A pile of books, called "Boostrapped: Liberating ourselves from the American dream" by Alissa Quart

Alissa Quart, director of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project (EHRP), recently authored a book called Bootstrapped: Liberating Ourselves from the American Dream.  Earlier this year, I had to chance to talk with Quart about her new book, her description of contemporary US social policy as having created a “dystopian social safety net,” and her thoughts about how to build a US society that is centered on mutual caring and economic justice.

Interview has been edited for length and clarity. [SD]

Steve Dubb: Can you explain what led you to write Bootstrapped, and how do you feel that your new book differs from or builds on the work you did in previous books like Squeezed?

Alissa Quart: Definitely, it builds on Squeezed. My tagline for Squeezed was: “It’s not your fault.” By the end of it, I was asking myself: “Why do people think poverty is their fault? And why do other people think that people who are struggling, not just the poor, but the people who are sliding down from the middle class, are themselves the ones to blame for their problems?”

And I felt that there has got to be an ideological undercurrent to this. It is not just human nature. It’s not. So, I started to read many of the early texts around this: Benjamin Franklin, Henry Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Horatio Alger—I read a lot of Horatio Alger, Ayn Rand. Also, I re-read Laura Ingalls Wilder, an author I had loved as a child.

I hadn’t realized how much Little House of the Prairie was an angry repudiation of the New Deal and Franklin Delano Roosevelt and was super Hooverian, inspired by [President Herbert] Hoover and other people, and that Ingalls Wilder’s daughter was this fire-breathing, right-wing libertarian. But the books were wildly popular, had come from a certain place, and had spread a message around this—which obviously then got filtered into people’s consciousnesses.

And I went through a lot of political speeches—I was looking at Hoover’s political speeches, Ronald Reagan’s political speeches, Bill Clinton’s political speeches—all of whom spoke about people being responsible for their own condition. The “end of welfare as we know it” is not all that different than the philosophy that Ma and Pa need to be free to farm. And in that story, federal government policies, such as the Homestead Act, had never helped them, even though of course they did.

“A lot of nonprofits put on do-it-yourself, taped together programs that have this orientation of a dystopian social safety net. Stuff that shouldn’t exist but does because we have to rely on ourselves.”

SD: In Bootstrapped, you describe key aspects of the nation’s social support system—or non-system, as the case may be—as a “dystopian social safety net.”  What led you to come up with that term?

AQ: When I first came up with the term, I just was thinking that there were warming centers that were opening. I guess this was 2017 or 2018. I saw signs for them—places in Northeastern and Midwestern cities. People who are unhoused or between houses could go there to warm up in cold weather. This struck me as something that was really depressing. This is something that shouldn’t need to exist.

Then I started to ask myself: “How many programs are [there] like this?” A lot of nonprofits put on do-it-yourself, taped together programs that have this orientation of a dystopian social safety net. Stuff that shouldn’t exist but does because we have to rely on ourselves and rely on the taped together Rube Goldberg contraption of nonprofits and individual small community efforts to make things work in this country.

Which is not to say a dystopian social safety net is always bad. EHRP is part of the dystopian social safety net. We are here supporting reporters and photographers because publications are no longer doing it. A lot of nonprofits fall into that category.

In Bootstrapped, I wanted to show the ideological underpinnings of some of the ways we help ourselves. It’s almost like a riddle. Most of them shouldn’t exist, but they have to exist, including GoFundMe. Two or three subjects in my book relied on it for school lunches, for medical care, all the stuff that again is not covered by health insurance. Go Fund Me is part of the dystopian social safety net.

SD: Could you define what you mean by a “dystopian social safety net”? How does it function? You gave a couple of examples. But can you build that out?

AQ: It’s like a ragtag network of different social formations. It ranges from warming centers to colleagues using a “Go Fund Me” to support a colleague who doesn’t have maternity leave. It is everything from these micro-community efforts to these way bigger organizations that are providing basic services to people that they shouldn’t have to. And these should be within the ambit of the government—and in many other countries they are.

“People who work for Instacart and Door Dash…They are playing the role of care managers or social workers or medical aides sometimes.”

People funding their colleague’s maternity leave would not need to do that in the majority of European countries, right? The network that is helping get people to out-of-state abortion clinics on Reddit—again, if Dobbs didn’t happen, that wouldn’t be necessary. And nonprofits like EHRP wouldn’t be necessary if we didn’t have rapacious owners of publications who want more than 20 percent, even 30 percent, profit margins. There are different causes. But often in this country it is a lack of a safety net that individuals and groups are forced to come in and make work.

SD: Is gig work also a part of that?

AQ: That hadn’t struck me initially. But when I talked with people who work for Instacart and DoorDash, it became clear that often they are. They are coming to the door. They are carrying groceries further in than they should. If somebody is not doing well, they are calling 9-1-1. They are playing the role of care managers or social workers or medical and disability aides for people. Some of the Instacart workers that I spoke to told me that a lot of their common delivery schedule was with people who are using wheelchairs.

They felt that they were part of the social service system. This is super dystopian. You have to pay a fee and all of this over stuff for your groceries in order to get the aid that, if you’re disabled, you should be getting anyway.

SD: A lot of this dystopian safety net can be described as workarounds. Can you talk about the tension between how these workarounds make life better in one sense, and yet can also undermine systemic efforts to fix the underlying problem?

AQ: Potentially it can. Some of the strategies that I am most excited about are efforts like mutual aid and participatory budgeting, where people are actively pouring energy back into [strengthening] local government. Participatory budgeting is happening in hundreds of cities across the country where groups of citizens vote on how to spend a discrete amount of money, often in the millions of dollars. What I love about these new initiatives is the recognition that there has to be a relationship between elected officials and the people who elect them.

I have also been interested in the organizing. Suddenly, there is an awareness of the power of a labor movement in ways that there hadn’t been in a long time, and how to be in solidarity with other workers.

I am pointing at the positive stuff. These are ways that we can pour back the energy into something more systemic and not just correct what is in front of us.

But I also write about how great volunteerism is, and I talked with some people who were really great volunteers during the pandemic. They recognized it. They told me, “I don’t want to be the person doing this. This isn’t what should be happening. I’m not the person who should be using the test strips or getting people to their vaccine appointments or getting them masks. This is really wrong, and this is kind of letting the local governments off the hook.” I think that was interesting. In the volunteerism section of the book, I was trying to show the nobility of some these folks and how frustrating and angering it is that they have to do this.

SD: Another theme that you have written about is how the red tape in accessing social benefits is not a glitch, but rather is an intended policy design feature that keeps millions of people from accessing the benefits they qualify for. Can you elaborate on this?

AQ: I wrote about this last year for the Washington Post. “Administrative burden” is what Pamela Herd and Don Moynihan call it.

COVID cut that red tape in many areas. It helped with eviction by putting in place moratoria. It helped with Medicaid enrollment. And it also helped with SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as “food stamps”] enrollment. The requirements for constant reenrollments were slowed down and in some cases were stopped. Those three things were huge.

And what those changes during COVID did was make these programs resemble Social Security, which is easy to access. That is the problem with this administrative burden. It is clearly aimed at people who are lower income—people who are women, women with kids, women of color with kids. I think we need to think about why Social Security is so easy to access, and why we have made these other systems hard, and why COVID made it easier.

During COVID, a lot of people weren’t in the office. There were reasons for it, too, that were institutional. We should ask: “How can we continue some of these things?” The rolling back of these COVID policies is probably already happening, [with potentially] millions of people kicked off the rolls, having to reenroll, going through elaborate processes. Annie Lowrey calls it the time tax. This is just unbearable if you’re a person with a complicated life and children and are working all the time.

“People I know are talking about unionism who are not political. I think there has been a huge shift. It’s been very powerful.”

During the pandemic, SNAP benefits didn’t require in-person interviews. That’s a thing that would be incredibly helpful for recertification. When you have people who have five children and multiple jobs, and you’re asking them to come in person during the day to a SNAP interview, that’s not going to happen.

SD: Do you feel communities are building lasting infrastructure that might lead to a real social safety net, or are folks mostly patching holes that perpetuate the existing system?

AQ: I think there is a lot of the latter, unfortunately. But for me the labor piece is the most inspiring. I know the numbers are not actually increasing in terms of the percentage of workers who are union members. But people want to be in unions. People I know are talking about unionism who are not political. I think there has been a huge shift. It’s been very powerful. It is systemic and values based. Things like mutual aid, worker cooperatives, or even things like user unions of addicts who are engaging in harm reduction. This is like a broader recognition. The recognition part is a form of infrastructure—the awareness is a form of infrastructure.

When I looked into where mutual aid efforts are today, I found they had dissipated. The sites don’t go anywhere. But the idea of mutual aid is an idea that is out there. It is a meme. It is a way of thinking about helping one other. It is not charity. It is a two-way stream: a kind of equivalence—mutual giving and taking. That notion, like the power of labor, has filtered through to people’s consciousness.

SD: Is there anything else you would like to add?

AQ: I think what I’m hoping to do is some myth busting. The dystopian social safety net is part of this myth busting. The fact that people are providing aid is good. But the fact that these practices need to exist is not.

The other myth I am trying to bust is the story of Horatio Alger—he was a monster. If we look at a lot of the people who made the self-made myth—first, they are not actually self-made. They also had many reasons to want to devalue mutualism and community. And they often possessed huge wealth even though that might be denied. It is worth looking at the origins of these ideologies. And to do some biographical reading, which is not what we were told to do in graduate school. But let’s look more carefully at some of the paradoxes of these people who created these stories that we are all living under.