Magazine | February 25, 2019, Issue

Those Bootstraps Still Work

(Ryan McVay/Getty Images)
Character, choice, and the reality of personal responsibility

To spend time working closely with poor and working-class young people is to be struck by two things at once: how close and yet how far away are the solutions to the economic and often psychological malaise that grips so very many American communities.

How close are the solutions? Sometimes they seem very close indeed. I remember my friend Brian (not his real name). He was a young man in crisis. The child of a broken home, the son of an alcoholic father, he had just graduated from high school, and he was slipping away. He didn’t have a place to live, he was starting to drink all day and all night, and he was considering moving away from the only people who cared about him — back to a parent who’d already failed him once.

Together with friends from church, my wife and I went to work. We set him up in an apartment next to our house, paid his first month’s rent, and dropped by constantly. Friends got him a good job that would teach him a trade. Next, he found a girlfriend. A year later I was at his wedding. Soon after that, he bought his first home. And now? He’s a member of the upper middle class — living the American dream and raising kids that some would call “children of privilege.”

So, it’s easy, right? A lot of love, a little money, and a nudge in the right direction, and poverty is over. The solution is right there. So we tried it again. The next young man stole from us, broke into our car repeatedly, and disappeared. Next, my wife mentored a young woman who drifted away, only to die in a car accident out west. Time and again the young-adult ministry we volunteered for in our exurban Kentucky home reached out, embraced a struggling man or woman, and tried to help him or her find the right path.

I can remember helping young men fill out college applications. I taught some how to present themselves in an interview. We went shopping countless times, finding the right clothes. We hung out — for hours on end — talking about life, about marriage, and about the God who could save their souls.

And most of the time we failed. People passed in and out of our little ministry. What at first seemed easy was hard. But it wasn’t from a lack of opportunity. These were people who could learn a trade. Most could go to community college. Many had the skills and intelligence to get a four-year degree. Financial aid was available. Scholarships were available. But they didn’t take the opportunities they had. Nobody was blocking their path. In fact, there were people doing their best to push them along — to put them in a position to succeed. But they wouldn’t take the steps. They wouldn’t walk the walk.

It turns out that the bottle has its charms. So does weed — or stronger things. And the youthful experimentation and mistakes that characterize many now-successful adults can drag down people with less self-discipline and fewer role models. Even the most loving church ministry cannot truly fill the void left by an absent father. And when the men and boys in the neighborhood all seem to suffer from that same loss (and our struggles mainly were with men and boys, the population even now falling behind in school and dealing with a generation of stagnant wages), it can feel as if the most well-intentioned outside intervention is a mere drop of hope in an ocean of despair.

The Right is now having a new version of an old fight. Is a person’s success or failure mainly dependent on his personal choices or on the operation of larger, impersonal forces over which he has no control? The key word here is “mainly.” No reasonable person believes that economics, culture, and history have no influence over human choices. At the same time, no reasonable person believes that individuals — especially in contemporary America — are entirely imprisoned by circumstance.  

There are, however, ways in which political actors can put a hard cap on individual achievement. Slavery is the most obvious example. The hardest-working, most responsible slaves in the world could never, ever rise out of slavery by dint of sheer effort alone. They could do everything perfectly. They could live with exemplary character. But whether they died in bondage was completely up to their masters.

The Jim Crow South was almost as bad. When Martin Luther King Jr. wrote that millions of Americans were “denied a good education, adequate health services, decent housing, meaningful employment, and even respect,” and were then “told to be responsible,” the word “denied” all too often meant denied by law and policy. Black Americans were segregated, redlined, and intentionally deprived of educational resources. The government for them was a bootheel, pressing down on their necks.

On June 11, 1963, when George Wallace made his infamous stand, it was entirely right and proper for black Americans to say that they could not progress until that man got out of that door.

By one generation after Jim Crow, 20 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Acts, conservatives made a different argument to poor and working-class black Americans: The bootheel is largely gone. The consequences are with us, yes, but instead of pressing you down, government is focused on lifting you up. There is a path forward, to prosperity. It takes hard work. It takes perseverance. But success is attainable, through your efforts.

Before we ever heard the term “success sequence,” we said the same thing in different words. Get married and stay married. Get a job. Wait until after you get married to have kids. Do those things, we argued, and you can enjoy the American dream. Sure, it’s hard. But opportunity is right there, waiting for you. Take it. It’s yours. We pushed the message so hard that we oversold it. We minimized the legacy of centuries of real and intentional oppression.

But while conservatives may have oversold individual effort as a cure-all, we were still rightly skeptical of the ability of the government to undo even the damage it caused. When military forces bomb a city, a government can reconstruct the buildings. But can it repair shattered hearts and damaged souls? Similarly, when a government spends more than three centuries intentionally oppressing a defined group of citizens, it creates wounds that, sadly, no government program can truly heal. The government can help or hurt, with various policies and initiatives, but the truly hard work is done by the individuals affected. They stagger, they stand up, they put one foot in front of the other, and, if given half the chance, they do remarkable things.

So conservatives tried to teach this hard truth, with varying degrees of compassion and understanding, and with varying degrees of commitment to the ideas and programs that could do some good.

But then our politics changed, and they changed rather abruptly. A key part of a traditional Democratic constituency, the white working class, began to change sides. A struggling American population, the white working class that once sided with Reagan, returned to the GOP, a suddenly very different GOP. And — well — “Up from your bootstraps” began to fall by the wayside.

An early warning sign came when my colleague Kevin D. Williamson was excoriated for sharing one of the most basic messages of self-help: If there are no jobs in your town, move, he counseled. The populist wave built, and with it a tale that sounded very strange to conservative ears. The struggling white working class had been victimized. It needed primarily a political rescue. The notion that the government can help at the margins but that self-improvement is mainly up to the individual was replaced by an angry victim narrative. And the victimizers? The “elites,” of course.

This is the thrust of a monologue delivered by Tucker Carlson — an impassioned attack on an American ruling class that he cast as callous, as worshipping the free market at the expense of people’s well-being. “Increasingly,” he said, “marriage is a luxury only the affluent in America can afford.” As to jobs, manufacturing in America has “all but disappeared.” He portrayed young Americans as a generation of burnouts, the victims of politicians attracted to the money of marijuana producers. All in all, he cast the story of the American working class as a tale of calamity that the powerful had inflicted on the powerless.

Other smart commentators weighed in. Ross Douthat in the New York Times characterized an argument I had made — that there are wounds public policy can’t heal — as “a crucial conservative insight, a caution for policymakers everywhere.” But, he added, “it can also become a trap, a cul-de-sac, an excuse for doing nothing.”

But when have thinking conservatives looked at American public policy and proposed . . . nothing?

In a recent National Review Online essay, “Different Races, Same Boat,” Utah senator Mike Lee cited the Martin Luther King Jr. comment above. Millions of Americans, he said, are still “denied” a decent education, good health care, and a meaningful wage.

“Denied.” That’s a powerful, loaded word. Denied by whom? Who is standing in that schoolhouse door? Whose bootheel is on their necks?

This is where the American story really gets complicated. There is no single movement, person, or idea to blame. There is no politician we can remove, no law (or collection of laws) we can change. There is no clock we can turn back that can transform the history or nature of American opportunity. The plight of the American working class is a result of many, many factors working together, but no single factor is more important than the oppression visited on the individual by himself.

Has American manufacturing disappeared? No. Absolutely not. According to the Federal Reserve, its output is almost twice what it was a generation ago. But has American manufacturing employment declined? Yes. Absolutely yes. That means productivity has increased, substantially. But which set of public policies would have preserved employment while also preserving the productivity necessary to keep American manufacturing competitive?

On that point, ideas are thin on the ground.

Do economic stressors place strains on marriage? Yes. Absolutely yes. But is the decline in American marriage and the rise of illegitimacy directly related to American economic outcomes? No. Absolutely not. In 1940, just after the Great Depression, American prosperity was in doubt, racial oppression was rampant, and economic insecurity afflicted countless households. Yet data from the Centers for Disease Control show that the illegitimacy rate was below 10 percent.

In the Sixties, the illegitimacy rate began its long, terrible climb. Through good times and bad — through war and peace — the siren song of the sexual revolution changed American lives. Even when American manufacturing employment grew, so did the illegitimacy rate. It grew during recessions. It grew during economic booms. Steadily, inexorably, it grew until it was outrageously high, even before the “trade shocks” at the turn of the century that made it harder for working-class uneducated men to find jobs that paid enough to support a family.

And let’s talk a bit about manufacturing and American competitiveness. No one should forget that the “good old days” of American manufacturing began when the cities of our international competitors were in ruins. In the aftermath of World War II, the titans of Germany and Japan were piles of rubble. Great Britain was exhausted. France was recovering. China was still a peasant society, suffering from immense losses in World War II and wracked by a civil war. Could anyone reasonably believe that American economic dominance would continue on the scale of the post-war years?

The “victimizers” of American workers weren’t just the dreaded “elites” but also the ordinary citizens of countries across the globe — men and women who dug out from the rubble, rebuilt their nations, and started producing some of the best products in the world, products that enriched countless American lives.

And we haven’t even begun to tap into the changes wrought by immense leaps forward in technology — leaps forward that were often the products of American ingenuity that created American jobs.

Yes, all of these changes produced challenges. But through those challenges, there remained a path to fulfillment. Remember the way forward that conservatives preached to the urban, mainly black poor? Remember the “success sequence”? It still works. If Americans do these three simple things, in order — finish high school, get married, and then have children — they will probably be upwardly mobile. Even if they’re poor. According to a 2017 Institute for Family Studies and American Enterprise Institute study, a full 71 percent of even low-income Millennials who follow the success sequence will attain the “middle or higher end of the income distribution by the time they are age 28–34.”

Why are there relatively few intact, married families among America’s poor and working classes? In part, it’s because intact, married families move up the class ladder. In fact, one reason the American middle class is shrinking is that the upper middle class is growing. America is still the land of opportunity.

Let’s finish where we started, with individuals. When a man is at a bar and the mother of his child is at home, which member of the elite, which public policy, makes him smile back at the woman across the room? When a teenager has to get up for the early class but wants to sleep in — and then wants to sleep in again tomorrow — name the politician who is responsible for his failing grade in chemistry, his wasted student loan, and the feeling of disappointment when he drops out of college after one semester. Whose fault is it when a young man fails a drug test because he didn’t skip the bong on a night out with friends?

These are the things that help define human lives — more than the actions of bankers, more than the policies of Chinese Communists, and more than the arguments of elite progressive cultural revolutionaries. None of this is to argue that public policy doesn’t matter. It matters. It’s good, for example, that my home state of Tennessee offers a “Tennessee Promise” opportunity for all high-school graduates: They can attend community college for free. They can learn a trade without paying a single tuition dollar. An opportunity is right there, for every young person to seize.

But why, then, don’t more young men and women seize that opportunity? Annual reports from the Tennessee Higher Edu­cation Commission show that the people who take the scholarships tend to have higher academic achievement and higher median income than those who don’t. When an opportunity requires discipline, the disciplined will likely seize it, and some of that discipline comes from parents who refuse to let their children watch an opportunity pass them by.

Is there a boot on the neck of the working-class American? Yes, there is. Sadly, it is typically a man’s own boot. His own choices weigh him down. His own decisions destroy his future. Elites can help, and elites can hurt, but in the United States a man can still make his own way. If he can’t, the first person he should blame is the person who stares back at him in the mirror. The primacy of personal responsibility over public policy isn’t outdated conservative dogma. It’s cold, hard pragmatic fact.

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David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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