A widely desired association with the American Dream is the ability for an individual to break from the socio-economic class he or she was born into. This concept is known as bootstrapping, and while this may be fairly common in the US compared to other regions of the world, many still believe it is a myth. Many American success stories prove that working to change one’s economic status is definitely possible, however there are many factors that can affect how easy it is for some individuals to achieve. People often think of education and race as classic determining factors of one’s ability to bootstrap, however a less recognized, underlying factor is what is known as the self-fulfilling prophesy. In all simplicity, the self-fulfilling prophesy entails that if you believe you can do something you will succeed, and if you believe you can’t do something you will fail. Factors such as education, location, and race may affect one’s ability to break from his or her socio-economic status, because of the existing inequalities associated with them.

Education and academic achievement is often argued as one of the most important factors that can determine one’s socio-economic status. While education is definitely important, the quality of education does not always limit one’s ability for achievement. So why is there a perception that students of lower socio-economic status do not exceed as much in school? This perception is not incorrect. There is a connection between socio-economic status and academic achievement. A study done on early elementary-aged kids found that in kids of lower socio-economic status, the part of the brain controlling executive function was less developed than kids from higher status families. They hypothesize that this is due to the stressful environment lower socio-economic status children are growing up in (Nesbitt). Another factor affecting the children’s academic achievement are their family’s attitudes surrounding school. Often times school is not a top priority in lower socio-economic class families, so the children are less likely to try as hard if they are not taught that it is important for them to do well. Because of this they fall behind at a young age. This is just one of the applications of the self-fulfilling prophesy. When the children stop trying in school they stop doing as well; and when they stop doing as well they stop believing they are capable of doing well in school. Changing your socio-economic status is hard work, and without the work ethic taught to kids in school, it is less likely for bootstrapping to happen.

Drugs are also often perceived to be associated with those of a lower socio-economic status. However, being born into a specific class does not make you naturally more likely to use drugs. The choice into drugs and other substance use is a life choice available to everyone. There exists a stronger relationship between adolescents partaking in substance use and the existence of an inter-generation effect. An inter-generation effect is when an adolescents’ parents or siblings are using substances, it is more likely for children to begin using those substances at a lower age (Sutherland). This is because children grow up believing that substance use is socially acceptable, and they often have easier access to substances. The largest determinant for an adolescent to experiment with substances remains its prevalence in the child’s life, and when he or she begins using, their grades often drop, leaving them in a more difficult situation to change socio-economic statuses. Thus there is a false connotation that drug use exists in lower socio-economic families just because of their lower status, while in fact it is the habits of the family that effect the child most, and effects the probability for them to bootstrap.

Another association with families of lower socio-economic status is the likelihood for a crime to be committed. However, studies showed that certain personality traits were more than twice as likely to result in a crime than socio-economic status (O’riordan). This idea is often rejected because people do not want to believe that criminals have the same personality traits as the rest of us. The only difference is that criminalistics personalities have these traits in a higher manifestation than the average person. The personality traits used to predict criminal behavior include extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness (O’riordan). In reality, socio-economic status doesn’t determine likelihood of one to commit a crime, but people still perceive it that way because some of those families are under extreme economic stress. Often, people unfortunately believe that when families are stressed economically they will turn to thievery, among other crimes, when that is not the largest type of crime being committed by anyone, even those of a low socio-economic status. The largest type of crime committed by all ranges of socio-economic status is tax evasion or tax fraud. In this case, there is an even playing field for all classes: if you believe that cheating and crime is an expectable way to get what you want, you will do it, whether you are of high or low status. Individuals who choose to partake in criminal activity are effected, however, because if you are convicted of a crime it could affect what jobs you can get, put you in debt, or even in jail. All these effects make it immensely harder to change your socio-economic status.

Location and socio-economic status share a strong direct relationship that is irrefutable. All forms of inequality, now and in the past, can be seen in regards to spatial orientation. The existence of socio-economic classes is a vastly unequal system and that can be seen spatially as well. It makes sense: the gap in socio-economic classes is because of differences in income, therefore higher-income families will live in higher-income neighborhoods and lower-income families will live in lower-income neighborhoods. Because of this all cities have varying levels of physical segregation due to and dependent on its socio-economic differences (Tammaru). This is part of the main controversy around whether or not bootstrapping is possible or not. Many argue that if a child grows up in an economically deficient area that he or she will not excel in school because the quality of schools is poor, he or she is then more likely to get into drugs and crime, and will essentially be stuck in the dregs of society forever. While location and all the other listed factors may pose more of a challenge while bootstrapping one’s way up the socio-economic classes, it definitely does not make it impossible. That is the point of bootstrapping: you have to work extremely hard to break from your socio-economic status, but if you are willing to put in the time and effort, it is well worth it.

The mental health of those living in different socio-economic classes holds a special relationship. A study in the UK examines both those moving to a lower socio-economic status region and those moving to a higher socio-economic status region. In both cases the mental health of the individual moving experiences stress due to the change in environment. In the case of an individual moving up to a higher socio-economic class, their mental health experiences stress from the move, but experiences less long-term negative effects because the movement is usually voluntary. In the situation of an individual moving to an area of lower socio-economic status the move is almost always involuntary, which causes significantly more stress and negative long lasting effects on mental health because no one wants to downsize (Tunstall).  These stresses on mental health can have negative effects on both sides. Those moving into an area of higher socio-economic status can become stressed and have to move back to their previous area, and those moving to an area of lower socio-economic status could develop lasting mental conditions that prevent them from moving out of that area. Another issue often recognized is the fact that a low socio-economic status area is often stressful to grow up in, and growing up in a stressful environment can cause mental health issues which, if manifested at a young enough age, can be a big enough disadvantage that it prohibits an individual from breaking his or her socio-economic class. For this reason, mental health can have a strong, direct effect on which socio-economic class you are a part of, and even holds the potential to make bootstrapping not possible for certain individuals.

Another determinant of what socio-economic status some families hold includes which industries are thriving at the time. In college, most students study with the hopes of a job after, and try not put themselves into a dying industry that is no longer profitable. The profitable industries are the ones that are in high demand by the majority of the population at a given time. This leads us to the question, who makes up the majority of population and ultimately determines which industries are succeeding at the time? This is called the population profile and is determined by the biggest age group within our population. Currently, ages 40-64 determine our population profile and which industries are successful because they make up the largest group in our population. This means that in the next 20 years, ages 64 plus will be the largest and determine which industries will be successful (Laurent). This means that advertising to the young won’t be profitable, because in the next 20 years the young will not determine where the face of industry lies, the old will. Therefore, in 20 years, those working in an industry that caters to the old have a better chance at being of a higher socio-economic status. Through this, you can see that socio-economic statuses largely rely on the population and the economic status.

The largest, most controversial debate around bootstrapping is how big a role race plays, or if it plays a role at all. Minorities face many social challenges that can be believed to hold them back from bootstrapping because of exclusion based on the color of their skin. As children we do not recognize the difference in races or even consider treating them differently. By the time we get to college most have a solid understanding in race and its alleged role in the socio-economic class system (Villanueva). We are taught about this relationship in school to prevent racist attitudes, however in some cases educating about it can reinforce it. Race is the biggest area where the self-fulfilling prophesy takes effect. Race does pose challenges for minorities when trying to succeed, but those of minority status do not have to let that hold them back or discourage them. It certainly is not impossible to be a successful family of minority status, but if society says it is impossible enough time then people will believe that. This is a self-fulfilling prophesy mindset that needs to be changed both by those of minority status and by all of society.

Many factors affect one’s ability to break from his or her socio-economic status, but none of them completely hinder their ability to bootstrap. They are all controllable obstacles in the hands of the individual, and it is up to the individual to overcome them. Many argue that it can’t be done, but in reality it is just very hard work, with a huge reward.

Works Cited

Karjalainen, Karoliina, Tomi Lintonen, Antti Impinen, Pirjo Lillsunde, Pia Mäkelä, Ossi Rahkonen, Jari Haukka, and Aini Ostamo. “Socio-economic Determinants of Drugged Driving–a Register-based Study.” Addiction (Abingdon, England) 106, no. 8 (2011): 1448-59.

Laurent, Clint. “Tomorrow’s World: A Look at the Demographic and Socio-Economic Structure of the World in 2032.” Chichester: Wiley, 2013.

Nesbitt, Baker-Ward, and Willoughby. “Executive Function Mediates Socio-economic and Racial Differences in Early Academic Achievement.” Early Childhood Research Quarterly 28, no. 4 (2013): 774-83.

O’riordan, and O’connell. “Predicting Adult Involvement in Crime: Personality Measures Are Significant, Socio-economic Measures Are Not.” Personality and Individual Differences 68 (2014): 98-101.

Sutherland, Alex. “Is Parental Socio-economic Status Related to the Initiation of Substance Abuse by Young People in an English City? An Event History Analysis.” Social Science & Medicine 74, no. 7 (2012): 1053-061.

Tammaru, Tiit., Van Ham, Maarten, Marcinczak, Szymon, and Musterd, Sako. Socio-Economic Segregation in European Capital Cities East Meets West. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis, 2015.

Tunstall, Mitchell, Pearce, and Shortt. “The General and Mental Health of Movers to More- and Less-disadvantaged Socio-economic and Physical Environments within the UK.” Social Science & Medicine 118 (2014): 97-107.


Villanueva, Victor. Bootstraps: from an American academic of color. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1993. Print.