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One of the hallmarks of America’s supposed exceptionalism is its citizens’ extraordinary optimism. A 2014 study found that Americans were more likely to describe their day as "particularly good" than any rich European country. Nothing reflects this sunniness like the enduring parable of the American Dream, the idea that, only in America, even the poorest can transform their fortunes through hard work.
But there is a dark and deeply ironic element to American dreaminess. Americans are “too optimistic” about the odds of poor citizens getting richer “relative to actual mobility in the U.S.,” according to a new paper by the economists Alberto Alesina, Stefanie Stantcheva, and Edoardo Teso. As a result, Americans are less likely to support large federal anti-poverty programs—programs that would actually help the American Dream become reality for more people—since they believe that they are already living among throngs of Horatio Algers.
In Europe, the opposite is true. Citizens of France, Italy, and Sweden are far more pessimistic about social mobility, the study found, and those pessimists are far more supportive of welfare policies. Even within these countries, the “pessimistic respondents tend to favor more generous [welfare].” So, while Americans see their economy as a meritocracy, in which both rich and poor deserve their fates, Europeans see their economies more like lotteries, in which the poor are unlucky through little fault of their own. Poverty isn’t what they deserve, but rather what they were born into. Instead, what they deserve is help.