Web exclusive: The myth of merit and the American Dream

Most Americans have not actually read the Declaration of Independence, but nearly all know that “the pursuit of happiness” is a fundamental principle. Not many have read the works of Horatio Alger – the iconic 19th-century writer who promised wealth, stability and respectability through hard work, determination and honesty – but Americans know his “rags-to-riches” stories because they reinforce the belief that the opportunity to ascend to affluence is available to anyone.

We are a society of aspiration. In a 2005 New York Times study called Class Matters, 39% of Americans said they believe they are better off than their parents and 31% believe their children will be better off than they are. We’ve been sold the idea that hard work is a guaranteed path to prosperity. We’ve been told we deserve everything we want – not just what we need but even excessive luxuries and symbols of status. We’ve learned, from a few isolated examples (Benjamin Franklin, Bill Clinton, Jay Z, etc.) that an individual can rise from very little to achieve greatness with nothing more than bootstraps and some serious pulling.

But more and more Americans are realizing that the myth of the American Dream is exactly that – a myth. Part of our cultural identity as Americans is having the chance to make a better life than the life one was born into and the possibility of upward mobility through hard work, regardless of social class or circumstances of birth. But the economic turmoil of recent years combined with a growing stratification between the rich and poor have begun to wear away at the promise of a better life, regardless of hard work or merit.

Studies increasingly show that hard work is not necessarily the only factor in achieving social mobility. In their recent book The Meritocracy Myth, sociologists Stephen J. McNamee and Robert K. Miller Jr. state, “While merit does indeed affect who ends up with what, the impact of merit on economic outcomes is vastly overestimated by the ideology of the American Dream.” They identify non-merit factors that can suppress or even negate the work an individual puts in.

Inherited factors make the already uphill climb steeper, factors an individual may have no control over in early formative years. Initial class placement at birth is a defining element, as it affects not only what socioeconomic status one starts with, but also the status of parents who may not be able to offer support or a safety net at key moments in development. Other non-merit factors that may affect chances for success include access to education, where the skills needed to succeed are learned, and access to social and cultural capital, or the currency of who and what one knows that can help one navigate toward a better future.

These non-merit factors strongly affect the large number of Americans who make up the working poor, who live at or below the poverty line, who struggle with subsistence level wages and diminishing aid from the government. These are people who work hard in physically taxing jobs with long hours and are often the most poorly paid. They struggle to get ahead but seem to be falling farther and farther behind every year.

Opportunity is not distributed equally in American society. Working class or poor neighborhoods are harder to escape: a child without attentive parents can easily slip through the cracks; one twist of fate or piece of bad luck can mean the difference between success and abject poverty, regardless of how hard an individual works. For many, the American Dream is being redefined every day, scaled back to the point where survival is the new definition of success.