I was sitting in a student workspace with a group of undergrads the other day talking about politics. The conversation got around to power and the notion of empowerment, in that the poor should be able to empower themselves to get out of their situation... although I don't think anyone was defending that position. Anyway, someone mentioned the phrase "to pull oneself up by one's bootstraps". We had all heard the phrase before, but none of us were aware of where it came from.
It is often used by politically conservative people to discuss the notion of helping oneself overcome a difficult situation... like, someone may be poor, but if they were to just try harder, work harder, and be persistent, they can get themselves out of the situation without needing any help from other people, charities, or government support.
First, we google imaged "bootstraps" to see what they were. This is what I found;
So, originally, bootstraps were meant to help you pull on your boots (there are also things called bootstraps that are more decorative straps around the ankle).
One of the people in the group started actually acting out a scene of trying to pull themselves up off of the ground from these bootstraps. Needless to say, it didn't work and we came to the conclusion that doing this would almost always result in the person falling on their ass.
I suggested we look at the etymology of the phrase. According to Wiktionary (I know, truly reliable source...), it originally implied that something somebody was attempting or has claimed was "ludicrously far-fetched or impossible."
So, I now agree with the premise that, for many people who live in poverty, getting out of it would be as simple as pulling oneself up by their bootstraps, as in, the claim that you just have to work hard enough and it will pay off (see Oprah or Sam Walton for examples) is ludicrously far-fetched.
Also, I haven't really looked any further into how the change happened (as in, no explanation showed up on the first few pages of a few google searches), but this is what I would like to think happened. I would like to think that some cool activist made up a satirical speech (A Modest Proposal style speech) and it used the phrase in the same capacity that it is used now as a way of talking to the poor... and the rich folks didn't get it... they still aren't in on the joke.