Polls show that large majorities of Americans believe that anyone who works hard can succeed

| March 30, 2017

Question
Polls show that large majorities of Americans believe that anyone who works hard can succeed, and even higher percentages of Americans say they admire people who get rich by their own efforts. Those who fall behind, meanwhile, are often blamed for their own misery. In a typical recent survey finding, three quarters of Americans agreed with the statement that if a person is poor, their own lack of effort is to blame. In other words, Americans tend to make moral judgments about people based on their level of economic success. Everybody loves a winner, the saying goes, and nowhere is that more true than in America. Winners are even seen as virtuous, as people to admire and emulate. Losers get the opposite treatment. As Marvin Olaskey has said, “An emphasis on freedom should also include a willingness to step away for a time and let those who have dug their own hole suffer the consequences of misconduct” (1999, p. 72). The prevalence of a sink or swim mentality in the United States is unique among Western democracies, as is the belief that individuals have so much control over their destiny. Elsewhere people are more apt to believe that success or failure is determined by circumstances beyond individual control. Scholars attribute the difference in outlook to the “exceptionalism” of America and to the American dream ethos that dominates U.S. culture—an ethos at once intensely optimistic and brutally unforgiving (Callahan, 2003, pp.124-125).

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