The classic American Dream was defined by upward mobility. The idea is that anyone, no matter their background or circumstances, can achieve success through hard work and determination. This dream was based on the premise that America is a meritocracy, where individuals are rewarded based on their ability and effort.
The notion of a meritocracy—a social system in which power is distributed based on merit or achievement—is deeply ingrained in the American psyche. We like to believe that anyone, no matter their background, can achieve great things if they just work hard enough. Unfortunately, the data tell a different story. Wealth inequality is a very real problem in the United States, and it’s only getting worse.
Supporters of meritocracy say that people like Andrew Carnegie, a Scottish immigrant who became very successful in America, are proof that the system works. They say that our current system of capitalism is the most effective way to allocate resources and spur economic growth. However, there are several problems with meritocracy in actual practice. It assumes that everyone has an equal chance to succeed. But in reality, people from wealthier backgrounds have a much better chance of getting ahead. They have access to better schools, neighborhoods, and networks. They can afford to take risks and make mistakes.
Assumptions about Meritocracy
Meritocracy assumes that hard work always leads to success. But this is not true for everyone. Many people work hard but don’t get ahead. This system can often hide the biases that are built into the systems that determine who is talented and who is not. For example, standardized tests often favor people from wealthier backgrounds who can afford test prep and tutors. Meritocracy is a competitive system that does not take into account people’s circumstances. For example, it does not adapt if someone has any disadvantages. It may also fail to evaluate the capacity to think differently or reliably assess talents in art, design, or social competencies where human judgment is so subjective. So while it may be the most efficient system for allocating resources, it’s not necessarily the best system for all human beings.
Myth #1: Poor people are poor because they’re lazy.
The data shows that this simply isn’t true. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Low-income Americans work more hours than ever before. A study by the National Employment Law Project found that 53% of low-wage workers are working more than 40 hours per week but are still living in poverty. The problem isn’t that these workers aren’t working hard enough; it’s that they’re not being paid enough for their labor.
Myth #2: The rich deserve their money because they worked hard for it.
There’s no denying that many wealthy people have worked hard to earn their money. But let’s not forget that they also had a head start. The rich are more likely to come from wealthy families and to have access to resources that others do not. They’re also more likely to have connections within their respective industries that can help them get ahead. Merit alone does not lead to success; opportunity does too.
Myth #3: Poverty is a result of bad personal choices.
People living in poverty are often demonized for making “bad” personal choices, but the reality is that most of them are just trying to survive from day to day. They’re making the best decisions they can with the limited resources they have available to them. Blaming poverty on personal choices ignores the systemic factors—like racism, sexism, and classism—that keep people trapped in a cycle of poverty.
Myth #4: Anyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps.
We like to believe that anyone can make something of themselves if they just try hard enough. But again, this simply isn’t true. Wealth inequality is a very real problem in our society, and it makes it very difficult for people to move up the socioeconomic ladder. If you’re born into a family with little money, it’s going to be very difficult to become wealthy, no matter how hard you work.
Myth #5: Giving support to the poor just encourages laziness.
There’s a common belief that people living in poverty are lazy and that they’re only looking for a handout. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. Most people want to work and be self-sufficient. They just need a little help to get there. Assisting those in need not only helps to improve their lives, but also benefits society as a whole. When people can meet their basic needs, they’re more likely to be productive citizens and less likely to rely on government assistance in the future.
So Why Does the Myth of Meritocracy Persist?
Part of the reason is that it’s simply easier to believe that everyone has an equal chance at success than it is to face up to the harsh reality of inequality. After all, admitting that America is a country with high levels of inequality would require us to take action to address the problem. And that would be difficult and costly. It’s also worth noting that the myth of meritocracy is perpetuated by those who benefit from it. The rich and powerful have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo because it benefits them at the expense of everyone else. As long as the myth of meritocracy persists, they can continue to amass more wealth and power while the rest of us fight for scraps.
The solution to these problems is not to get rid of meritocracy altogether. Rather, we need to make sure that everyone has an equal chance to succeed and that the systems that determine merit are fair. Regardless of how we fix the system, it’s clear that meritocracy is not working the way it should. The first step is to dispel the myth that America is a meritocracy. It’s simply not true. And once we accept that, we can start to take steps to address the problem.
Wealth inequality is a very real problem in the United States, and it’s only getting worse. The myth of meritocracy—the belief that anyone can achieve success if they just work hard enough—persists despite evidence to the contrary. The truth is that many factors—including race, class, and gender—play a role in determining who succeeds and who doesn’t. Ignoring these factors does a disservice to those who are struggling to make ends meet. It’s time for us to start having honest conversations about wealth inequality in America and what we can do to close the gap between the haves and the have-nots.