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Zach Fredrickson

The American Socioeconomic Caste


The United States of America: the land of the free and the home of the brave. The land
of bountiful opportunity and the home of the of the manifest destiny. America: the patron saint
of the American Dream. Over the course of the past few centuries, millions from around the
world have immigrated to this country to make their own. Many of those came here with
nothing but fractured splinters of hope came to come and take part in the sensational
revolution of making their future into one that is self-realized. Certainly, there have been some
notable cases proving this possibility true. But have the likes of Andrew Carnegie, who arrived
in America as a poor Scottish migrant that grew into a steel tycoon, or Henry Ford, who was
born on a farm and grew into the man that revolutionized mass production and catalyzed the
automobile industry, proven the viability of the American Dream, or are these individuals just
exactly that: anomalies? Some would say socioeconomic class restrictions are so rigid that
"Social status is more strongly inherited even than height." (Clark, Cummins) Evidence suggests
that even if the Dream was once alive and well, it is dying. And amidst the ashes lay the everstrengthening foundations of a socioeconomic caste system. In this caste system, vertical intergenerational socioeconomic elasticity is being restricted more and more with every passing
year. The world will be a harsher place to make it for your kids than it was for you, and harder
for their kids than them. A well-documented history of aristocracy, preferential college
requirements, and an irresponsible government have established this lopsided polarity.

America poised as a classed society isn't so new of concept as some might think;
Thomas Jefferson himself said that the United States should run as a "natural aristocracy" (Ryn).
Jefferson, along with America's other founding fathers, were dissatisfied with the arbitrary
hierarchies that plagued the societies of Europe, notably England. Their goal was to formulate a
country that set men of reputable intellectual worth at the social pyramid's zenith. Talented,
liberally educated men with foundations in Enlightenment-age philosophies deserved
superiority , they believed. Status should not an inheritance, but a reward. Despite its
hierarchal origins the country wasn't initially so negatively impacted by this. Rifts in economic
disparities were largely absent in the formative days of the Union. As stated in The New Politics
of Class in America, ". . . the United States in its early years was spared the worst extremes of
wealth and poverty." That was, until, ". . . industrialization changed that . . . creating both vast
fortunes and unrelenting poverty." Industry effectively elongated the rickety ladder the poor
had to climb to escape the squalid trench of poverty, and with remarkably less resources with
which to do so. With such disparities, the poor man's child would have to work an order of
magnitude harder to catch up with the rich man's child, let alone to compete with.
Gregory Clark of University of California, Davis and Neil Cummins of London School of
Economics conducted a study in regards to social mobility in England. They focused on specific
surnames of students at the most prestigious of universities in the country of England: Oxford
and Cambridge, or Oxbridge respectively. How many times these often rare surnames
manifested themselves in Oxbridge enrollment was indicative of the family's status. The longer
they stayed, the more likely that family had considerable wealth.

"Using educational status in England from 1170 to 2012, we show that the rate of
social mobility in any society can be estimated from knowledge of just two facts: the
distribution over time of surnames in the society and the distribution of surnames
among an elite or underclass." (Clark, Cummins)
Their findings reveal , among other things, that despite the political and social reformations
since the Industrial Age, social mobility rates have remained stagnant. This may be a study of
English socioeconomics, but as Clark and Cummins note, the United Kingdom and America have
very similar ranks in vertical elasticity. The two have the lowest ratings out of any developed
country in the world.
Post-secondary education has a dubious effect on social mobility in this country.
Obtaining a four-year degree or higher significantly increases your projected earnings in future
employment. The problem is, that since the 1980's, college tuition prices have been increasing
exponentially, far outgrowing inflation rates. This means that while the upper percent of the
population still has no problem sending their kids to colleges and universities, while kids from
poor and minority families are struggling even to get in. Schools that tend to not produce
college attendees also tend to lack helpful information or resources about the college
application process, different school options, or supplemental tuition. On top of that, these
low-income children can't get informative help from their parents because they likely didn't
attend college either. These conditions have created a collegiate vacuum. The absence of
higher education effectively removes most possibilities of upward, mobile success and feeds
the rich-to-poor oppression. Robert Haveman and Timothy Smeeding in

"The Role of Higher Education in Social Mobility" state, "In the top-tier colleges and
universities, almost three-quarters of the entering class is from the highest
socioeconomic quartile. The pool of qualified youth is far greater than the number of
admitted and enrolled. . ."
In 2001, only 44% of high school seniors from the bottommost quintile of economic
distribution were enrolled in college, while on the opposite end of the spectrum, just shy of
80% of the uppermost quintile were enrolled. (Haveman, Smeeding)
Today, the middle class is diminishing more and more every year. Living in an era of
globalization, international trade, and revolutionary and disruptive technological advances that
have eliminated too many lower- and mid-level jobs is making that happen, says Mortimer
Zuckerman in his article, Solving America's Inequality Puzzle. Because of this, the middle and
lower-middle class jobs are becoming distant possibilities for many Americans, forcing them
further down the rungs of the ladder. Not only that, but the American government is too busy
dealing with fiscal crises like the dwindling trust fund of the Social Security program to help
solve the problem these programs were designed to help in the first place. Social mobility has
decreased so much in this country that its ranking is worse than Europe as a whole for the first
time in history.
A pillar of America's foundation was to provide a system where all men were not
created equally, but had equal rights to succeed. And indeed, children of poor men have done
great things, like former president Bill Clinton. But for millions of Americans this really is just a
dream. Not a dream of aspiration, but a dream that exists only in the imagination. The chasm

between the mega-rich and the destitute poor is deepening as fast as it is widening, and the
bridge that ties the gap is disintegrating. Our rigid socioeconomic caste is shortening the time
between now and when it finally collapses. What can we do to save this? This bridge to the
other side, to our American Dream.

Works Cited

Clark, Gregory and Cummins, Neil. "Surnames and Social Mobility in England, 11702012." Human Nature (2014) Print. 22 Nov. 2014.

Haveman, Robert, and Timothy Smeeding. "The Role Of Higher Education In Social
Mobility." Future Of Children 16.2 (2006): 125-150. Academic Search Premier. Web. 22
Nov. 2014.

Krugman, Paul. "The Death Of Horatio Alger." Nation 278.1 (2004): 16-17. Academic
Search Premier. Web. 22 Nov. 2014.

Ryn, Claes G. "A Question Of Class." National Review 46.2 (1994): 50-53. Academic
Search Premier. Print. 22 Nov. 2014.

Zuckerman, Mortimer B. "Solving America's Inequality Puzzle." U.S. News Digital


Weekly 6.12 (2014): 25. Academic Search Premier. Web. 22 Nov. 2014.

"The New Politics Of Class In America." Wilson Quarterly 17.3 (1993): 73. Academic
Search Premier. Web. 22 Nov. 2014.