THE BLOG

Land of Equal Opportunity? The Power of a Costly Myth

02/25/2015 08:30 pm ET | Updated Apr 27, 2015

Americans are becoming increasingly aware that our society has become dramatically less equal over the past 40 years, with a very small elite taking most economic gains. Why have they not pressured their elected representatives to halt and reverse this trend that is replacing our freedoms and democratic form of government with a plutocracy? First, it should be noted that they greatly underestimate the degree of inequality. But a second, far more powerful reason is that they still believe that anyone can get rich if they only work hard and save. Those who are rich have earned it, and those who are poor also get their just deserts.

This view of fluid social mobility has deep roots in U.S. culture. For much of our history, thanks to abundant land and emigrants who fled Europe's rigid class structure, there was greater social mobility in America than anywhere else on Earth. In the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville noted an exceptionally high degree of vertical mobility in the U.S. and termed it "American exceptionalism." He exclaimed that "the rich are constantly becoming poor," adding, "To tell the truth, though there are rich men, the class of rich men does not exist...."

Tragically, whatever might have been the case earlier in American history, such exceptionalism is no longer valid. Over the past decade, multiple studies have found that there is less vertical mobility in the U.S. than in other rich societies such as Canada, Sweden, Germany, Spain, Denmark, Austria, Norway, Finland, and France. A 2012 Pew Research Center report finds that 43 percent of individuals born into the bottom quintile of the U.S. income distribution remain there as adults, and 70 percent remain below the middle quintile.

Yet Americans continue to believe the myth of American exceptionalism. More than people of other countries, Americans generally believe that it is not so important to have wealthy parents to get ahead, that people are rewarded for effort, that people are rewarded for skills and anyone can acquire them, that the distribution of income is fair, and that government should not intervene to reduce income differences. Consequently, Americans more readily take credit for their successes and find the poor responsible for their poverty. A World Values Survey found that 71 percent of Americans versus 40 percent of Europeans believe that the poor could work their way out of poverty. Furthermore, 60 percent of Americans versus 26 percent of Europeans claim the poor are lazy. Or, when they don't blame the poor, many blame government programs meant to soften the harshness of poverty. In a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll on the causes of poverty, 24 percent of respondents selected "too much government welfare that prevents initiative."

The assumption that individuals are fully responsible also extends to how criminals are treated. For instance, there is an "extremely strong relationship" between opposing welfare and being in favor of capital punishment. Americans have historically also shown little sympathy for debtors. In Colonial times, an insolvent debtor's ear was at times nailed to a post. This blame-the-debtor attitude remains strong and was re-expressed in the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005. By outlawing defaults on student loans through bankruptcy proceedings, for instance, it effectively created a form of indentured servitude. It also created moral hazard for lenders who no longer had to be as careful of the creditworthiness of student borrowers. Incidentally, in the U.S., corporations are considered under the law as "persons," and special ones they are, as they enjoy full bankruptcy privileges that are denied citizens.

Did six years of the Great Recession change these views? Somewhat, it seems. According to a Gallop poll, whereas 81 percent of Americans judged that there was "plenty of opportunity" in 1998, only 52 percent did so by late 2013. And the 17 percent found who found "not much" opportunity in 1998 had swollen to 43 percent by 2013. Furthermore, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll finds that whereas in 1990, 50 percent believed that children would live better than their parents, only 21 percent did so in 2014.

Yet these seemingly changed attitudes have yet to manifest themselves in the political sphere. The midterm elections in November were a clear rout of Democrats who presumably could have worked to improve the prospects for the majority of Americans. Or have the Democrats sold out such that many Americans have just given up on the political system, no longer believing that either party offers them anything? Have they come to believe, along with Bill Moyers, that "[o]ne of our two major parties is dominated by extremists dedicated to destroying the social contract, and the other party has been so enfeebled by two decades of collaboration with the donor class it can offer only feeble resistance to the forces that are devastating everyday people"? Do they agree with Moyers that "[o]ur economy is a plantation run for the aristocrats -- the CEOs, hedge funds, private equity firms -- while the field hands are left with the scraps"?

The belief in fluid vertical mobility can be a good thing when it energizes people to take control of their lives, to go for their dreams. Nothing could be more debilitating than a belief that everything is so stacked against you that any effort is simply futile. Yet an exaggerated belief in the myth of fluid upward mobility serves to blind us to how stacked our system has become against the aspirations of the less well-off. It thereby traps us into an ideology that enables an elite to capture every larger shares of income, wealth, privilege, and control over government while those below receive relatively smaller shares, face fewer opportunities for improving their lives, and live in a world over which they command increasingly less control. And in the process, the U.S. sinks ever lower internationally in measures of education, health, longevity, and general quality of life.