Horatio Alger’s Long Shadow: Blaming the Poor in American History

Upon viewing this sign, Jesus Christ, a guy who once told people to

Upon viewing this sign, Jesus Christ, a guy who once told people to “sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven,” was reported to have metaphorically spun in his empty grave.

Have you ever been poor? Have you ever lived in a state of poverty where the basic necessities of life, such as food, water, shelter, and income security barely existed? If not, then count yourself lucky. Really lucky. Because being poor is awful. It’s not just damaging to every aspect of your physical health and well-being; it’s also psychologically damaging in that being poor tends to reinforce a sense of despair that leads to viewing poverty as an inescapable trap. In a column for Pacific Standard, Paul Hiebert recently reported on a new Harvard study that explains how poverty reinforces itself:

Being broke is tough. Not only does a lack of money restrict what you can do, but now your survival also involves an endless amount of compromise over the most basic of goods and services…it’s like browsing the Internet while your computer downloads a file, ad infinitum. It’s impossible to stop dwelling on unpaid utility bills when you have absolutely no idea how you’re going to pay them.

Yet, for all of the physical and mental misery that poverty causes, a huge chunk of Americans continue to blame the poor for being poor, with some particularly repugnant Sarlaccs even going so far as to claim that poor people enjoy being poor. This type of thinking is not only morally vacuous, it’s also contrary to significant evidence that a host of structural problems, including income inequality and the devaluing of wages, are to blame for the existence of poverty in the United States.

Yet blaming the poor for their condition remains a central tool in the arsenal of American conservatives like pestilent boil and spewer of septic radio sludge Rush Limbaugh, who routinely claims that the poor simply “don’t want to work.” A variant of this theme echoes at the top levels of government. Former Republican vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan, for example, justifies his plans to shred the American safety net by claiming that “it lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency” and  “drains them of their will and their incentive to make the most of their lives.” Ryan, a guy who got a big boost early on from Social Security and has amassed a fair share of government subsidies, never provides evidence for this assertion.

On the one hand, its easy to characterize the “blame the poor” trend as yet another example of conservatives’ perpetual aversion to nuance in favor of black-and-white thinking. But the idea that the poor are poor due to their own moral failings has a long history and is deeply entrenched in American culture. The reason for the “blame the poor” response is rooted in the persistence of “rags to riches,” or “bootstrap” mythology, which postulates that America is the land of political and economic freedom in which even the poorest and humblest individual can “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” and achieve economic success. In this vision of American society, those who fail to succeed have only themselves to blame, since America afforded them every opportunity for success in exchange provided they work hard.

No American made more hay out of the “bootstrap” myth than the nineteenth-century author Horatio Alger, Jr. During the Gilded Age, Alger wrote hundreds of cheap, juvenile novels that espoused the “rags to riches” theme. Alger’s works, especially his most famous book, Ragged Dick (1868), were fictional accounts of young boys born into poverty who nonetheless achieved economic success in American society through a potent combination of hard work, determination, self-reliance, and an embracing of capitalist virtues. Alger’s novels were simplified depictions of individuals who achieved the American dream: the idea that because the U.S. eschewed the inherited wealth of Old Europe, hard work and self-reliance would ensure that even Americans from the humblest beginnings could achieve social and economic success — maybe even become president. Thus, Alger helped promulgate the myth of the “self-made man.”

Alger’s writings are painfully lacking in nuance, but they struck a chord with Gilded Age readers — and continue to indirectly influence contemporary Americans — because the cultural view of the United States as the “land of opportunity” is based, to a point, on historical truths. Especially in the nineteenth century, the U.S. did indeed provide much opportunity to both American-born citizens and immigrants from all over the world who took advantage of its dynamic capitalist system to achieve success.

Horatio Alger, Jr. This guy has proven to be a major historical pain in the arse.

Horatio Alger, Jr. This guy has proven to be a major historical pain in the arse.

On the other hand, Alger’s depiction of the American dream was also stunningly simplistic to the point where he largely ignored the other realities of Gilded Age American life. These included the monopolistic practices of trust-forming big businesses that stifled competition, the rampant urban and rural poverty experienced by millions, and a thoroughly corrupted political system in which big business aligned itself with the state to crush labor rights and enact protectionist policies that mocked the concept of “free markets.” In an era when the rise of massive, vertically integrated and politically connected corporations threatened market competition and seemed on the verge of perpetuating a permanently impoverished laboring class, Horatio Alger’s “bootstrap” myth was more than just harmless fantasy, it also gave those with the most economic power an excuse to blame the poor for their condition.

The influence of the Alger “bootstrap” myth played right into the hands of tycoons who bought into Social Darwinist ideas about human society. Adopting a pseudo-scientific idea that, when taken to its logically illogical conclusion, nearly wiped out much of the human race, Social Darwinists wrongheadedly applied Charles Darwin’s theories of natural selection to human social organization. Thus, “intellectual” nitwits like Herbert Spencer (the mutton-chopped ogre who coined the term “survival of the fittest,” and about whom I wrote in an earlier article) claimed that capitalism was the perfect, organic system for separating the human wheat from the human chaff. The Alger “bootstrap” myth played right into Social Darwinists’ hands by providing a cultural template that explained in simple fashion why those who worked hard could succeed in America, and why those that failed to succeed simply didn’t work hard enough.

The steel industrialist Andrew Carnegie, whose free-market hypocrisy I described in a an earlier blogpost, was among the most vociferous proponents of Social Darwinism via laissez-faire capitalism. But he often wrapped his paternalistic ideas in rhetoric that stressed the moral duties of businessmen to give back to their communities in the form of philanthropy. Carnegie’s support for philanthropy allowed him to maintain power over workers while simultaneously claiming that he was looking after their best interests. Implicit in his ideology was the idea of the capitalist marketplace as moral playing field: because he had lived the Alger dream, having risen from rags to riches as a Scottish immigrant to America, others who failed to do the same should not be rewarded with welfare that allegedly fueled idleness.

In his essay the Gospel of Wealth (1889), Carnegie claimed that the charge of the wealthy paternalist was to guide and look after his workers. The “duty of the man of wealth,” he wrote, was to act as the “mere agent and trustee for his poorer brethren, bringing to their service his superior wisdom, experience and ability to administer, doing for them better than they would or could do for themselves.” The paternalistic undertones of this quote are laid bare when you consider Carnegie’s hard-line anti-union stance and his obsessive desire to get the most out his workers for the least possible amount of pay. 

Carnegie believed that workers should have as little control over their own destinies as possible. Unions and higher wages threatened his power as a “superior” employer, which is why he preferred them to be beholden to “better” men like himself who had proved their worth via the marketplace. Implicit in Carnegie’s words is the idea of workers as men who failed Alger’s “bootstrap” test. Carnegie’s ideology was not lost on workers. In 1894, an anonymous “workman” published a brutally satirical response to Carnegie in a Pittsburgh labor paper:

Oh, Almighty Andrew Philanthropist Library Carnegie…Oh, lord and master, we love thee because you and other great masters of slaves favor combines and trusts to enslave and make paupers of us all. We love thee though our children are clothed in rags. We love thee though our wives . . .

Oh, master, we thank thee for all the free gifts you have given the public at the expense of your slaves. . . Oh, master, we need no protection, we need no liberty so long as we are under thy care. So we command ourselves to thy mercy and forevermore sing thy praise.

Carnegie’s union-busting and support for wage-slavery was “blame the poor” ideology in action. He had no trouble establishing libraries and donating musical instruments to the poor, but giving them agency over their own labor was another thing entirely. As Carnegie noted in the Gospel of Wealth, recognizing workers’ rights or giving out too much welfare risked enabling “lesser” members of the human race to promulgate their laziness. “Neither the individual nor the race is improved by alms-giving,” he noted, “those worthy of assistance…seldom require assistance. The really valuable men of the race never do, except in cases of accident or sudden change.” With those lines, Carnegie, ever the true Social Darwinist, claimed that “valuable” people didn’t need handouts and that the poor got what they deserved, a type of rhetoric that still thrives in contemporary American conservative circles.

Carnegie’s and other Gilded Age tycoons’ inflated sense of their own superiority as achievers in business often overshadowed the simplicity of Alger’s “bootstrap” ideal. As the satirical “workman’s” letter recognized, Carnegie and his ilk employed trusts and cartels for the purpose of establishing monopolistic capitalism that thwarted market competition via consolidation and price-fixing and exploited workers to the point where advancement on the job was often a pipe dream.

The worst of this bunch were the railroad barons who, in the 1870s, organized themselves into price-fixing cartels that divided up rail traffic amongst themselves and set freight rates. When this scheme collapsed in the 1880s, the railroad barons instead controlled competition by jointly constructing massive, but shoddy rail networks in order to drive smaller competitors out of business. This was, of course, the same group of industrialists who urged the poor to make it on their own by pulling up their bootstraps and competing in the American free market.

Conservatives have been blaming the the poor for being poor for a long time, right Newt?

Conservatives have been blaming the the poor for being poor for a long time, right Newt?

The disconnect between the reality of structural hindrances to social and economic advancement and Horatio Alger’s myth of “bootstrap” advancement retains a pernicious influence on contemporary American society. As Time reported last year, the myth of “bootstrapping” continues to overshadow the growing difficulties of social mobility in the United States. Citing a Pew Research Study, Time’s Noliwe Rooks reported that:

Social mobility between the lowest levels of American society and the middle class is increasingly difficult, if not impossible. Specifically, the study found that while a large number of Americans (84 percent) have a higher family income than did their parents, those born at both the top and the bottom of the “income ladder” stay where they are from one generation to the next.

If Americans ever want to get serious about alleviating poverty, they’re going to have to seriously drop the outdated Horatio Alger “bootstrap” myth and recognize that while capitalism does indeed create wealth and provide a better standing of living for many people, it’s also a system created by humans that can be subjected to the worst human ideas. We’ve all met lazy people, but they do not represent the reality of the poor in America. Most of the poor in America are the working poor, whose hopes for social advancement have been steadily diminished by structural attacks on unions and wages, lack of flexibility with regards to health insurance, and the race-to-the-bottom style of twenty-first century globalization.

Yet, despite all of the structural issues contributing to income inequality and poverty, and despite the effects of the Great Recession, Horatio Alger keeps peering out from the closed curtains of the past, insisting that those faced with daunting unemployment pick themselves up by their bootstraps and just get a job already. The “bootstrap” myth resurfaces in criticisms of supposed millennial generation sloth, in Republican dismissals of alleged “lazy blacks” who don’t want to work, and, of course, in conservative claims that the “working poor” don’t exist. The clowns who lob such simplistic statements with gleeful abandon still subscribe to the Alger “bootstrap” myth, and, like the Gilded Age tycoons before them, they’re too concerned with consolidating the power of the ruling plutocracy to look beyond such black-and-white views. The only way to end the “blame the poor” trend is to kill Horatio Alger once and for all, which, as history has shown, is easier said than done.

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0 Comments

  1. Until “Who Built America?” becomes THE official history of the U.S. taught in EVERY public school and university, such propaganda will continue to enable them “Who Rules America?” and public schools will continue to churn out nothing but mindless consumers. See American Social History Project (ASHP) – Center for Media & Learning (CML), CUNY, Prof. G. William Domhoff, UC Santa Cruz, and John Taylor Gatto.

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