The important truth in this belief is that in countries with relatively open capitalist economies it is possible for some poor people to work their way up. Most well-off Americans have only to trace back in their families one or two generations to find ancestors of poor or modest means. This is not so true in older countries like Germany and France where workers much less often become owners, and Marxists have elaborate and interesting explanations for this “American exceptionalism.”
However, “opportunity” is a very elusive concept when you come to examine it. Clearly not everyone has the same learning abilities, the same access to borrowed capital, the same familial support, the same influence in government circles–the list of inequities goes on and on. But the belief that just about anyone could become rich by really working hard and taking risks leads many Americans to support policies which guarantee that a tiny minority of citizens will control the vast majority of the national wealth. They may not have won the economic lottery yet, but that’s all the more reason for them not to want to shut the game down.