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Most Americans don’t believe people are rich because they work hard or poor because they don’t: study

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U.S. currency and coins in a vault at a bank in Westminster, Colorado. |

Most Americans don’t believe people are rich because they work harder than other people or poor because they don’t work hard enough, according to a new study published by the Pew Research Center.

In the results of a poll released Monday, some 65% of U.S. adults said people are rich because they had more advantages in life than others, while only 33% said it’s because they work harder than others.

When it comes to the question of why people are poor, some 71% of respondents attributed it to having to face more obstacles in life. Only 26 percent of respondents in the poll conducted Jan. 6-19 among 12,638 U.S. adults who are members of the Center’s American Trends Panel, said people are poor because they don’t work hard enough.

And people’s views of the determinants of wealth from this recent poll appear to align with other recent studies that show how income inequality and other factors such as being raised in poverty has contributed to a stifling of the American dream and upward mobility for a share of the population.

The Census Bureau found that 38.1 million people in 2018 were poor, which is 1.4 million fewer poor people than in 2017.  This means about one in eight Americans still live below the poverty line — $25,465 for a family with two adults and two children.

In a recent interview explaining why working hard is simply no longer enough for many to achieve the American dream, Raj Chetty, director of Opportunity Insights at Harvard University, pointed to some of his team’s research.

“Back in the 1940s and 1950s, virtually all kids in America would grow up to have a higher standard of living than their parents did. So for children born in 1940, for example, 90 percent of them went on to have a higher standard of living than their parents. And if you look at kids who were born in the 1980s, who are turning 30 today, when we’re measuring their incomes that number is down to 50 percent,” he said.

“It’s a 50-50 shot as to whether you’re going to achieve the American dream of moving up. And so, that fading of the American dream, you know, I think is of tremendous concern from an economic perspective, socially, politically, and there are a variety of factors that I think play into what’s driving that trend.

"But at a macroeconomic level, a lot of it has to do with the fact that wage rates and incomes for people in the middle of the income distribution basically haven’t gone up over the past 30 years, so most of the economic growth that’s occurred in America has gone to the very, very top of the income distribution,” he said.

The poll data from the Pew study show that respondents were deeply divided along partisan lines.

Some 82% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents said advantages in life have more to do with why someone is rich, while 86% of this group said having faced more obstacles has more to do with why someone is poor.

Just over half of Republicans and Republican leaning respondents, however, said hard work has more to do with why a person is rich, while 45% said it is because they have more advantages.

Some 55 percent of this group said people are poor because they face more obstacles while 42% said it’s because they didn’t work hard enough.

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