Hard work is often touted as the key American virtue that leads to success and opportunity. And there’s lots of evidence to suggest that workers buy into the belief: For example, a recent study found that Americans work 25 percent more hours than Europeans, and that U.S. workers tend to take fewer vacation days and retire later in life. But for many, simply working hard doesn’t actually lead to a better life.
In the past, economists have acknowledged that citing hard work as the path to prosperity is overly simplistic and optimistic. Ultimately, whether hard work alone can lift people into better economic conditions is a more complex question. The formula only works if an individual’s efforts are met with opportunities for a better life. According to research, it’s getting harder and harder for Americans to move up the income ladder.
A new poll from the Strong, Prosperous and Resilient Communities Challenge (SPARCC), an initiative to bolster local economies, found that Americans are quite skeptical of the narrative connecting wealth with personal agency. SPARCC found that 74 percent of those surveyed believed that most poor people work hard, but aren’t able to work their way out of poverty due to the lack of economic opportunities. In the U.S., 19 percent of income inequality is attributed to predetermined circumstances such as a person’s race, gender, and parental income. The SPARCC report also points to past research showing that economic mobility and health outcomes are greatly affected by geography as evidence that individual hard work won’t ensure success because opportunities aren’t evenly distributed.