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Robert F. Bukaty, Associated Press
Susan St. Amour, 54, a homeless woman, panhandles during the evening commute, Thursday, Nov. 14, 2013, in Portland, Maine. A recent study reports that most Americans think homeless people are to blame for their own situations. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

Americans tend to think of the rich as hardworking and smart, but as for the poor? They tend to think people are poor because they are lazy, according to a recent Pew survey.

When it comes to the question of how poor people got that way, Americans often blame the poor themselves, researchers found. Less than half of those surveyed said that people became poor through circumstances beyond their control, such as lack of jobs and low-paying wages. A majority of Republicans, and almost one-third of Democrats, believe that if a person is poor the main reason is “lack of effort on his or her part.”

Though the Great Recession officially ended in 2009, 46.5 million Americans are still living in poverty, according to the Census Bureau. Income slid during the recession and is still 8.3 percent lower than 2007.

Still, Americans tend to think of their country as a meritocracy where anyone can rise above their circumstances, even when there is evidence against that idea, according to Princeton research.

"Unfortunately, these cultural myths are less true than we would like to believe," said Princeton psychology professor Susan Fiske. Americans like to identify themselves as middle class, but mostly are split between working class and middle class.

"People's ability to move above their parents' social class is limited, and no better than in other countries," Fiske said. "Our collective belief is that America offers opportunity, so the system is fair and people get what they deserve."

Americans gave a need to explain the unequal status quo, according to Fiske's research, and explaining away the poor's misfortunes by assuming that they are lazy allows one to dismiss them.

Access to money, or even thinking about money, might make people less compassionate, according to research from UC Berkeley. Research respondents who were asked to imagine wealth, or even shows images of money, were much less likely to be helpful and empathetic toward others. Respondents not reminded of money spent 120 percent more time helping a confused peer, for example.

The rich are less apt to be generous, too, a study indicates.

The wealthiest Americans donate 1.3 percent of their income, while the poorest donate 3.2 percent. The Berkeley study found that lower-income people were consistently more generous with limited goods than upper-class participants were.

"The rich are way more likely to prioritize their own self-interests above the interests of other people," one of the researchers, Paul Piff, told New York Magazine.

But the haves are not doomed to condemn the have-nots, said Piff, who found that contact with need increases empathy and generosity. When both low- and high-income participants were shown videos on child poverty, their willingness to help "rose significantly."