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Erin Lowry

The Personal Finance Industry Needs a Sobering Dose of History

The bootstraps narrative ignores a long history of Black Americans being prevented from building wealth.

A reckoning.

A reckoning.

Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images North America

There’s a belief in the U.S. that’s infiltrated the personal finance industry — that if you work hard enough, then you’ll find financial success. The problem is, this “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” narrative is a longstanding fallacy.

Sure, this rhetoric is powerful because in some ways it’s empowering to believe that you can get rich all on your own. But it obscures the important role of external factors in shaping our finances. Crucially, it fails to reckon with the country’s legacy of systematically marginalizing certain groups, making it difficult, or even illegal, for many to access opportunities and build wealth. 

February is Black History Month and an important time to be reminded about this legacy and to learn about the centuries of financial oppression in the U.S. even after slavery was officially abolished. It’s a history many of us were never taught in school, though it still impacts Americans in many ways today.