The core of the American Dream — equality of opportunity and rewards commensurate with efforts and abilities — has enchanted millions of people across the globe. However, it is important to assess whether the reality bears out that ideal. Although two-thirds of Americans (69 percent) agree with the statement that “people are rewarded for intelligence and skill,” there is evidence that a child in a poor family in the U.S. has a smaller chance of moving up than his or her counterpart in many other advanced economies. The Great Gatsby curve suggests a statistical relationship between income inequality and lack of social mobility. Countries with higher income inequality are likely to have lower social mobility.

Dominance hierarchies are part of life, and in a limited sense they may even be efficient by coordinating group life, action and division of labor. However, it is when inequities implicit in hierarchies become frozen — when they are based on inherited privilege rather than intelligence and skill — that human sensibilities are particularly repelled.

Clearly such a dysfunctional social landscape cannot be a setting for broad-based social cohesion. This makes insights into how people perceive others all the more pertinent. Social psychologist Susan Fiske’s research suggests that people’s emotional responses are better predictors of intolerant behavior than are stereotypes. Fiske, Cuddy, and Glick tried to determine how people categorize socio-cultural groups and what emotions people hold toward those groups. It turns out that people tend to rate groups along two primary dimensions: warmth (is the group friendly, trustworthy or sincere) and competence (is the group skillful and capable). In turn, these ratings elicit one of four emotions: disgust, pity, pride or envy. According to this framework, people tend to rate those who are rich low on warmth and high on competence, prompting envy.

In a separate study, Fiske and her colleagues asked participants to rate behaviors such as “harm,” “cooperation,” “help and protection” and “affiliation,” with regard to the socio-cultural groups that had elicited pity, pride, disgust or envy. The rich as a group prompt a disturbing mix of “harm” and “affiliation.” Their high status and desirable resources cause people to crave affiliation with them but, as Fiske explains, “when the chips are down, they get attacked.”

In a similar vein, T.H. Marshall in his account of class resentment argued that antagonism has its source in “resentment against inequality” and frustration arises “wherever privilege creates inequality of opportunity.” However, human perceptions and psychological responses to great inequalities do not always lead to conflict.

According to the latest Pew survey, although lower-class adults are much more likely to view the rich as greedy, 35 percent of lower-class individuals believe that the rich work harder than average Americans. Also, a significant number, 84 percent, of lower-class Americans express their admiration for people who get rich by working hard.

This might help explain why the American Dream, in spite of its questionable validity, continues to evoke belief in fairness among those who are characterized as disadvantaged. There is some evidence that believing in societal fairness might benefit members of underprivileged groups in that it induces them to exert themselves toward obtaining the desired outcomes. However, the constraints on education experienced by lower social-class individuals through compromised childhood, poor schools and limited opportunities perpetually consign a vast majority of poor Americans to live on “outskirts of hope.”

John Hoffmire is director of the Impact Bond Fund at Saïd Business School at Oxford University and directs the Center on Business and Poverty at the Wisconsin School of Business at UW-Madison. He runs Progress Through Business, a nonprofit group promoting economic development.

Pankaj Upadhyay, Hoffmire’s colleague at Progress Through Business, did the research for this article.

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