The question can be answered in a variety of ways and will evoke passionate debate. I think that part of the reason that America is seen as a meritocratic social setting is embedded in its history. It was the haven for those who wished to escape the stratification and constraints of "the old world." The "new world" was a collection of vagabonds and rejects, an "island of misfit toys." From this, the American Dream emerged in which if individuals "worked hard and played by the rules," they would find their own vision of happiness. The opportunity ideology played a formative role in American identity. This vision helped to fill a young nation's mythology. It was essential to the construction of what it meant to be American.
It is in this light that America has been seen as a nation predicated upon meritocracy. There is no external institutional structure that explicitly states that individuals cannot do something. There is no caste system in America and nothing like it is formally embedded. The opportunity ideology intrinsic to identity is that anyone can do anything. This affirming view of individual freedom is a part of the national character: "In Europe, majorities of people in every country except Britain, the Czech Republic and Slovakia believe that forces beyond their personal control determine their success. In America only 32% take such a fatalistic view." Part of American meritocracy is in this lack of fatalistic belief.
I think that it is becoming clear that America is not truly as meritocratic as its national mythology presents itself to be. Statistics emerge that help to confirm the nagging feeling taking hold in many parts of the nation:
The Economic Policy Institute, a Washington think-tank, argues that between 1979 and 2000 the real income of households in the lowest fifth (the bottom 20% of earners) grew by 6.4%, while that of households in the top fifth grew by 70%. The family income of the top 1% grew by 184%—and that of the top 0.1% or 0.01% grew even faster. Back in 1979 the average income of the top 1% was 133 times that of the bottom 20%; by 2000 the income of the top 1% had risen to 189 times that of the bottom fifth.
The acknowledgement that 1 out of every 5 children live in poverty is a part of this understanding. Americans struggle with reconciling the view of its history and its narrative with modern day conditions that reflect quite the opposite. Its reality indicates that meritocratic notions of the good are supplanted by a sense of entitlement. It's hard to clearly argue that America is does not have meritocratic sentiments. However, it is equally difficult to suggest that it is a pure meritocracy when there is such a wealth disparity.
Elected leaders have not demonstrated much in way of sincere and authentic resolve to address the issue. President Obama has spoken to this issue in his desire to modify the minimum wage as a means of addressing the harsh conditions of poverty in which many Americans live: "In the richest nation on earth, nobody who works full-time should have to live in poverty.” The President's words speak to the fundamental collision between promises and possibilities and the crushing condition of reality. In his words exist the very same struggle to understand how meritocracy is an ingrained hope in American identity, while nearly invisible in light of its reality.