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Americans Think Upward Mobility Is Far More Common Than It Really Is

New research confirms that we overestimate our ability to advance "by a wide margin."
Abel Santiago serves a customer at a 7-Eleven convenience store in Santa Monica, California.
Abel Santiago serves a customer at a 7-Eleven convenience store in Santa Monica, California.REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

The belief that enough hard work can and will result in getting ahead is still fundamental to American life, even if lately that equation feels shakier than ever. In reality, the chances of escaping poverty in the United States varies widely depending on where you live, and while overall social mobility trends have stayed relatively flat over time, the U.S. lags behind other developed nations in this department. And a new study has found that Americans could stand to be quite a bit more cynical about how often upwardly mobile class shifts actually occur.

The research, conducted by psychologists Michael W. Kraus and Jacinth J.X. Tan of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, suggests that Americans have more faith in the idea of upward mobility than they should based on real-world trends. Across four experiments, test participants overestimated economic mobility by an average of roughly 23 percent. The gap suggests that overall, Americans think it's easier to pull out of poverty than it truly is, possibly leading them to downplay the severity of income inequality as a result.