Pull yourself up by your bootstraps? We agree.

Author: Leigh Lynes

Heather Reynolds
By Heather Reynolds, LEO Managing Director

Spend time deep in the heart of Texas and you will find a rich western heritage, economic prosperity, and the belief that everything is bigger (and better) in Texas. The state holds much to make a Texan’s heart swell with pride. But, how does Texas measure up when it comes to the state’s most vulnerable citizens?    

  • Texas is one of the hungriest states in the nation.
  • Two-thirds of Texans aged 25 to 54 lack an associate’s degree or higher post-secondary credentials.
  • Median income for Black Texas households is 39% less than that of white households.
  • 9% of Texas children are uninsured—the highest percentage of any state.

I’m reminded of a phrase I heard often during the years I spent in the great state of Texas: “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” We use this phrase to promote the concept of self-reliance and the belief that—through determination and hard work—we can all succeed in life on our own. 

While serving as the CEO of a social service agency in North Texas, I would most often hear this phrase aimed at people in poverty. Even then it sounded silly to me, given that the people saying it were often people of means, their success characterized by a support system that helped them get to where they were in life. I often responded, “Well, the people we serve don’t even have boots, let alone bootstraps!” 

Only recently did I do some digging on this phrase. I got a real chuckle out of its history—and its sensibility. Think about it: What do bootstraps do? They help you put on your boots. If you tried to pull on your bootstraps to help you stand, you would flip right over. So the original meaning of this phrase was actually more akin to “doing something completely absurd.” 

I don’t know about you, but I really like this definition much better.

Less than 1% of anti-poverty programs in our nation are backed by evidence of their effectiveness—and it may seem absurd that we at LEO think we can change this. But we do. We hold this belief because we see poverty’s fiercest adversaries—service providers, researchers, philanthropists, policymakers, and advocates—saying that it is not okay that we don’t have more evidence behind the services we offer to people struggling in poverty every day. 

To help build this evidence, we’re going deep in the heart of Texas. This year, we formed a partnership with the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF). TPPF focuses on impacting social issues to improve the quality of life for Texans. They reached out to us to learn more about how to create better public policy. Of course, our answer was simple—build evidence and use it!  

At LEO, our formula for our work in Texas is straightforward: Innovation plus evidence equals results for families in poverty. So, we said “howdy” to the heavy lift of finding the most innovative providers in the state, providers who are brave enough to test their work. Five organizations stepped up and impress us every day with their commitment to their mission and to studying their impact.    


Catholic Charities Galveston Houston is answering the question about how to restore client dignity in their emergency financial assistance distribution.

Catholic Charities Dallas is cracking the code on financial wellness to drive more families towards upward mobility.

Combined Arms is studying the engagement of veterans in supportive services, and how to best serve those who have served us so well. 

Jewish Family Service is engaging a workforce around the state of Texas, supporting workers to move out of both income and asset poverty.

Goodwill Excel Center-Austin is putting itself under the microscope to test its hypothesis that a GED just doesn’t cut it, but rather a high school diploma with post-secondary credentialing is what it takes to move lives forward. 

In early October, these partners will present their research designs and start preparing to launch their research studies. And, TPPF will be right alongside to take what we learn together and use it to advocate for policy that is backed by evidence. 

Pull yourself up by your bootstraps? Heck yes! Let’s do something absurd. And for us at LEO, that means partnering up with the best of the best social service organizations and a dynamic policy powerhouse, all to build evidence about what works to help Texans thrive.