but the politicians that are older and part of it is they had– they grew up in a moment of far greater mobility, but it’s important to have people who didn’t have that representing you because they really know what you’re going through. 

Sam: Yeah, it’s okay to be self made once you’re there, but not to be self made in the process, not the process of it, we don’t want to, you know. 

Alissa: That’s exactly what’s interesting, right? Like, it’s almost like the storytelling is really interesting in that way. Like, you can’t be, yeah, you can’t be a Horatio Alger story, so to speak, in media res, like happening.

You have to– it must have happened like 50 years ago in Scranton, right? We’re in Queens,  which didn’t happen, but Trump would say it did happen. 

Sam: Yeah. Right. No, totally. Melissa, I appreciate you taking time. One final question for you. What is your hope for the future of work? 

Alissa: Well, I’m really hoping that I mean, union numbers are going down, but interest in union is going up.

My hope is not that they’re a perfect panacea, but that there is more engagement in workplace organizing to me. That’s the one of the best things that we have going. That in journalism, because I’m a media expert and I run a non profit around media, it’s more philanthropic dollars given to grassroots media organizations and not just to, you know, the biggest non profits, but to places like mine, but even smaller, you know, EHRP is a medium sized or like a small to medium sized media non profit. But there’s tens, if not hundreds of media nonprofits that are local, they’re like Arizona Luminaria.

Beautiful, cool names. Maine, and they’re, you know, really watchdogs right now in the local environment, so that’s one thing I’m hoping. I’m hoping that more of that kind of new philanthropy that’s thinking on the ground level, not just on the bird’s eye level, will go to those folks and support media and media workers increasingly on the local level. 

So yeah, I guess it’s two part more unionization. We’re also like alternative unions. Like, there’s no nonprofits that are engaged in this where they’re trying to teach workers how to advocate for themselves. So that to me is also really useful. And, you know, some of its internal, like, we have to sort of think as workers.

My generation and younger, you know we’ve been told we can do what we love, but then sometimes you do what you love and then you wind up unemployed or doing brain work that’s gig work and how to fight for that balance to do the kind of work we care about and to get adequate payment and protections.

And so, yeah, a lot of that’s political too, you know.

Sam: Alissa, thanks for taking time. 

Alissa: Thank you very much.

Topics Discussed: Future of Work, Workforce, Education, Training, Politics, American Dream, Work, Jobs

Dana Bernardino, Manager of Digital Marketing at 1Huddle

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