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SOCIOLOGY REFERENCE GUIDE

DEFINING CLASS

The Editors of Salem Press

SALEM PRESS
Pasadena, California Hackensack, New Jersey

Published by Salem Press


Copyright 2011 by Salem Press

All rights in this book are reserved. No part of this work may be used or
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or in the public domain.

ISBN: 978-1-42983-460-5
Includes bibliographical references and index.
Indexing Subjects
1. Social Classes 2. Class Formation 3. Sociology

First Edition

Contents

Introduction

The Class System

Social Mobility in the U.S.

18

Social Mobility & the Postindustrial Society

27

Assessing Class: Income

37

Assessing Class: Education

50

The Upper Class

62

Assessing Class: Wealth

74

Assessing Class: Lifestyle Choices

84

The Middle Class in America

95

Contradictory Class Locations

109

The Working Class

119

The Underclass in America

129

Cultural Theories of Poverty

139

Demographics of Poverty

150

Stratification & Class: Income Inequality

161

The Poor & the Working Poor

171

Terms & Concepts

184

Contributors

193

Index

196

Defining Class

iii

Introduction

The study of economic social arrangements served as an early field of


inquiry in nineteenth-century sociological thought. Leading theorists addressed how the development of a modern, capitalist society influenced
the formation of social groups and class systems. Today, class intersects
with a range of social, cultural, and socio-political factors in a multi-disciplinary field of study.
The Sociology Reference Guide series is designed to provide a solid foundation for the research of various sociological topics. This volume offers
an introduction to contemporary class issues in the United States, with an
overview of economic issues and challenges specific to populations across
a range of class levels. In the opening essay, Geraldine Wagner provides
an introductory review of class stratification, a recurring topic that is addressed in some form throughout the volume. Wagners essay is followed
by two essays that discuss the relationship between income and education,
which further defines how class advancement is achieved. The remainder
of the essays follows three general categories in class stratification. The
first group assesses the formation and indicators that define the upperclass, while the second and third sections present a wide body of work on
the two major groups that often define class in America: the middle and
working classes.
The first group of essays presents a discussion of contemporary trends
that determine the stratification of class systems and a review of localized
Defining Class

issues in education and income, as well as more global issues on worldwide social mobility. These essays capture some of the changing economic
and social conditions that distinguish the study of class as it appears today.
Social mobility, which Michael P. Auerbach defines as the pursuit of
better life, is explored in his two essays on the phenomena of a rapidly
changing global society. Sociologist Barbara Hornick-Lockard argues that
the changes in labor market and household composition will require
researchers to conceive of innovative income analysis methods in order
to create new models for understanding new economies represented in
the U.S. today. By first correcting the belief that education promises social
mobility in an increasingly stratified society, Sharon Link and Alexandra
Howson claim that the revision of interpretive models in sociology may
confront the prevailing notion of an ultimately classless society.
The remaining essays turn to a range of topics in three commonly identified class levels in America: upper, middle, and lower class. As many
of the authors agree, these general classes are often difficult to delineate,
even though the history of sociology is founded on developing models
to effectively measure class stratification. Jeff Klassen and Jeremy Baker
explain that there is considerable debate about how best to measure class
and how various measurements translate over time, place, and societies.
The essays on wealth and privilege define the leading approaches to these
studies. The middle class may represent, for the casual observer, the most
visible class in America. Jeff Klassen and Jennifer Kretchmar explore how
the roles of civic life and voting help to distinguish the middle-class from
others, and suggest that Eric Olin Wrights 1970s work on contradictory
class locations is useful in defining a growing middle-class.
The remaining essays provide a deeper look into the factors that underlie
poverty and social stratification in America. Geraldine Wagners essay
examines the emergence of the underclass in the 1980s and the causes
that influence the growing number of women and ethnic minorities in this
group. Michael P. Auerbach turns to culture as an indicator of poverty,
arguing that beyond political or economic factors sociological forces are
at work, many of which have cultural underpinnings. Auerbachs contention that class stratification does not emerge directly from economic
realities alone is supported by PD Casteel, who identifies the growing
feminization of poverty in the Latino population. In her essay on income
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inequality, Jennifer Christian examines how the working poor suffer the
adverse effects of health and criminal victimization. These factors, also
identified by Casteel and Christian, are among a host of characteristic
issues that represent the growing disparity between rich and poor. The
final essay by Geraldine Wagner provides both an overview on the subject
of poverty studies and a review of arguments for the resolution of poverty
in America.
Modern sociology is founded upon a study of social differentiation and
specifically the foundations of poverty and inequality. The arguments
posited by the authors of this volume reveal the diversity of approaches
to the study of class issues and the ongoing significance of class inequality
in America. Included in this collection are complete bibliographic entries,
which follow each essay, and a list of suggested readings that will locate
sources for advanced research in the area of study. A selection of relevant
terms and concepts and an index of common sociological themes and ideas
conclude the volume.

Defining Class

The Class System


Geraldine Wagner

Overview
In the late 1970s, the U.S. experienced an economic downturn and the
beginnings of post-industrialization, whereby many manufacturing jobs
began leaving America for low-income countries and for workers willing
to accept much lower wages than U.S. workers. These changes caused
economic inequality to increase dramatically, and Americans began to
wonder whether there was a way to reverse the trend for themselves and
their own families. Was education the answer to turning the income tide?
College became a huge industry with more and more people seeking not
the traditional liberal arts education, but college programs that would
translate into job skills. What about the people who lagged behind them
in education and still cannot catch up or those who cannot afford to enter
the world of computers and high technology? Will they be able to compete
with those other segments of the population that have been able to stem the
low economic tide? If they cannot, what will happen to them in this land
of the rich, where poverty exists, but is often hidden behind mass market
clothing, easy credit, and cheap consumer items (Neckerman, 2004)?
In order to begin examining these issues and more, some background in
the sociology of stratification is needed.

Sociology Reference Guide

What is Stratification?

The United States is divided into social groups, or classes, with the divisions based on the wealth, prestige and power of members of each group.
Because these groupings are hierarchical, with the top categories receiving
more of the life chances available in America, it is said to have a system
of stratification. This hierarchical system puts those with the most wealth,
power, and prestige at the top of the hierarchy, and those with the least, at
the bottom.
The Major Stratification Systems: Slavery, Caste & Class

There are three basic, historical social systems in use in the world:
Slavery,
The caste system and
The class system.
Each of these systems is subject to erosion as technology and industrialization become central to a countrys economy. In the southern United States,
during the 17th century, slavery was an important part of the plantationbased agrarian economic system. But with advances in technology, the
plantation system that required human toil was eventually replaced by
agribusinesses utilizing machinery that could do the work of hundreds of
people.
Some might even argue that in the U.S., there is more of a caste system
than a class system, because there is less upward mobility for some social
groups than people might think. Indeed, the class system is a stratification
system based on birth, like the caste system, as well as on achievement
(Macionis 2007).
Two closed systems of stratification are slavery and the caste system. The
caste system, as well as slavery, should begin to erode with the advent of
industrialization. India is an example of a country where the caste system
is slowly dissolving as education and employment become more universal. Slavery involves the ownership of some people by other people. Slaves
are considered property and so they have little or no control over their own
lives and often over the lives of their offspring. Historically, there have

Defining Class

been only five western slave societies: ancient Greece, the Roman Empire,
the U.S., the Caribbean and Brazil (Engerman, 1995).
Another closed system is the caste system whereby peoples social status is
decided at birth, usually because of their parents status. Others are placed
in caste based on the type of work they do, or based on their race. Many
have argued that a caste system exists in the United States, where poor
children tend to remain poor and fail to experience upward mobility into
upper strata. Others point to the Guest Worker program recently suggested for Mexican immigrants. These legal and illegal immigrants, whether
they are living and working in the U.S. with or without proper paperwork,
are necessary to the nations economy. Through their labor, their taxes
and their consumerism, they contribute to the wealth of the American
middle class, but their own status as second-class citizens, it is argued,
would be institutionalized through the guest worker program. With the
current system, undocumented workers become exploited. They work for
low wages in poor working conditions. If they complain, employers can
threaten to have them deported. Entire industries, like meatpacking, use
many undocumented workers making up a critical mass of employees and
threaten the livelihoods and standards of other American workers who
end up competing with those immigrants who accept less. With U.S. jobs
offering lower pay and benefits, the exploitation of immigrants could be
undermining American workers as well (Traub, 2007).
As a society moves from an agrarian economic base to an industrial one,
people must be placed in a variety of jobs requiring various skills and
abilities. This process of sorting people, leads to a class system, at least in
the workplace. Some elements of the caste system exist in a class system.
For example, the importance of the family unit in a class system society
provides the stability and requirements of duty and loyalty that a caste
system produces.
The class system is defined as the most open, allowing people in one class,
through social mobility, to have the opportunity to move to a higher class,
or with downward mobility, even to a lower class. Even though birth affects
ones social class, through achievement and mobility, a person can end up
in a different class from other blood relatives (Macionis, 2007). The class
a person occupies determines his or her life chances, or ability to receive
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more and better resources from the system. Within the class system, inequality among classes levels off when industrialization establishes itself,
and then begins to increase during a post-industrial phase. This could be
caused by the plethora of service-related employment, which takes the
place of manufacturing jobs, and which often pays much less.
Meritocracy

An industrialized society needs people with a variety of abilities, and thus,


develops a system of rewards in the manner of better life chances, wealth,
power, and prestige and quality goods. People in a class society come to
expect that hard work, talent, and ability will lead to more rewards for some
and fewer for others. This is a system of meritocracy. In a caste system, one
receives reward for being obedient and dutiful. The class system uses meritocratic methods to increase productivity and efficiency in the work place,
but relies on caste system qualities such as the institution of the family to
keep control and order in society (Macionis, 2007).
Status Consistency

Class systems offer greater mobility than other systems, so there is less
status consistency. For example, someone with a college degree in the U.S.
might make far less than a factory worker in an automobile manufacturing
plant, where one would expect the opposite.
Class Differences in the U.S. Based on Income & Wealth

At some point in our development as human beings living in the United


States, we begin to realize that some people have more than others: more
material goods such as houses, cars, nice clothing, toys, and easy ability
to obtain those goods. It seems that some people have all the latest stuff
that arrives on the market, while others struggle to simply put food on the
table for their families and others sleep in church dooryards. That ability to
obtain certain goods and the quality of those goods is generally linked not
just too personal preference, but to social class, part of a system of stratification. Stratification means institutionalized inequalities in the distribution of resources such as power, wealth, and status between categories of
persons within a single social system. Thus, stratifications are a trait of
society and not simply individual determinations (Macionis, 2007). These
inequalities tend to run along race, class and gender lines and help to deDefining Class

termine the ownership and control of resources and the type of work that
people perform.
To compound and perpetuate the problem is the fact that the U.S. economy
is blind to the needs of people who have fewer resources than others. Thus,
a large group of Americans are not only poor, but also less able to participate fully in society (Koepke, 2007).
Differences in the ability for some to accumulate more than others have
historically led to conflicts between groups that have achieved it and those
who feel that they have not received their fair share of societys wealth.
This inequality continues to exist today in the United States. In fact, among
the wealthy nations of the world, the United States receives the distinction
of being first in a list of societies with inequality of income distribution
(Rothchild, 1995).

Further Insights
Why Does Stratification Exist?

Sociologists use the accepted theoretical perspectives to look at and explain


social class differences and how they relate to social inequality.
The Functionalist Perspective

Functionalists look for the things in society that make it stable and help
it to run smoothly and efficiently. Their perspective finds that inequality
must exist and is not harmful. Certain positions in society are more important than others and they must be filled by the most qualified people. These
people must have the ability and the talent to perform these jobs and therefore, must be compensated with a higher level of income, wealth, prestige
and power. One example might be a heart surgeon who must spend years
in school and in training and who has the welfare, if not the entire life, of
an individual in his or her hands. This system of rewarding people for
their work with wealth, power and prestige for jobs that are unique and
demanding is called meritocracy. A meritocracy rewards people based on
their abilities and their credentials. It is a hierarchical system.

Sociology Reference Guide

Davis-Moore Thesis

This thesis by two prominent social scientists, argues that stratification is


necessary and beneficial for the smooth operation of a society. The greater
the functional importance of a persons job, the more he or she should be
rewarded for it. This makes others want to strive for the same rewards and
thus increases productivity. Equality among all people would essentially
make them lazy and not motivated to achieve (Macionis, 2007). This is an
argument that is often used against the idea of implementing a socialized
medicine program in the U.S.
The Conflict Perspective

The conflict perspective in sociology argues that stratification does not


simply reward some people for their extraordinary effort; it gives them an
unfair advantage over others that is difficult to overcome.
The Marxian Perspective on U.S. Class Structure

The most well-known conflict perspective regarding social class is the


work of Karl Marx, who believed that our wealth and position in society is
based on how we fit into the system of production as either the owners of
the means of production of goods, such as the factories, or we sell our labor
for an hourly wage. Marx recognized only the two classes: the capitalists,
or bourgeoisie who owned the land, capital, factories, and mines and the
working class, or proletariat, who worked for the capitalists to earn a living
wage. Marx explained that exploitation of the proletariat by the capitalists occurred because the excess production produced, which did not go
to the workers, but became profit for the capitalists, made for an unequal
distribution of the accumulated wealth produced. When this occurred, the
workers felt a sense of alienation, or powerlessness within the equation
of capitalist over proletariat. Exploiting the workers would lead to class
conflict and an overthrowing of the capitalists and a more equal distribution of wealth overseen by a more or less just government.
The Weberian Perspective on U.S. Class Structure

Another prominent social scientist, Max Weber, pointed out that the relationship between the haves and the have-nots was not as cut and dried
as Marx would have it. He identified three dimensions of stratification,
wealth, prestige and power, which determine a persons social class.
Defining Class

Wealth is identified as ones assets such as property and income. Those


who have a similar level of such assets are included in one social class. The
more wealth one has, the higher the social class to which he or she belongs.
A case in point is Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft Corporation, who
enjoys not only wealth, but also two other dimensions, prestige for his accomplishments and his philanthropy and power for his ability to affect the
lives of others using his wealth and prestige.
One can also be in a higher social class even without a lot of wealth if
he or she commands prestige: the respect of others based on life work or
position. For example, Mother Theresa, a nun from Macedonia who won
the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize (Nobel Foundation, 1979), spurned the accumulation of wealth, and chose to live in poverty, but she was courted by the
wealthiest and most powerful people in the world because of her prestige
as a champion of the poor.
A third dimension of Webers notion of social class is power, where a
person can obtain his or her will despite the objections of others. An easy
example of power would be the President of the United States, who can
make very unpopular decisions and remain unaffected by the will of the
people. Many Americans believe that one must stand behind the decisions
of the President, whether he is right or wrong.
Symbolic Interactionist Perspective

While functionalist and conflict sociological perspectives take in the big


picture of society and look at large groups of people, called a macro level
analysis, the symbolic interactionist perspective takes a micro level view
of topics such as social class and stratification. A symbolic interactionist
would then study the effects of poverty, for example, on a group of high
school students and their grades and their ability to attend college. Or,
the symbolic interactionist might study the language used in the work
place to identify workers, noting that those with less prestige are
often called by their first names, while those with a higher office might be
referred to with a title and last name (Rollins, 1985).
Social Classes

Social classes do exist, says journalist John OSullivan. If they didnt, we


wouldnt have a need for etiquette books which teach us how to behave
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in social situations, because ...there is no need for advice on etiquette in


a society in which people remain fixed in the circumstances in which they
were born. Everyone knows how to behave at home (OSullivan, 2001, p. 1).
OSullivans flippant observation of the existence of social classes aside,
there is hard evidence that social classes do exist and that they can profoundly affect the lives of the people who inhabit those classes.
Several classes, or groups, have been identified in American society, beginning at the top, with 1% of the population belonging to the upper-upper
and the upper classes. These people have accumulated wealth over long
periods of time due to inheritance, or have come into a great deal of money
through investment. Others in the upper class tend to be sorts or entertainment figures. People in these classes tend to have a great deal of influence
on the economy and society, despite the fact that there are few of them
(Gilbert, 2003).
The upper-middle class makes up about 14% of the population and includes
highly educated professionals such as physicians, attorneys, and stockbrokers, and those in upper managerial positions.
While most Americans consider themselves part of the middle class, only
about 30% of the American population, including white collar and skilled
blue collar workers, actually falls within this category.
The working class makes up another 30% of the population and includes
factory, clerical and retail sales workers.
The working poor, about 20% of the population, include laborers and
service industry workers. These people are called the working poor because
while they work full time, they do not earn enough to support themselves
or their families. Many single mothers belong to this class as do people of
color (Gilbert, 2003).
The underclass, about 5% of the population, is made up of temporary,
seasonal, or part time workers, many of whom also receive some form of
public assistance. This group is generally under-educated and does not
work consistently (Gilbert, 2003).

Defining Class

11

What Inequality Means for Some People


Cross-National Income Inequality

With massive changes in the American welfare system, the welfare poor
have now become the working poor. Poverty rates have not gone down
with the welfare rolls. Rather, the U.S. has the dubious distinction of having
the highest poverty rates in the world. U.S. public policy is often blamed
for the situation.
Several years ago, the British government instituted a policy, promising
to end child poverty in England. Since then, that goal has reached a level
of accomplishment, with the child poverty rate reduced from 25 to 13%. A
working tax credit was established for parents working at least 16 hours
per week, and another tax credit helped pay up to 70% of childcare fees.
These types of policies are not in place with the current U.S. administration. Under George W. Bush, the number of poor children has increased.
It seems that policies make the difference; if a nation wants to reduce, or
eradicate poverty, it can be done, but if a nation chooses to keep people
poor, it can also do that (Smeeding, 2004).
Family Income Mobility

Despite a favorable economic climate in the past decade, and the fact that
the mean family income level in the U.S. is substantially higher than that
of other industrialized countries, its poverty rate is one of the highest. The
reason, researchers argue, is a higher than ever inequality in family income
and family income mobility, the ability for a family to increase its income
over time, or compensate for a low income one year, by accumulating a
higher income the next year.
In the years since the early 1970s, there has been sluggish growth in family
income and rising earnings and continual income inequality. Although
there is substantial income mobility, the extent of mobility has not increased over this period, resulting in a larger gap between those at the top
and those at the bottom of the economic stratification system (Gottschalk
& Danziger, 1997).
To counteract the negative impact of the increase in inequality over the last
two decades, the labor market must be improved with supplementation
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policies available to bolster the incomes of those who have not experienced
any benefits from economic growth. This includes less-educated workers
and inner-city residents (Gottschalk & Danziger, 1997).
Incarceration, Health Inequality, & Un- or Under-Employment

Although their numbers are large and ever-increasing, the poor are invisible in Americas affluent society. Poor people are seldom depicted in
movies or on television, especially during periods of economic prosperity.
By the year 2000, unemployment rates dropped to historically low levels,
but still there were large numbers of working poor, employed in minimum
wage jobs. Simultaneously, the stock market boomed and the rich grew
richer; the poor, whether rural or urban, young or old, were forgotten.
Some things have changed for the demographics of the poor. The elderly
have pulled out of poverty through social security benefits. But poor urban
blacks remain the most isolated both physically by congregating in cities,
and economically, since the lowest paying jobs are in those same areas. This
underclass, which resides outside the class structure, displays high rates of
unemployment, crime and family deviation. They are avoided by Middle
America and thus, ignored. Not until the economic problems that plague
the underclass begin to filter into the middle classes as happened during
the Great Depression of the 1930s, does anyone notice urban poverty.
To compound the invisibility of the poor, the increase of the likelihood of
imprisonment further conceals offenders by removing them from the poor
communities from where the penal system receives most of its population.
Nor are their numbers reflected in any government account of economics,
joblessness, or poverty. This exacerbates the inequality caused by incarceration.
When the inmates of Americas prisons and jails are taken into account,
it seems obvious that racism and poverty, while over the horizon of high
walls, is not far from reality (Western, 2004).
Health Inequality

According to Deaton (2003), richer, better-educated people live longer


than poorer, less-educated people. According to the National LongituDefining Class

13

dinal Mortality Survey, which tracks how long people live, those whose
family income in 1980 was greater than $50,000, putting them in the top
5 percent of incomes, had a life-expectancy at all ages that was about 25
percent longer than those in the bottom 5 percent, whose family income
was less than $5,000 (Deaton, 2003).
Not only are wealth, income, education, and occupation projective of ones
ability to live longer, but so are several more interesting indicators. For
example, one study discovered that the larger the gravestone, the longer
that persons life-span; another study points out that winners of Oscars
live nearly four years longer than those who were nominated but did not
win (Deaton, 2003).
Pink Collar Work for Women

Americans are being convinced that more and more families are dual
career families. Yet studies have shown that married women in such situations, those who are lawyers, doctors, or college professors, are a small
minority of working women. The fact remains that women are still earning
less than men and are still represented in smaller numbers in top level
professions (Benenson, 1984). At the turn of the 20th century, only one fifth
of women were in the U.S. labor force. Today, the numbers have tripled to
59%, with 71% of these women working full time (Macionis, 2007).
These women are often married with children under the age of six years
old, while widowed, divorced, or separated women with children reach
levels up to 74% of working women (Macionis, 2007). Yet societal attitudes
change slowly and women are often perceived as unqualified for some
types of work, which tend to pay better, and they too, are still held primarily responsible for the care of home and children. Even the women who
work full time, do what is called a double shift of work in the workplace,
and then work at home.
Look around and notice that men dominate many job categories such as the
building trades, heavy-equipment mechanics, police officers, engineers,
lawyers, physicians, surgeons, and corporate managers. Women tend to
be relegated to so-called pink collar jobs such as administrative assistants,
secretaries, child care workers, health care and food service workers.

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Society defines some work as masculine and other types of work as


feminine. Women are often not viewed as qualified for the masculine jobs.
This translates too, to a variance in income. In 2006, the median income for
full time working women was $31,858, while for men it was $41,386. Even
in the upper strata, men were two and one half times more likely than
women to earn more than $75,000 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2006).
Conclusion
The Future Class System

Americans have always believed in what Hertzler calls a mobility orientation, (Hertzler, 1952, 1) that the U.S. class system is open and flexible.
But we also know that the system is imperfect and allows some people
to succeed who dont deserve to, often referred to as The Peter Principle
(Clark, 2008) while at the same time, leaving behind those who deserve
better. Obstacles such as racism, discrimination and unequal opportunity
still exist and will be joined in the future by new obstacles. Social positions are becoming more rigid, with stricter boundaries, thus offering less
vertical mobility. People have also become complacent with their lot, believing that their lives are acceptable.
It has become much more difficult today to get ahead, or launch a new
business in the U.S. Those who have already started out with a parent in
the highly technically trained fields have an advantage over those who
want to try to move into those positions from lower social strata. It costs
more for the training and the apprenticeship necessary to gain professional status in certain fields. Even unions may be keeping some people
out of jobs by requiring membership in the organization in order to be
hired. When people try to change jobs to better themselves, being tied to
the benefits offered by the current job may prevent them from making the
change. Workers become dependent for some of the securities of life, especially health insurances (Hertzler, 1952).
The U.S. educational systems does the same type of sifting as the workplace, with 80% of upper and upper middle class children getting a college
education, while only 20% of middle class children, and 5% of lower class
children gain access. Some of this may be caused by teacher preference for
upper class children, with reputations established by the fifth grade for
most children (Hertzler, 1952).
Defining Class

15

But perhaps the most important element of the future class system and
its tendency to begin closing rather than remaining open, is that people
crave security and they are not willing to take risks as people once did, to
get ahead, or to make a name for themselves in a business or enterprise
(Hertzler, 1952).
Thus, the American Dream is becoming less real for more people. Americans
are willing to settle for less, and the social strata are becoming more rigid.
The loop holes that allow some people to break through the barriers from one
social class to another are closing. Those who have attained a certain social
and economic status are holding on to it and cleverly managing to pass it on
to their children.
The potential contributions to society of the many people in the lower
social strata could be lost in the future because of these tendencies.

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Mother Teresa. (1979). Retrieved June 29, 2008 from The Nobel Foundation. http://
nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1979/teresa-bio.html
Neckerman, K., ed. (2004). Social inequality. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
OSullivan, J. (2001). Head of its class(es). National Review, 53 (6), 24-26. Retrieved August
14, 2008 from EBSCO online database Academic Search Premier: http://search.
ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=4223689&site=ehost-live
Rollins, J. (1985). Between women: Domestics and their employers. Philadelphia: Temple
University Press.
Rothchild, J. (1995, Jan. 30). Wealth: Static wages, except for the rich. Time Magazine, 145
(4), 52.
Smeeding, T. (2004). Public policy and economic inequality: The United States in
comparative perspective. Luxembourg Income Study
Working Paper Series, #367. Retrieved August 12, 2008 from http://www.lisproject.org/
publications/LISwps/367.pdf
Traub, A. (2007). Guest-worker caste system. Retrieved August 11, 2008 from TomPaine.
com.
http://www.tompaine.com/articles/2007/03/16/guestworker_caste_system.
php
U.S. Census Bureau. (2006). Historical Income Tables-Families. September 15, 2006.
Retrieved August 13, 2008 from http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/income/
histinc/incfamdet.html
Western, B. (2004). Incarceration and invisible inequality. Retrieved August
12,
2008
from
http://www.russellsage.org/publications/workingpapers/
incarcerationinvisibleineq/document

Suggested Reading
Dolbeare, K. & Hubbell, J. (1996). U.S.A. 2012: After the Middle-Class Revolution. New
Jersey: Chatham House.
Hinshaw, J. & LeBlanc, P. (eds.) (2000). U.S. Labor in the 20th Century: Studies in WorkingClass Struggles and Insurgency. New York: Humanity.
LeBlanc, P. (1999). A Short History of the U.S. Working Class from Colonial Times to the
Twenty First Century. New York: Humanity.

Defining Class

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Social Mobility in the U.S.


Michael P. Auerbach

Overview
Political campaigns, particularly presidential election campaigns, can be
extremely delicate and volatile. Any negative image or misconstrued
comment can be turned into political fodder for opponents and become
a death knell for a campaign. Some comments cut very deeply and leave
an indelible mark on the American electorate. In the 1980 Presidential
campaign, Ronald Reagan stood at a podium opposite the beleaguered incumbent, Jimmy Carter, and asked voters a simple question: Are you
better off than you were four years ago? With a stagnant economy, high
inflation, an embassy hostage standoff, and an energy crisis, the question
was purely rhetorical (Wirthlin, 2004). More than two decades later, the
advisors who helped Reagan write that question into his debate presentation are realizing its impact on future presidential elections: Today, voters
by and large believe that the countrys leadership is responsible for making
their lives significantly and quantifiably better (Wirthlin, 2004).
This desire for improvement, or upward social mobility, is part of what
drives American society and the American dream. However, many Americans also experience horizontal or downward social mobility as they move
into lateral or lower social strata. Whether upward, downward or horizontal, social mobility is an integral part American society. This paper casts a
look at many of the permutations of social mobility, and as a result, offers
a detailed portrait of social mobility as it functions in American society.
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Social Mobility

Sociologists define social mobility as the movement of individuals and


groups between different class positions as a result of changes in occupation, wealth, or income (Giddens, 2007). They also identify six types
of social mobility, two of which are structural mobility and circulation
mobility. Structural mobility refers to movement between social classes
that occurs as a result of a change in a society, such as an economic expansion. Structural mobility, as the name suggests, is not attributable to factors
particular to individual people or groups, but rather to environmental conditions that affect an entire population.
Circulation mobility, on the other hand, is more individual in focus. It refers
to movement between social classes that is attributable to factors particular
to individual people. With circulation mobility, no class is enlarged or diminished, rather the class structure remains stable while individuals rise or
fall within it. Circulation mobility is also called exchange mobility because,
in it, individuals simply exchange positions with one another, rather than
rise or fall as a group. Oftentimes, this type of mobility occurs as a result
of an individuals talents, efforts, or opportunities, or lack thereof. Societies which have a high degree of circulation mobility are said to have a
high degree of equality, since, in these societies, individuals can move into
higher social strata.
Sociologists continue to debate whether or not these two concepts should
be treated separately in the study of social mobility. As an individuals
social status changes due to social mobility (in other words, because he or
she set out to achieve this status), he or she may or may not find usefulness
in taking advantage of structural changes. For the purposes of this paper,
this author adopts a more progressive perspective of social mobility, at
least in terms of its occurrences in the United States, allowing for an overlap
between social mobility and structural mobility to be taken into account in
a larger paradigm of mobility in American society.
Job Prospects

In any capitalistic society, one of the first steps in achieving upward social
mobility is the pursuit of gainful employment. Most Americans believe
that a well-paying job and a better life can be obtained through drive,
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19

ambition, and skill. When one views the number of available jobs in the US
in comparison to the number in developing countries, it appears that the
American dream is viable. Certainly, many people do move upward into
better jobs and higher social strata when economies enlarge and diversify.
However, there is reason to question the United States reputation as the
land of opportunity. Social mobility is dependent not just on the number
of well-paying jobs, it is dependent on the number of individuals who
move into those higher-paying positions as well. If growth is widespread
enough to ensure that a large cross-section of the population is able to move
upward, then upward social mobility is considered at a high. Conversely,
if only some of the population is moving upward and others remain at the
same level, then upward social mobility is stunted.
This key point is of interest when one reviews the last century of American
history. Twenty-first century America is currently experiencing growth
in a number of important industries, such as technology, research and development, health care, and even government. Because many of these industries require a certain skill set or educational background, not every
American can take advantage of this prosperity.
When one takes this factor into account, a different picture of American
social mobility takes shape. In fact, although there have been many
economic booms in America during twentieth and twenty-first centuries,
the period during which upward social mobility reached its highest point
was immediately following the Great Depression. When the US finally
emerged from the doldrums, a tremendous number of Americans seized
on countless professional opportunities and found themselves immediately moving into a higher social and economic standing (Beller & Hout, 2006).
The point to be gleaned here is that social mobility as a general concept
does not simply review the accomplishments of one or even several
samples of the overall society. Rather, it acts on the premise that all individuals operate on an equitable plane if they are able to move upward or
laterally in large numbers, then sociologists see an appreciable growth in
social mobility. The US has experienced such growth, due in large part to
its diverse industrial composition and ability to recover relatively quickly
from economic crisis.

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Geographic Positioning

Over the course of the twentieth century, much has occurred in the United
States that has encouraged movement to different locales. Many baby
boomers, for example, have traveled extensively throughout the world,
while their parents either curbed travel before and during World War II, or
only travelled through combat deployments.
Throughout human history, men and women have traveled to different
geographic regions in pursuit of better opportunities to increase their
incomes and reduce their cost of living. For example, people have often
migrated to cities because jobs were more plentiful, it was easier to travel
to their workplaces, and more resources were available to ensure a comfortable lifestyle.
Then again, the technological advances that have occurred over the last
several decades in the US and elsewhere have added a new dimension to
the traditional view of social mobility. Many individuals still physically
move to regions where job opportunities are more plentiful. However, the
fact that so much of business in the modern American economy can be
conducted from thousands of miles away means that a new distinction
must be made between movement and mobility. The first of these terms
is indicative of physical transmission, while the latter may not necessarily
entail any sort of relocation (Kaufmann, 2006). In a country that has helped
create and integrate the global economy via modern technology, the US
seems poised to serve as an interesting case study in the divining of these
two terms which, at one time, seemed clearly one in the same.
Economic Opportunities

If one were to ask a sample of American citizens the top reason they would
like to move upward in society, the vast majority would cite higher income.
To some degree, social mobility is dependent upon an individuals actions.
Those seeking to move into higher social strata must develop and hone
their skills, receive career training, take advantage of available government
services, and work diligently to move upward in their chosen industries.
Still, it isnt uncommon for these resources and opportunities to be available to some, but not others. Inequity is an ongoing issue in the US, one
that often prevents individuals from moving into a higher stratum and
Defining Class

21

achieving the same dreams as others. Some individuals may attend better
public school systems or attend private schools. Others may have access to
better public services, or even find themselves in a geographic area that is
more conducive to social mobility than other areas.
Indeed, researchers studying intergenerational mobility have found that
families social statuses tend to remain the same over time in the US
(Mazumder, 2007). That is, as children grow-up, they tend to attain the
same social status as their parents and grandparents. Other studies suggest
that in more recent decades, children may even attain lower statuses than
their parents in the US (Mazumder, 2007). These findings have led many
comparative sociologists and the media to call into question the idea of the
US as a true land of opportunity (Mazumder, 2007).

Further Insights
Comparing Generations

One of the most effective ways of assessing social mobility in the US is


by comparing the status of individuals with that of their parents. In this
sense, President Reagan might have asked, Are you better off today than
your parents were at your age?
Indeed, much has happened in modern US history, and these changes
are important indicators of the evolution of the American experience. In
the twenty-first century, Americans are living longer and having fewer
children than past generations of Americans. At the same time, there are
fewer government services available now than in decades past, largely
due to a much more complex socio-economic environment (Antonucci,
Jackson, & Biggs, 2007).
To understand intergenerational mobility in the US, one must understand
the generations themselves. Americans of the twenty-first century are as
diverse as the situations and incidents that defined them. Baby boomers,
born in the early 1940s through 1960, are the products of parents who fought
in World War II and whose post-war dedication to raising a well-groomed,
well-heeled family inadvertently gave rise to a spirit of independence and
rebelliousness. Baby boomers children, born in the 1961-1981 timeframe,
are also the products of the Cold War, a roller coaster-like economy, and a
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resulting lack of government assistance programs (Howe & Strauss, 2007).


Even the economic conditions for each generation created singularities that
distinguished the varying ages being compared. Those who lived in times
of economic growth and prosperity have a different outlook on life than
those whose lives developed during periods of stagnation and negative
growth.
Even though each generation is in many ways unique and incomparable,
the common traits of each generation can be used to review the changes
(or lack thereof) that have occurred in the passage of time. This article next
looks at some of the changes that have occurred between generations and
their impact on social mobility in the United States.
Intragenerational Mobility in the U.S.

Thus far, this paper has discussed social mobility in terms of how an individual takes action to move into a different stratum. In the previous
section, the reader gleaned how social mobility is gauged by comparing
the position of a parent and his or her children, taking into account the
number and quality of opportunities and resources that are available. In
essence, this paper has focused until now on how individuals move into
higher, lower or lateral strata.
Next, however, this essay turns its attention to the why concerning some
forms of social mobility. Intragenerational mobility refers to how an
individuals changing personal attitudes and interests over a lifetime may
prompt that movement. It may also impact the economy, especially when
one individual representing a certain age group comes into contact with
another.
For example, an individual who has worked his whole life, paying into a
retirement system so that when he retires himself, he and his family will be
comfortable, may be surprised to know that retirement benefits have been
curtailed as he is about to leave his work. His dedication to the company
may not ever be questioned, and he may have even applied himself to
keeping a tight company budget. His attitudes about those benefits would
likely shift away from the company and toward receipt of those benefits
in a move into a different socio-economic class. Adding to the challenge
of the situation, he might have to fight for those benefits with a corpoDefining Class

23

rate leader who demonstrated the exact same dedication that he did at the
leaders age (Spitznas, 1998).
Intragenerational mobility has long been an interesting facet of the larger
framework of mobility. In the US, which has throughout its history demonstrated a great predisposition to evolve industrially and economically,
the changing perspectives of the individuals who comprise this nations
economy provide a very clear illustration of this important concept.
Conclusion

Social mobility is not just a discipline utilized for academic pursuits. It is


a gauge that is useful for answering the question then-candidate Ronald
Reagan asked of voters in 1980: Are you better off now than you were
before? Indeed, social mobility is an interconnected series of indicators
of social stratification and economic performance. By studying these components, a societys populations can be better understood in terms of what
they seek in making a better life for themselves.
The United States is well-qualified to serve as a case study in this pursuit.
After all, the US is hardly a homogenous society, whether in terms of social
stratification, workforce composition, cultural diversity or regional distinctions. It is also one of the more dynamic of the worlds national systems,
in that it seizes upon industrial, technological, socio-economic and political
developments that occur in a constant evolutionary frequency.
Social mobility is based on a number of factors, many of which were
outlined in this paper. In a general sense, however, it relies on two major
forces: Individual choice and initiative in one hand, and systemic change
in the other (the latter of which is known as structural mobility). The focus
of social mobility is on movement upward, downward and laterally.
This essay has focused on the goal of social mobility as a mechanism
that ensures a better way of life for the individual. In American society,
that better way of life begins with an optimal job and economic condition. There may be opportunities that become manifest, social services and
programs that may provide a boost and better job potentials in other geographic regions. Individual initiative, in these conditions, is paramount to
accomplishment of upward or lateral mobility.
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Additionally, there are environmental conditions over which the individual may not have control but are nonetheless critical to upward social
mobility. Structural mobility is at the core of the industrial changes that
entice job applicants as well as the economic environment that fosters the
opportunities that inspire individuals to seek ways to better their lives.
A growing school of sociological thought connects social and structural
mobility, and evidence from the United States experience lends credence
to this theory.
American history has also given appropriate examples of two important
methods of studying social mobility trends in a given system. The first, intergenerational mobility, provides an illustration of the comparative social
and economic situations of mothers and fathers and the statuses of their
children. This field has indeed proven useful for demonstrating how far a
society has come in terms of movement into higher strata. As demonstrated in this paper, mobility does not necessarily depend on opportunities,
but on the system that creates those opportunities for mobility.
On the other hand, intragenerational mobility casts a light on another important aspect of growth. Just as the playing field may change, so too does
the individual. He or she may have a change in perspective, one that can
ultimately contribute to the varying directions and degrees of mobility.
Social mobility (that is, the pursuit of a better life) is a central theme in
any modern society, and yet is critical in capitalistic environments in particular. As the icon of international capitalism, the United States has long
provided exceptional examples of how stratification and the pursuit of
upward mobility can occur, and will likely continue to do so for generations to come.

Bibliography
Antonucci, T.C., Jackson, J.S. & Biggs, S. (2007). Intergenerational relations: Theory,
research and policy. Journal of Social Issues, 63(4), 679-693. Retrieved March 21, 2008,
from EBSCO Online Database Academic Search Premier. http://search.ebscohost.
com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=27629855&site=ehost-live
Beller, E. & Hout, M. (2006). Intergenerational social mobility: The United States in
comparative perspective. Opportunity in America, 16(2), 19-36. Retrieved March
24, 2008, from EBSCO Online Database Academic Search Complete. http://search.
ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=22466157&site=ehost-live
Defining Class

25

Kaufmann, V. (2006). On transport history and contemporary social theory. Journal of


Transport History, 28(2), 302-607. Retrieved March 24, 2008, from EBSCO Online
Database Academic Search Premier. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=
true&db=a9h&AN=27638706&site=ehost-live
Mazumder, B. (2007). Trends in intergenerational mobility. Industrial Relations, 46(1),
1-6. Retrieved March 21, 2008 from EBSCO Online Database Business Source Premier.
http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=bth&AN=23481422&site=eh
ost-live
Spitznas, T.J. (1998). Generation gaps: How the different generations affect individuals
in the national economy. Westchester County Business Journal, 37(45). Retrieved
March 21, 2008, from EBSCO Online Database Regional Business News. http://search.
ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=bwh&AN=1284596&site=ehost-live
Teixeira, R. (2006, October 26). What the public really wants on jobs and the economy.
Center for American Progress. Retrieved March 21, 2008, from http://www.
americanprogress.org/issues/2006/10/public_wants.html.
Wirthlin, D. (2004, August 18). The quadrennial question. The New York Times. Retrieved
March 19, 2008, from http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9F01E3D7103
FF93BA2575BC0A9629C8B63.

Suggested Reading
Coleman, J.S. (1991). Matching processes in the labor market. Acta Sociologica, 34(1), 3-12.
Retrieved March 24, 2008, from EBSCO Online Database Academic Search Complete.
http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=6245388&site=eh
ost-live
Deasy, L.C. (1955). An index of social mobility. Rural Sociology, 20(2), 149-151. Retrieved
March 24, 2008, from EBSCO Online Database Education Research Complete. http://
search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ehh&AN=13212824&site=ehostlive
Guest, A.M. (2005). Frontier and urban-industrial explanations of US occupational mobility
in the late 1800s. Social Science Research, 34(1), 140-164. Retrieved March 24, 2008,
from EBSCO Online Database Academic Search Complete. http://search.ebscohost.
com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=15665308&site=ehost-live
Krymkowski, D.H., Sawinski, Z. & Domanski, H. (1996). Classification schemes and the
study of social mobility. Quality and Quantity, 30(3), 301-321. Retrieved March 24,
2008, from EBSCO Online Database SocINDEX with Full Text. http://search.ebscohost.
com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=9948461&site=ehost-live
New evidence on US mobility. (2006). Monthly Labor Review, 129(1), 50. Retrieved March
24, 2008, from EBSCO Online Database SocINDEX with Full Text. http://search.
ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ehh&AN=21294877&site=ehost-live

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Social Mobility & the Postindustrial Society


Michael P. Auerbach

Overview
In 1992, one of the worlds largest and most well-known companies was
on the ropes. Hemorrhaging money, laying off thousands of workers, and
rapidly losing business to its competition, IBM had no strong leadership,
long-term goals, or strategies. When Louis Gerstner arrived as Chairman
of that company in the early 1990s, IBM was considering splitting into
smaller, independent units, signaling an end to the companys long,
storied history. Gerstner, however, had other plans. One of his first acts as
chairman was to undertake an extensive tour through the company, soliciting thoughts and ideas not just from employees but from clients as well.
When asked by one of his colleagues for his vision of IBM, Gerstner replied
somewhat flippantly, The last thing IBM needs right now is a vision (anecdotage.com, 2008).
Gerstner famously led IBM, an icon of the industrial age, into the twentyfirst century with a combination of entrepreneurial flexibility and openmindedness. His accomplishments with the company in the face of a
changing business environment are the stuff of legend. In many ways,
IBMs reemergence coincided with the Western worlds transition from an
industrial and manufacturing economy into an economy of service and information. Sputtering machine plants and factories are not nearly as prevalent as they once were in the United States as blue-collar jobs have been
Defining Class

27

increasingly replaced by web-commerce, consultancies, and other whitecollar jobs. In the US, as well as across the industrialized world, the postindustrial era has officially begun.
And as developed nations economies have changed, so too have their labor
bases. These societies have experienced a need to adjust their focus on the
industries of the latter twentieth century. Although the people within these
societies must continue to take advantage of the opportunities available
to them, these opportunities are far different from those of only a decade
ago. As the post-industrial era is beginning, a change in the nature of social
mobility is also occurring. This paper will assess the ways in which social
mobility has changed in developed nations over the past few decades. By
casting a light on the changes in how people pursue upward mobility in
this new era, it will seek to understand how these societies are transforming along with the new political economy of the twenty-first century.

Further Insights
The Post-Industrial Era

After two centuries of inventions designed to efficiently increase manufacturing productivity, it is difficult to believe that the Western economy
could shift gears so dramatically. Since the mid-eighteenth century, every
European and North American economic infrastructure has been industrialized, and the twentieth century as seen the Eastern Asian and Indian
economies following suit. Innovations as the cotton gin, the steam engine,
vulcanized rubber, automobiles, and airplanes have given billions of
people jobs in a variety of manufacturing industries.
In the late twentieth century, however, Western economies began to change
and become more global. Multinational corporations could now reach virtually every corner of the world, and the spread of the Internet gave rise
to a new way of doing business: e-commerce. Because of these changes,
service industries like research and development, financial services,
software design, and cellular communications have become the dominant
economic drivers of the Western world (Hermelin, 2007).
Of course, the need for large manufacturing plants and factories has not diminished. International commerce means that a corporation may maintain
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its headquarters in one country, while large-scale plants may operate in


another country where labor is cheaper and the cost of real estate is low.
This practice, known as outsourcing, has contributed both to business development (as corporations save on operating costs by running factories in
less-developed countries) and to local, often impoverished societies (whose
labor bases often welcome the opportunity to go to work). In addition,
fears that government intervention can hinder successful business has led
the post-industrial world to be characterized by a free-enterprise approach
in which government controls are removed and the industries that once
made significant contributions to the economy are increasingly privatized.
Indeed, the world of the twenty-first century is markedly different from the
world of only a few decades ago. The industrialized nations of the world
are rapidly transitioning from a manufacturing base to a service industry
base. Formerly less-developed nations (known as LDCs) are becoming
heavily manufacturing-oriented, and the majority of their industrial bases
now comprise factories and assembly plants.
It is difficult to encapsulate or predict the effects the post-industrial era
will have. Still, it cannot be dismissed that this evolving order will have an
impact on humanity for generations to come. These political and economic
changes are already having strong impacts on society.
The Worker & the New Order

This paper seeks to focus on the sociological aspects of the post-industrial


era. However, it cannot be denied that social behavior in this period is
closely linked with the economy. In most modern societies, ones occupation is closely linked to ones social status, and since economic changes can
have a severe impact on ones occupation they can also impact ones status.
Post-industrialism has significantly changed society due in part to the shift
toward a service-based economy. As the way the industrialized world
does business changes, so too does the face of the worker. As US industries becomes more specialized and technological, workers must be more
educated and more skilled. Careers in medical research, computer science,
web marketing, and international business all call for advanced degrees
and specialized training. The individuals who have the education and
skills to hold these positions are now considered to occupy the top social
Defining Class

29

stratum. Those who are less skilled, however, have fewer opportunities
to gain a higher status and may even be pushed down into a lower status.
Thus, social status is becoming increasingly dependent on an individuals
occupation and his or her skill level (Sarossy, 1996).
In light of this fact, stratification does not necessarily occur on a national
societal level rather, it occurs on an international level. The simple reason
for this trend is that people go to where the jobs are: if the job in question,
such as a manufacturing position, is sent overseas to a less-industrialized
nation, then the individual must either go along with it, or become unemployed.
Post-Soviet Russia

In the case of Russia, the post-industrial world has created a new system
of social stratification. Previously, the heavily industrialized Soviet Union
used its satellites states, such as Ukraine and the Baltic states, as bases for
major manufacturing operations. When the USSR dissolved, so too did
the countless factories that it had built in those countries. When these industrial complexes closed their doors, thousands of workers lost their jobs.
Meanwhile, although the post-industrial era has been increasingly beneficial for many Russian citizens, there is still a need for less-skilled workers
in plants and lower-paying jobs. Many of those who are taking these jobs
are immigrants from former Soviet countries. Hence, Russian society is experiencing a new form of stratification, with immigrants from such former
Soviet satellites as Tajikistan and Azerbaijan entering Russian society as
minority groups. Lacking the skills and education necessary to move into
higher social strata, these immigrants have very little social mobility. Exacerbating matters is the fact that these extraterritorial workers are being
discriminated against by Russian citizens who are either on the same socioeconomic level or belong to strata (Mukomel, 2007). This example raises an
important point about social mobility as a whole: as upper and lower social
strata become increasingly divergent in the post-industrial era, upward
social mobility means not only escape from financial hardship, it can also
mean an escape from being the target of prejudice.
The Shrinking Middle

The Russian example casts an interesting light on the social changes


brought about by post-industrialism. In the industrial era, most societies
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had three distinct social and economic classes, once again largely defined
by the individuals occupation. Individuals in the lower classes usually
had few skills or professional qualifications, little education, limited job
growth, and infrequent upward mobility. Individuals in the upper class
tended to be well-trained and well-educated, occupy prestigious positions,
and have a high degree of financial security.
These two classes or strata are, to be sure, polar opposites both in terms
of economics and social groupings. The middle class is a much more
nebulous concept, however. Members of the middle class typically have
at least some postsecondary education, hold white collar jobs, and enjoy a
reasonable measure of financial security. Often the target of social policy
analysis due to its multifarious and complex composition, this stratums
social mobility has been rendered even more difficult to gauge because of
the economic changes brought on by post-industrialism.
This difficulty is created from the fact that the middle class is currently in
the midst of two major trends. The first is that middle classes of post-industrial societies are becoming increasingly educated. With many political
figures and social policymakers committed to supporting the middle class
through scholarships, grants, and other forms of financial aid, a larger percentage of the class is receiving a post-secondary education. Such increases
in education mean that the middle class is becoming a much more prominent part of society, and one with a much high degree of social mobility
(Van de Werfhorst & de Graaf, 2004).
Secondly, many of the jobs that once provided a stable, middle class income
have been eliminated as companies outsource them to other countries with
lower labor costs. As a result, education has become even more important
in the service economy for those seeking to maintain a middle-class lifestyle or move into an even higher social stratum. With a shift toward a
postindustrial service economy, members of the middle-class must either
take advantage of educational opportunities, or find themselves qualified
for only low-paying service sector jobs and be forced into a lower stratum.
One result of this shrinkage is that the upper and lower classes are becoming
increasingly polarized (Simmie & Brady, 1989). The political and social
policies designed to help members of the middle class attain a postsecond-

Defining Class

31

ary education have, by and large, failed to reach members of the lower
classes. With lower classes at a disadvantage, therefore, the gap between
them and the upper classes has widened (Haycock and Gerald, 2007).
This gap, which sociologists believe be fostered by the post-industrial
service economy, has been well-documented. Sociologists have theorized
in great numbers that post-industrial economies experience a relatively
high rate of social inequality because all but the lowest paying service jobs
require knowledge-intensive employees. As the labor-intensive manufacturing jobs which once supported the middle class are outsourced, industrial workers who lack the education necessary to hold a well-paying
service job are being forced to fill the low wage service sector jobs (Moller
& Rubin, 2004).
A Change in the Economy, a Change in the Worker

It goes without saying that the service industry is a different animal from
the manufacturing industry. This essay has already described one major
difference in employment requirements: education and training. Information technology, financial consultancy, and other service sectors call for
more educated and specialized vocationally-trained individuals than do
manufacturers, which tend to seek those with more limited training.
However, institutional and vocational education does not constitute the
entirety of the service industrys demand. The industry also demands that
its workers have what are called soft skills, or desirable interpersonal
skills and personal qualities. Workers in this arena must be able to perform
a task not as part of a daily quota, but as a response to a clients demand.
Meeting these demands and fostering positive relationships with clients
requires workers to have strong interpersonal, conflict resolution, and
communication skills. In the ongoing transition from industrial to post-industrial economic regimes, individuals who seek to achieve upward social
mobility by entering into service industry employment must develop
and improve upon these personal qualities. Successful transition into
this sector, therefore, is dependent on how well an individual is able to
adapt his or her personal qualities to his or her career (Bulan, Erickson &
Wharton, 1997).
In many cases, societies that have been operating in one industry sector
find that dramatic change to another industry is extremely difficult to
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Sociology Reference Guide

foster. A recent study compared the societies and economies of two of


the fastest growing countries in the world: China and India (Sweatshops
and Technocoolies, 2005). Each country has an economy that is growing
exponentially, and doing so through the same service industries that developed nations are fostering. Their methods of entering the post-industrial era, however, create an interesting illustration of the way in which the
transition from manufacturing-based economic infrastructures to servicebased economies involve the labor force in a manner that will ultimately
comprise their engines (Sweatshops and Technocoolies, 2005).
Prior to their respective industrializations, both India and China were
agrarian societies: their citizens spent the majority of their lives working
in the fields. For both societies, the change from an agrarian economy to
an industrial economy was not very difficult neither economy requires
workers to engage in comprehensive education or extensive training
regimens. However, both countries efforts to develop service sectors have
proved problematic. In Chinas case, society has been moving upward at a
slow, deliberate pace, a move which many observers criticize as too timeconsuming. In India, people are being encouraged to move upward toward
the service sector as well, but at a far quicker pace. The result for the latter
country is that the service industry is but a small part of that countrys
economy (only about 4% of the countrys gross domestic product), despite
a worldwide reputation as an exporter of information technology and call
center outsourcing services (Sweatshops and Technocoolies, 2005).

Discourse
Fostering Social Mobility in the Post-Industrial System

This paper has thus far paid considerable attention to the economic changes
brought about by post-industrialism, as well as how these changes have
impacted individuals who seek to move upward into a higher social and
economic stratum within its parameters. There is another, critical component of this discussion as it pertains to social mobility, one that becomes
manifest in the examples of India and China just provided: how an individual is able to make the upward transition when the economy has shifted
from a manufacturing- to a service-based system.
There are a wide range of activities in which one may engage in order to
move into a higher social stratum. Among them are moving to an area conDefining Class

33

ducive to gainful employment, seeking out financial assistance programs,


and utilizing available public and private resources. In the post-industrial
environment, however, one of the most vital components applicable to
social mobility is education.
As stated earlier, however, education is not simply a matter of coursework.
In many countries, baccalaureate-level education stresses the basic skills
reading, writing, and mathematics necessary to pass performance examinations in order to acquire a degree. These skills are, of course, invaluable
for any individual, but the service industry also seeks other talents. Among
these talents are creativity, risk-taking, leadership, teamwork, and teambuilding. Each of these less-tangible professional traits can be learned in
business courses, but likely need to be acquired through additional training
courses. If candidates do not have such outside of the box skills, they
may not be considered viable candidates for employment by the service
sector, particularly by a multinational corporation (Fan, 2006).
To offset this issue, many multinational corporations have created training
courses known as corporate universities, in which matriculates can
acquire these and other skills relevant to the goals and philosophies of the
company in question. In China, for example, Motorola, Siemens, Procter
and Gamble, and Ericsson all have corporate universities. Louis Gerstners
IBM also has an online training program. Each of these training resources
help individuals obtain the professional skills and personal characteristics
that will help them earn higher salaries and move into higher social strata.
Such training also creates loyal, long-term employees for the corporation.
In an era of shifting economic and social priorities, stability is key both for
employers and the individuals they hire.
Conclusion

Louis Gerstner was correct to refute the need for an inflexible perspective
about IBMs direction in 1992. The post-industrial era was taking hold, and
IBM, like every other major business, needed to assess the forces driving
the changes that were taking place. Indeed, IBM is once again a major
leader in the global, post-industrial economy.
The switch from a heavily-regulated manufacturing base to a free-market,
service base has had profound impacts not just on economies, but also on
34

Sociology Reference Guide

the societies in which they operate. This paper has shed light on the many
ways that individual social mobility can and does occur in this new environment, as well as the ways in which social groups and strata have been
adversely impacted.

Bibliography
Bulan, H. F., Erickson, R. J., & Wharton, A. S. (1997). Doing for others on the job. Social
Problems, 44(2), 235-256. Retrieved April 3, 2008 from EBSCO Online Database
SocINDEX with Full Text. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=s
ih&AN=9707156638&site=ehost-live
Classic Gerstner. (2008). Retrieved March 31, 2008 from http://anecdotage.com/index.
php?aid=14578.
Fan, Ke. (2006). How can multinational corporations retain their employees in China?
CAHRS (Cornell University) Working Paper Series. Retrieved April 4, 2008, from
http://digitalcommons.ilr.cornell.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1406&context=cah
rswp.
Haycock, K. &Gerald, D. (2007). Trend: Shrinking opportunity. Connection: The Journal
of the New England Board of Higher Education, 21(5), 15-16. Retrieved April 2, 2008
from EBSCO Online Database Academic Search Premier. http://search.ebscohost.
com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=24839389&site=ehost-live
Hermelin, B. (2007). The urbanization and suburbanization of the service economy.
Geografiska Annaler Series B: Human Geography, 89(1), 59-74. Retrieved April 3, 2008
from EBSCO Online Database Academic Search Premier. http://search.ebscohost.
com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=27301005&site=ehost-live
Moller, S. &Rubin, B. (2004). Jobs and income: Wages in a post-industrial economy.
Conference Papers American Sociological Association. Retrieved April 3, 2008 from
EBSCO Online Database SocINDEX with Full Text. http://search.ebscohost.com/
login.aspx?direct=true&db=sih&AN=15931576&site=ehost-live
Mukomel, V. (2007). Economic and social impact of migration on the recipient society: The
case of Russia. Conference Papers International Studies Association. Retrieved April
2, 2008 from EBSCO Online Database Academic Search Premier.
http://search.
ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=26958386&site=ehost-live
Sarossy, G. (2006). Social mobility in a post-industrial society. Statistical Journal of the UN
Economic Commission for Europe, 13(3), 233-243 . Retrieved April 1, 2008 from EBSCO
Online Database Academic Search Premier. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?d
irect=true&db=a9h&AN=9703061576&site=ehost-live
Simmie, J. & Brady, R. (1989). Middle class decline in post-industrial society. Long Range
Planning, 22(4), 52-62. Retrieved April 2, 2008 from EBSCO Online Database Business
Source Premier. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=bth&AN=1
2298059&site=ehost-live

Defining Class

35

Sweatshops and technocoolies. (2005, March 5). The Economist, 374(8416), 9-11. Retrieved
April 3, 2008 from EBSCO Online Database Academic Search Premier. http://search.
ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=16331442&site=ehost-live
Van de Werfhorst, H. G. and de Graaf, N. D. (2004). The sources of political orientations in
post-industrial society. British Journal of Sociology, 55(2), 211-235. Retrieved April 2,
2008 from EBSCO Online Database SocINDEX with Full Text. http://search.ebscohost.
com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=14047396&site=ehost-live

Suggested Reading
Broschak, J. P., &Niehans, K. M. (2006). Social structure, employee mobility, and the
circulation of client ties. Research in the Sociology of Organizations, 24, 369-401.
Retrieved April 4, 2008 from EBSCO Online Database SocINDEX with Full Text.
http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=sih&AN=18615953&site=eh
ost-live
Malos, S. B. & Campion, M. A. (1995). An options-based model of career mobility in
professional service firms. Academy of Management Review, 20(3), 611-644. Retrieved
April 4, 2008 from EBSCO Online Database Business Source Premier. http://search.
ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=bth&AN=9508080332&site=ehost-live
Payne, G. (1987). De-industrialization and occupational mobility. British Journal of
Sociology, 38(2), 254-265. Retrieved April 4, 2008 from EBSCO Online Database
SocINDEX with Full Text. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=
a9h&AN=6789209&site=ehost-live
Tomlinson, J. (2006). Routes to part-time management in UK service sector organizations.
Gender, Work, and Organization, 13(6), 585-605. Retrieved April 4, 2008 from EBSCO
Online Database Business Source Complete. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?
direct=true&db=a9h&AN=22642643&site=ehost-live
Yaish, Meir. (2000). Old debate, new evidence. European Sociological Review, 1 6 ( 2 ) ,
159-183. Retrieved April 4, 2008 from EBSCO Online Database SocINDEX with Full
Text. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=sih&AN=4234361&sit
e=ehost-live

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Sociology Reference Guide

Assessing Class: Income


Barbara Hornick-Lockard

Overview
A 1988 article in The Futurist (which now appears nave) predicted that
there is, as the title states, One Giant Middle Class (Cetron, 1988) which
will grow thorough the end of the 20th century. Rising incomes were
viewed as stretching farther because people were marrying late and having
fewer children then ever before. Lawrence Lindsey, Assistant Professor of
Economics at Harvard was quoted in the article as defining a middle-class
individual as someone who expects to be self-reliant, unlike the upper
class with its unearned wealth or the lower class with its dependency on
society. Far from declining, the middle class is bigger than ever, and its
ethic is alive and well (cited in Cetron, 1988, p. 10).
Years later, the promise of a homogeneous middle class may hold some
validity, but its continued vitality is less ensured. Income and access to
resources are traditional determinants of social class, and given dramatic
social and technology shifts, social scientists are beginning to take serious
stock of the historical income data from the last forty years that show an
inexorable gap in the aggregated incomes of the lowest and top earners.
Growing Income Inequality

This conspicuous inequality in earnings has only recently emerged on


the research agenda of sociologists. Some sociologists such as KenworDefining Class

37

thy (2007) and Kim and Sakamoto (2008), in their research on income, are
surprised that their fellow sociologists have not studied these phenomenon with more intensity. The complexity of these dramatic changes
defies classic sociological theory and sociologists are only beginning to
make sense of them and are starting to develop new models. In his article,
Inequality and Sociology, Kenworthy (2007) expresses a need to understand the rising disparity of earnings and income in the United States. The
growth in inequality is an important development in the United States
during the past generation and sociologists have not been able to offer
a class-based explanation for rising inequality . [and] to the extent they
have, the evidence does not appear to fit very well (p. 587).
Kim and Sakamoto (2008) studied aggregate occupational data to find the
underlying source of the differences in wage equality. They asked how
occupational structure relates to wage inequality and offered a series of
hypotheses, at the heart of which was that most of the recent increase in
wage inequality is largely within occupations, and the rising level of wage
inequality across this period is mostly unrelated to changes in the distribution of workers across occupations or to mean differences in wages across
occupations: Within-occupational inequality has increased more than
between occupational inequality, and the reduction in the explanatory
power of occupation is especially obvious after controlling for education
(p. 152).
In the early 1990s, sociologists began to embroil themselves in a debate
about whether social classes can be identified as old indicators fell away.
Clark and Lipset (1991) defined seven societal factors that were shaping
dramatic changes in society:
Politics with less class and more fragmentation;
Economic growth that is undermining the hierarchy
of class;
Decline of large industries and the spawning of smaller
entrepreneurial businesses;
Advancement of technology and the knowledge base;
globalization of the markets;
Decline of the traditional family; and
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Sociology Reference Guide

Less of an impact of families on stratification than of


women in the workforce along with greater rewards for
education.
Gilbert (2008) labels the twenty-five years after WWII as The Age of
Shared Prosperity, but the last thirty are tagged The Age of Growing
Inequality. He sees three significant shifts in job earnings:
Mens earnings have stagnated, on average;
Womens earnings have risen steadily; and
The distribution of earnings of both have become
more unequal.
Wages at the top have risen substantially, while real wages of those in
the lower half of the labor market have remained unchanged in the time
period (p. 57).
Classical sociological models of Marx, Weber and others were simple
and dont fit todays complex societies. As Scott and Leonhardt (2005)
remarked, As some sociologists and marketing consultants see it, the
commonly accepted big three the upper, middle and working classes
have broken down into dozens of microclasses, defined by occupations or
lifestyles (p. 1).
Gilbert, however, has not abandoned class models altogether. Although
he admits that structuring the classes is an art, not necessarily a science, he
stands by the model with six classes that he and his mentor, Joseph Kahl
created many years ago, based on typical income and occupation:
Privileged:
Capitalist 1%, Income $2 million +
Upper-middle Class 14%, $150,000
Majority Classes:
Middle Class 30%, $70,000
Working Class 13%, $40,000

Defining Class

39

Lower Classes:
Working Poor 13%, $25,000
Underclass 12%, %, $15,000 (2008, p. 27).
Gilbert qualifies his model by saying that the middle class and working
class traditionally portrayed by division between office and factory
was long regarded as the critical dividing line in the class structure. But
today many office jobs are simplified and routinized like jobs in the factory
(p. 14). He believes that the ldividing line between the capitalist and upper-middle classes and the classes below them has become most significant
mainly because the economic returns on capitalist property and on the
advanced education typical of the upper-middle class have grown rapidly
in recent years, while rewards for those without educations and skills are
diminished (p. 14).
Kenworthy (2007) has conducted comparative analysis with data from
other western countries in order to understand the evolution of the class
situation in the United States. He studied earning and income on three
levels of inequality:
Earnings among employed individuals;
Among households; and
Among households when government taxes and
transfers are included.
Globalization & Technology

Kenworthy contends that the growing gap of inequality of income among


the unemployed may be attributed to technology and globalization, but his
analysis shows that other industrialized countries have not realized nearly
the same discrepancy in income. He concludes that wage-setting institutions, such as unions, have also helped to account for the change with
downward pressure exerted on the wages of the least skilled and upward
pressure on the wages of the best. Households vary depending on number
of earners, length of employment through the year, and pairing of earners;
i.e., high earners tend to pair with high earners, and these factors also have
had a tremendous impact on the disparities.

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Sociology Reference Guide

He also says that,


. . . within-industry shifts in labor demand away from lesseducated workers are perhaps a more important explanation
of eroding wages than the shift out of manufacturing Also,
global competition and immigration [decline of unions]
decline in the real value of the minimum wage, the increasing
need for computer skills, and the increasing use of temporary
workers (p. 4).
Kenworthy believes that the issue of inequality is one of the most important societal phenomena in recent history and must be taken seriously by
sociologists. He also implies that tracking it is critical to setting public
policy for setting wages and adjusting transfer programs.
Neckerman and Torche (2007) review the research on economic inequality
including earnings, wealth, and opportunity. They say that as economic
inequality was recognized as more than a transitory phenomenon, sociologists and other social scientists began to study its implications. They point
to research that separates the transitory from permanent shifts in income.
Neckerman and Torche refer to an article by M. Gangl (2005) that shows
that the United States still has the highest income inequality among industrialized countries after accounting for short-term variation (cited in
Neckerman & Torche, 2007, p. 338). Consensus concerning this inequality includes evidence that the stagnant minimum wage has impacted the
lower strata, as has a decline in union membership declines. Male incomes
have been hardest hit and returns for higher education have had a significant impact.
A survey of the research also indicates to Neckerman and Torche that the
most challenged rationale for the inequality is the issue of technology.
Some researchers have found that disparities were emerging before digital
technology became entrenched in the 1990s. They point to others who
have studied the institutional shifts in business and labor, including a
shift from manufacturing to services, deregulation transformations in
corporate governance, a decline in union representation, and a rise in the
use of contingent labor (2007, p. 338). Inflated salaries for those at the
top have also contributed to what they call upper-tail inequality.
Defining Class

41

Inequality & Mobility

The American public has always cared more about equal opportunity
than about equal results, says Sawhill (1999, p. 4). This is central to the
American belief system. Socialism has never taken root in American soil,
but how much inequality is too much? Sawhill considers three hypothetical societies:
A meritocracy where society members are regarded for
hard work and talent regardless of who they are;
One in which citizens are rewarded by pure luck, a
lottery; and
One based purely on the family of birth with no possibility
of mobility.
Most Americans prefer and believe in the meritocracy model, she says,
with even those on the bottom rung, believing that their children will do
better than they, but for the last 25 years, the top one-fifth has been
improving their prospects while the other 80 percent has lagged behind
(Sawhill, 1999, p. 6).
Inequality matters over time if it affects inequality in the next generation. This raises the issue of equality of opportunity, or social mobility
(Neckerman & Torche, 2007, p. 339). Neckerman and Torche find conflicted research on measuring mobility in the United States. Family genes,
income and good parenting give some children a head start, but education
is an equalizer. Those at the bottom can move up with skills and experience, with the addition of more earners to the family, or better jobs; those
at the top can move down as result of a layoff, divorce, or business failure.
Every year, about 25 percent or 30 percent of all adults move between
income quintiles (Sawhill, 1999, p. 9).
In a surprising study on poverty and affluence, Rank and Hirschl (2001)
estimate that 51.1 percent of all Americans will experience at least one
year of their adult lives between the poverty line, and 51.0 percent will
have a year of affluence, with only 20.1 percent of Americans avoiding
the extremes. Their definition of affluence is the same as the U.S. Census
Bureau; i.e., affluence is 10 times the poverty level. Poverty and affluence
are life course events and race and education are the fault lines that divide
Americans into one group or the other (p. 667).
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Corcoran (1995) says that [if] poverty were sufficiently intergenerational,


this would violate the U. S. ideal of equal opportunity; i.e., that a young
adults economic destination should not be predetermined by his or her
social origins (p. 237). Corcoran points out that studies show that schooling is a better predictor of occupation status than demographic backgrounds (p. 238). Income has also been seen as an equal educational opportunity ticket to an education and mobility into a different social class,
but the greater the inequality the less fluid the mobility. The decline in
economic mobility over the past few decades raises red flags for social scientists and politicians as The increase in social mobility and the decline
in economic mobility . Have affected prospects for the youngest generation (Sawhill, 1999, p. 11).

Further Insights
Measuring Income

Income is the most frequent attribute used to determine class status, but
it is not the only one and is not necessarily the most relevant in our increasingly complex, post-industrial society. The hierarchical classification
of society based on social and economic variables, is traditionally divided
into upper, lower and middle classes, and may be further subdivided. The
subdivisions are frequently determined by occupation.
Household composition also has a considerable impact on measurements
of income and resultant class scale. The population trends of the last
thirty years, with more individuals living alone, smaller families, unmarried couples comprising a household and so on have challenged old definitions. The Federal government does not define class, but the U.S. Census
Bureau does measure individual, family and household incomes and
offers relevant reports for use by social scientists and public policy makers.
(http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/income/income.html).
The Census Bureau defines a family as consisting of
. . . two or more people (one of whom is the householder) related
by birth, marriage, or adoption residing in the same housing unit,
while a household consists of all people who occupy a housing
unit regardless of relationship . . . a household may consist of a
person living alone or multiple unrelated individuals or even a
multi-generational family living together.
Defining Class

43

Aggregate Income & Gini Index

Although it does not define social classes, the Census Bureau does derive
measures that track the distribution of and income inequality. The two
more common of these are the shares of aggregate income received by
households and what is called the Gini index.
Aggregate income measurements simply rank households from lowest to
highest which are then divided into equal groups, often by fives (quintiles).
Data indicate that the share of aggregate household income controlled by
the lowest income quintile has decreased from 4.1 percent to 3.6 percent in
1997, while the share to the highest quintile increased from 43.0 percent to
49.4. (U.S. Census Bureau, Historical).
The Gini index includes more detailed data into a formula to derive a
single statistic which summarizes the dispersion of the income shares
across the whole income distribution. It is the index of income concentration. Between 1969 and 1997, for example, the Gini index rose 17.4 percent
to its 1997 level of .459. The Gini index ranges from 0.0 when every family
(household) has the same income, to 1.0, when one family (household) has
all of the income. It is therefore, one way to measure how far a given income
distribution is from equality (U.S. Bureau of the Census, Income).
How do researchers at the U.S. Bureau of the Census account for the disparity of income inequality? Their reports affirm that
. . . changes in the labor market and, to a certain extent, household
composition affected the long-run increase in income inequality. Wage distribution has become considerably more unequal
with workers at the top experiencing real wage gains and those
at the bottom real wage losses: These changes reflect relative
shifts in demand for labor differentiated on the basis of education and skill. At the same time, long-run changes in societys
living arrangements have taken place also tending to exacerbate
household income differences Nonmarried-couple households tend to have lower income and income that are less equally
distributed than other types of households (partly because of the
likelihood of fewer earners in them), changes in household composition have been associated with growing income inequality
(U.S. Bureau of the Census, Income).
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Sociology Reference Guide

How is Income Defined?

Income implies wages earned from ones occupation, but it may also
include earnings on accumulated assets, as well as what is called transferred income or government benefits, cash and noncash, which encompass Social Security benefits, public assistance allocations, and payments to
veterans. Taxes, whether state, federal or payroll reduce household come,
which may be counter-balanced by tax credits. The Census Bureau also
issued a Current Population Report on The Effect of Taxes and Transfer
on Income and Poverty in the United States: 2005 in 2007, which accounted for those tax and transfer income variables. The report is at http://
www.census.gov/prod/2007pubs/p60-232.pdf.

Viewpoints
Should Class be an Issue?

If sociologists no longer define class, the popular press continues to try.


In a widely read series of articles published in 2005, the New York Times
asked whether or not class matters (Scott & Leonhardt, 2005). The authors
put forth a quintile class model stratified as lower class, lower middle
class, middle class, upper middle class, and upper class. Their formula for
determining placement in each of the categories was based on four factors
income, education, occupation, and wealth.
Professor Paul W. Kingston describes society as a ladder with rungs each
of which is equalized. He believes that those higher up the ladder have
advantages, but doesnt believe that they define class (cited in Scott & Leonhardt, 2005). His viewpoint conflicts with that of Michael Hout, professor of sociology at the University of California at Berkeley, as class awareness receding as class has reorganized American society, and says, that just
because there are a lot of rungs on the ladder doesnt mean that the issue
the situation is any better for those on the lower ones. He finds the end
of class discussions nave and ironic, because we are at a time of booming
inequality and massive reorganization of where we live and how we feel,
even in the dynamics of our politics. Yet people say, Well the era of class
is over (cited in Scott & Leonhardt, 2005).
Class is a non-issue when it is evident that those on the low end of the
income strata are losing ground. What are the consequences of growing
Defining Class

45

disparity in income in the United States and how should society address
them? Neckerman and Torche (2007) highlight research by Evans et al.
(2004) that delineates the typology of inequality effects:
Mechanical: if individual economic status is associated
with a given outcome, then an increase in economic inequality will lead to an increase in inequality of outcome;
i.e., if income predicts happiness than income inequality
should lead to a rise in disparities in happiness;
Relational Effect: relationship between economic status
and a given outcome changes; i.e., if association between
income and voting is strengthened, the electorate will tilt
toward the affluent;
Functional: nonlinear relation of economic status and
outcome; i.e., absolute increase in income creates larger
improvement in health for the poor than for the rich;
Externality Effect: contextual; living in high equality may
intensify feelings of relative deprivation among the lowincome, leading to higher levels of violent crime (p. 341).
There is perpetual debate in this country about tax levels and what proportion of federal and state funds are to be allocated to address pressing
social needs. Americans are generous, but have always been reluctant and
cautious about increasing social welfare benefits for many reasons, not
the least of which are deeply held beliefs about placing responsibility on
the individual who should have an opportunity to achieve the American
dream. It is acknowledged that social welfare funding in the United States
is low compared to that of most other western, traditionally industrialized countries.
The struggle to raise the minimum wage is a case in point in how difficult it
is to attempt to reduce the inequality gap with public policy. In his paper
on the minimum wage and income inequality, Volscho (2005) studied
minimum wages over a forty year period to test his belief that states with
higher minimum wages have improved levels of family inequality. His
findings confirmed the hypothesis and he even derived calculated dollar
figures to maximize the redistribution effect of the minimum wage.

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Sociology Reference Guide

Extended income disparity has implications beyond where one fits in the
social strata. Swanstrom and others (2002) studied the spatial segregation
of income groups in metropolitan areas and theorized that it promotes
rising economic inequality and amplifies its effects in ways that do not
show up in the income statistics (p. 350). The poor may be always with us,
but they still need to be integrated in economic, social and political forums
and communities.

Bibliography
Clark, T., & Lipset, S. (1991). Are social classes dying? International Sociology, 6(4), 397410.
Cetron, M., Rocha, W., & Lucken, R. (1988). One giant middle class. Futurist, 22(5), 10-11.
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database, SocINDEX with Full Text http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=t
rue&db=sih&AN=26613926&site=ehost-live
Rank, M., & Hirschl, T. (2001, December). Rags or riches? Estimating the probabilities of
poverty and affluence across the adult American life span. Social Science Quarterly,
82(4), 651. Retrieved September 12, 2008, from EBSCO online database, SocINDEX
with Full Text. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=sih&AN=66
33775&site=ehost-live
Sawhill, I. (1999, Spring). Still the land of opportunity? Public Interest. Retrieved
September 3, 2008, from EBSCO online database, Academic Search Premier. http://
search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=1854341&site=ehost-live
Scott, J. & Leonhardt, D. (2005, May 15). Class in America: Shadowy lines that
still divide. New York Times. 1. Retrieved September 3, 2008 from http://
www.nytimes.com/2005/05/15/national/class/OVERVIEW-FINAL.html?_
r=1&scp=1&sq=Does%20Class%20Still%20Matter?&st=cse&oref=slogin
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47

Swanstrom, T., Dreier, P., & Mollenkopf, J. (2002). Economic inequality and public policy:
the power of place. City & Community, 1(4), 349-372. Retrieved September 3, 2008,
from EBSCO online database, SocINDEX with Full Text.http://search.ebscohost.com/
login.aspx?direct=true&db=sih&AN=10454583&site=ehost-live
U.S. Census Bureau. The changing shape of the nations income distribution, 1947-1998.
Website viewed September 12, 2008.http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/income/
incineq/p60204.html
U.S. Census Bureau. The effect of taxes and transfer on income and poverty in the United
States: 2005. Current Population Report. Website viewed September 20, 2008. http://
www.census.gov/prod/2007pubs/p60-232.pdf.
U.S. Census Bureau. Historical income tables households. Website viewed September
13, 2008. http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/income/histinc/h02ar.html
U.S. Census Bureau. Income. Website viewed September 20, 2008. http://www.census.
gov/hhes/www/income/income.html
U. S. Census Bureau. Income inequality (1947-1998). Website viewed September 20, 2008.
http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/income/incineq/p60204/p60204txt.html
Weinberg, D. H. (1996). Current population reports: A brief look at postwar U.S. income
inequality. Retrieved September 12, 2008, from U.S. Census Bureau, Household
Economic Studies.http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/img/p60-191.pdf
Volscho, T. W. (2005). Minimum wages and income inequality in the American States,
1960-2000. Research in Social Stratification and Mobility, 23, 343-368.

Suggested Reading
Grusky, D., & Srensen, J. (1998). Can class analysis be salvaged? American Journal of
Sociology, 103(5), 1187. Retrieved September 12, 2008, from EBSCO online database,
SocINDEX with Full Text.http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=si
h&AN=418262&site=ehost-live
Hess, B. B. (2001). Income distribution in the United States. In Encyclopedia of Sociology.
2nd ed. (Vol. 4). 1278-1290. New York: Macmillan Reference USA.
Hogan, R. (2005). Was Wright wrong? High-class jobs and the professional earnings
advantage. Social Science Quarterly, 86(3), 645-663. Retrieved September 6, 2008 from
EBSCO online database, SocINDEX with Full Text.http://search.ebscohost.com/login.
aspx?direct=true&db=sih&AN=17780488&site=ehost-live
McMurrer, D. P. & Sawhill, I. V. (1998). Getting ahead: economic and social mobility in
America. Washington, D. C.: Urban Institute Press.
Pulaski, J. (1993). The dying of class or Marxist class theory? International Sociology, 8(3),
279-292.
Terwey, M. (1987). Class position and income inequality. International Journal of Sociology,
17(1/2), 119. Retrieved September 7, 2008, from EBSCO online database, SocINDEX

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with Full Text.http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=sih&AN=102008


01&site=ehost-live
Wang, Y., & Yamaguchi, K. (2002). Class identification of married employed women and
men in America. American Journal of Sociology, 108(2), 440-475. Retrieved September
3, 2008, from EBSCO online database, Gender Studies. http://search.ebscohost.com/
login.aspx?direct=true&db=fmh&AN=FMH4056453379&site=ehost-live
Wright, E. O. (1979). Class structure and income determination. New York: Academic
Press.
Wright, E. O. (1996). The continuing relevance of class analysis--comments. Theory &
Society, 25(5), 693-716. Retrieved September 11, 2008, from EBSCO online database
SocINDEX with Full Text. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a
ph&AN=9708135530&site=ehost-live
Wynn, T. (2003, August 16). Class in the Postindustrial Era: Comparing the attainment and
exploitative value of class resources in the Industrial and Postindustrial United States.
Conference Papers -- American Sociological Association, Retrieved September 3, 2008
from EBSCO online database SocINDEX with Full Text. http://search.ebscohost.com/
login.aspx?direct=true&db=sih&AN=15992&site= ehost-live.

Defining Class

49

Assessing Class: Education


Sharon Link & Alexandra Howson

Overview
Industrial societies are divided into social classes that affect peoples
economic and social preferences. Members of social classes have different consumption patterns, political preferences, moral attitudes, social
behavior, lifestyle and education experiences and outcomes (Gvali, Need
& Graff, 2007). The study of social classstructurally produced economic
hierarchiesand how to best measure it is a central theme in sociology
and the foundation for scholarship on poverty, inequality and stratification. Stratificationa structured hierarchy characterized by inequalities
between social groupsin the United States and around the world is a
consequence of the unequal distribution of rewards.
Education plays a significant role in ones social position, that is, to a
persons place in the social hierarchy (Lindemann, 2007, p. 54) and ultimately in stratification. On the one hand, education is seen not only as enabling
people to develop their individual potential, but is also viewed as a mechanism for creating equality. Indeed, a notion prevails that the United States
is the ultimate classless society (Stephen, 2007, p. 28). In part, this view
stems from a widespread belief that access to education provides equality
of opportunity and contributes directly to social mobility (that is, to ones
ability to move upwardly from ones social class of origin). Since the midtwentieth century, social mobility has been a feature of Europe and North
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American societies (Ianelli and Paterson, 2005), as more people enter professional occupations. Social and economic indicators such as income and
occupation are typically used to measure social class, and education plays
a significant role in determining ones employability, employment, and
income (Danziger & Reed, 1999). Education therefore plays a crucial role
in the likelihood of people being able to improve their social class location
by moving into higher occupational classes. Moreover, some researchers
suggest that education can help to reduce racial and gender inequities and
expand citizenship (Cremin, 1988; Gutmann, 1987; Kluger, 1975; Spring,
2000; Tyack, 1974).
However, empirical research suggests that the contemporary US is more
stratified politically, economically and socially than ever before (Stephen,
2007, p. 28), which suggests that education is not providing the opportunities for social mobility that perhaps it once did. Indeed, there is evidence
that educationthe relationships, material resources, environments and
processes associated with delivering and experiencing educationmay
perpetuate social inequalities.
Perspectives on Education: Consensus & Conflict

Education is seen as having different functions. Within a consensus or


functionalist perspective, associated with the work of Talcott Parsons, education is seen to have a role in socialization; it contributes to ensuring that
children are trained to comply with the demands of the social system.
Indeed, for many people, education exists to ensure that individuals learn
how to be good citizens and thereby maintain an efficient, stable social
order. Consequently this view of education emphasizes merit, ability and
effort and the needs of society or the economy. Such a view also expresses in the idea that education is about individual opportunity (Raines &
McAdams, 2006).
In contrast, conflict approaches to education argue that the education
system perpetuates existing social divisions. For instance, Karl Marx and
Frederick Engels (1976) argued that education was an instrument of the
state and as such helped to perpetuate capitalism by initiating children
into the expectations of the capitalist system, such as the demand for timediscipline.

Defining Class

51

Contemporary Issues

Nonetheless, politicians, journalists and many sectors of the public view


education as both the most important solution to inequality and the most
important problem for public policy. Education plays a critical role in
many aspects of social opportunity: it shapes attitudes, forms political
preferences, and plays a key role in determining ones lifestyle (Baer &
Lambert, 1982). It also plays a vital role in forming ones political values,
impacts ones participation in politics, and ultimately shapes ones political influence (Verba, 2001). And it is seen as a social leveler that can turn
immigrants into Americans, transform children into responsible citizens,
and create and maintain democracy (Hochschild, 2003, p. 822).
To be sure, as Hochschild (2003) notes, there have been advances in public
education in the last three decades (e.g. dropout rates are down, achievement is up and resources are more equitably distributed). However, there
are stark differences between socioeconomic and racial groups in levels of
achievement and dropout rates; urban schools are particularly vulnerable
to these differences; and within higher education, which is increasingly important in order for adults to find stable employment and gain momentum
within the labor market, there are clear class differences in terms of access,
retention and attainment.
While there is some consensus that education plays a role in providing
equality of opportunity, there is considerable debate about whether education contributes to equality of outcomes.

Further Insights
Building on the work of James Coleman (e.g. 1987), research suggests that
not only do social class and family background have a major impact on
education experience and academic performance, but also, education has a
major role in perpetuating social inequalities. Schools demonstrate higher
patterns of inequality than other social institutions (Gibbons & Telhaj, 2007)
and there is growing evidence that what happens inside the education environment is significant, such as the quality and degree of parent-teacher
interaction; the quality of the curriculum; and the location of the school
(urban or non-urban). Moreover, social disparities linked to social class

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continue into higher education, where those who graduate with a fouryear degree are more likely to be in higher income groups and come from
families with at least some personal wealth (Raines & McAdam, 2006).
Socioeconomic Status, School Readiness & Parental Involvement

Parental involvement in their childrens education is increasingly a focus


of the national conversation about education in the US. For instance, the
National Coalition for Parental Involvement in Education (NCPIE) cites
research that indicates children attain higher grades and are more likely to
enter and graduate from higher education if their parents are involved in
their education (www.ncpie.org). However, there are differences in levels
and kinds of parental involvement. White, middle class parents tend to be
more involved and better informed about how to support their children
(Lareau, 1987). The higher levels of involvement that are associated with
parents of middle class may be a consequence of more flexible work schedules that are enjoyed by the middle and upper classes, allowing more time
for contact and teacher interactions. Additionally, middle class parents
may be more likely to be informed about whats going on in school because
they occupy deeply entrenched social networks through which such information is circulated and exchanged.
Researchers have found that socioeconomic status has a bearing on how
ready children are for school. For instance, Crnic and Lamberty (1994)
argue that families with high socioeconomic status may have more success
in preparing their children for school because they typically have access
to a wide range of resources to promote and support young childrens
development, such as books and toys to encourage learning activities at
home. Also, such families may have easier access to information about
their childrens health, as well as social, emotional, and cognitive development. In addition, families with high socioeconomic status often seek out
information to help them better prepare their young children for school. In
contrast, the challenge of preparing children for school can be formidable
for families in poverty (Ramey & Ramey, 1994). Consequently, they argue,
children from families with low socioeconomic status are at greater risk
of entering kindergarten unprepared than their peers from families with
median or high socioeconomic status.

Defining Class

53

Concomitantly, in education settings that service impoverished students,


teachers may play a significant role in mediating the effects of poverty in
classrooms, by creating classrooms and interactions where students are
valued and treated with respect, within a framework of positive relationships that can support academic achievement, performance, and motivation (San Antonio, 2008, p. 74).
Urban Schools

Inner city schools are faced with significant problems that perpetuate class
inequalities in educational attainment (Olson, 1998) by increasing dropout
rates and achievement levels. Urban schools tend to have much higher
rates of failure than non-urban schools (Department of Housing and Urban
Development, 1998) for a number of reasons. First, urban schools tend to
have a higher number of students than non-urban schools and class sizes
are also larger (Education Week, 1998). This creates a significant teaching
challenge. Second, in urban schools, teachers are less likely to possess
appropriate certification or to be highly qualified in their subject area.
Third, technical problems persistsuch as insufficient buildings and classroomsand technology deficits (Education Week, 1998, p. 21; General Accounting Office, 1995) create teaching environments that are inadequate
(Sanders & Rivers, 1996; Mayshark, 1996). As a result of these multiple
issues, schools in urban environments experience higher rates of turmoil,
violence, and anxiety regarding safety (Education Week, 1998, pp. 1819);
urban student populations underachieve in literacy (Levine, Cooper,
& Hilliard, 2000); and urban districts are faced with high dropout rates
(Hochschild & Scovronick, 2003).
Urban schools are also more likely to experience a high turnover rate of new
teachers, which is disruptive and contributes to poor education outcomes.
In these environments, teachers are more likely to quit, citing difficult state
certification and licensure requirements as a reason (Darling-Hammond,
2001; Darling-Hammond, Berry, & Thoreson, 2001). Ultimately, teacher
turnover disrupts the ability to develop a culture of community and
learning (Recruiting New Teachers, 2000). Moreover, teachers in highpoverty or urban schools are also more likely to report inadequate teaching
resources (Education Week, 1998, p. 21). Therefore, children from socially
and economically impoverished backgrounds, who need the most support
from the most qualified and dedicated personnel, are shortchanged. For
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instance, in Raleigh, in North Carolina, a busing policy has been instituted whereby children from disadvantaged neighborhoods are bused to
middle class schools. Results show that the test scores of the children who
are bused have risen sharply, while those of the resident children have
remained static (Raines & McAdam, 2006). Therefore, it can be reasonably
assumed that educating children with diverse needs alongside more privileged peers, or using the same methodologies as those that are used for
the more privileged ultimately improves childrens performance and longterm success (Kahlenberg, 2000; Rubinowitz & Rosenbaum, 2000).

Viewpoints
Ethnic Background

While social class contributes to education outcomes and experiences, race


and ethnicity also contribute to education inequality. For instance, in many
schools that utilize ability grouping to make educational programming decisions, students from low-income backgrounds and students of color are
disproportionately left out of advanced classes (San Antonio, 2008, p. 76).
In addition, poor students, who are most often children of color, tend to be
taught by ineffective teachers (e.g. Darling-Hammond, 2000) and schools
facing the highest levels of poverty and diversity tend to have twice the
number of new teachers in comparison with the best off and Whitest
schools (Hochschild, 2003, p. 829).
Tracking

Tracking, or streaming, may also perpetuate social inequalities within education; that is, the separation of students into hierarchical learning groups
based on perceived or measured ability (Biafora & Ansalone, 2008, p.
588). Although many educators argue that learning should be tailored to
a childs needs (Ellis, 2007), tracking separates students into hierarchical
groups based on their perceived or tested ability on the assumption that
it can offer a curriculum commensurate with students current abilities
thereby allowing each student to reach his/her potential at his/her own
pace (Biafora & Ansalone, 2008, p. 588).
Proponents of tracking view it as a tool used to facilitate teaching and
learning in accordance with perceived student ability and argue that

Defining Class

55

students learn more quickly and efficiently in groups with similar others.
Moreover, some would argue that tracking allows teachers to meet the
needs of a differentiated student population by challenging highly capable
students, and at the same time offering remedial instruction to lower
achieving students.
However, opponents of tracking argue that the selection process may have
less to do with [academic] ability than with other issues such as neatness
and dress, politeness, obedience to authority, punctuality, and following
directions (Biafora & Ansalone, 2008, p. 591)arguably markers of social
class. Such data suggests the importance of social labels in creating social
distinctions that have implications for perpetuating social inequalities. For
instance, studies in the 1980s suggested that even where tracking existed
in schools in informal ways, labels developed to describe students in lowachieving groups. These students subsequently received poorer quality
teaching and had fewer learning resources, such as books, available to
them (Oakes, 1985). Finally, there is some evidence that tracking may exacerbate stratification in racial terms, by separating groups into racially
diverse groups that include African-Americans and Latino students.
The Digital Divide

In order to compete in a global economy, it has become abundantly clear


that technology, the ability to negotiate the Internet, and the distribution
of information are all instrumental. Internet access remains one of the
main considerations in separating the middle class from the impoverished.
Access to technology provides another indicator of social inequality within
education and is becoming increasingly important in debates about virtual
learning, access to which is associated with economic affluence. Those who
experience disadvantage (especially women and people of color) are less
likely to have access to the Internet or computers, and indeed may be socialized away from recognizing computer-related interests, fields of study,
and professions as attainable or desirable (Clark & Gorski, 2002, p. 32).
As a 1997 government report on computer access at school notes, a ratio
of 4 or 5 students to one computer is the optimal ratio; yet in the poorest
schools, the ratio is about 9 students to one computer. A similar disparity exists in relation to Internet access within schools and the same report
found that in schools with large amounts of students participating in free
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or reduced price lunch programs, fewer classrooms had Internet access


(Clark & Gorski, 2002).
Therefore, in order to reduce inequalities in digital capital, and enable
students from the poorest backgrounds to develop digital and information
technology skills, there needs to be extensive investment in the technology
infrastructure of education environments. Clark and Gorski (2002) suggest
that effective use of and opportunities to develop skills to use the Internet
should be supported through the integration and availability of highcapacity hardware, high-speed access lines, and high-capability wiring,
whether in a home, a school, or an entire community (Clark & Gorski,
2002, p. 29). Current technological infrastructure in terms of digital equity
demonstrates that a social class system is being promoted that favors the
middle class and diminishes access by lower class students to equal opportunities to interact with technology. Appropriate mandated policies that
ensure legislation and funding for continued technology access are highly
recommended (Clark & Gorski, 2002).
Conclusion

Problems in the education system ultimately manifest as societal problems.


Jenkins (1994) reported that 80% of the individuals living in the United States
will remain in the same socioeconomic class income bracket into which
they were born, while 2% will move up, and 18% will fall below. Moreover,
academic scores between the highest and lowest achieving students have
either remained static or continued to increase; disparities between highest
and lowest achieving students are especially evident students of color and
Caucasian students (National Center for Education Statistics, 2002). These
differences in educational and academic outcomes may be attributed both
to deeply embedded inequalities in the education system and to the effects
of social on learning experiences. Caucasian and middle class students are
offered educational advantages and opportunities that are not distributed
equally (Hochschild, 2003) and that vary between schools and within districts. Moreover, poorly trained teachers, curricula that may lack relevance,
and compromised accountability (Heubert & Hauser, 1999; Ingersoll, 2002)
are all manifestations of segregation and stratification. Schools impacted
by low socio-economic challenges face a myriad of problems that place
students at risk, which ultimately affects the general society.

Defining Class

57

White (1999), quoted the president of the Los Angeles teachers union as
saying that, in impoverished schools, We have kids without teachers,
teachers without classrooms, and a district without a clue. The system
is broken. Students and teachers are a forgotten priority here (cited in
Hochschild, 2003, p. 825). Therefore, in order to ameliorate the shortcomings faced by individuals from lower socio-economic backgrounds, society
needs to construct policy and structural changes to overcome social and
educational inequities (Garbarino, 1995).

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Suggested Reading
Freire, P. (1990). Education for critical consciousness. South Hadley, MA: Bergin & Garvey.
Kozol, J. (1991). Savage inequalities: Children in Americas schools. New York: Crown.
Rank, M. R. (2004). One nation, underprivileged. Why American poverty affects us all.
New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Reed, D. (2001). On equal terms: The constitutional politics of educational opportunity.
Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Sleeter, C. E. (1996). Multicultural education as social activism. Albany, NY: State
University of New York Press.

Defining Class

61

The Upper Class


Jeff Klassen & Jeremy Baker

Overview
Sociologists views on how to define the upper class differ, but most agree
that they represent between 1% and 5% of the wealthiest households in
the United States. Until the 1980s, the wealthy and the upper-middle
class could be distinguished by their respective sources of income: the
wealthy often received their wealth from investments and/or inheritances,
whereas the upper-middle class earned a salary. Both returns on investments and salary levels among the wealthy have increased significantly
in recent years. Investment remains a key source of wealth, but in the US
today some salaried workersparticularly executive officers and hedgefund investment managerscan earn million-dollar, and in the latter case,
even billion-dollar salaries (Frank, 2007). Despite changes in American
tax policies that benefit the upper-class, the wealthy are paying a higher
total dollar-amount in taxes than they were twenty or thirty years ago
because they are making substantially more pre-tax income (Gross, 2007).
In contrast, though the upper-middle class pays a smaller dollar amount
than the wealthy, a larger proportion of their earned income goes to taxes
(Phillips, 2002, p. 132).
Further Insights

It is estimated that since 1980 the number of millionaires in the US has


doubled to more than 5 million, and the number of billionaires has in62

Sociology Reference Guide

creased more than 20 fold to about 300 (Harvard Law Review, 2006; Carey,
2007). It is believed that in the technology sector, as many as 60 new millionaires emerged daily during the boom periods of the 1990s. According
to IRS data, income from stocks increased from $75 billion annually to
$446 billion annually between 1980 and 1998 (Phillips, 2002). The top 1%
of earners have received more than half of the income gains in U.S. since
1980s, while the assets of the richest Americans as compiled in the Forbes
400 have more than tripled (Phillips, 2002)
Other, indirect measurements also indicate that the upper class has been
growing over the past decade. In the 1990s, there was a large increase in
second-home mortgages, a new record level for real estate sales over $3
million, a high level of sales of homes that cost $10 million or more, and an
11% increase in the sales rates of luxury retailers (Bernasek, 2006). In 1998,
the national per capita spending on luxuries was $30,000 (Harvard Law
Review, 2006). It is believed that the majority of people in the US spent
a fraction of this amount, and that a small minority spent a much greater
portion of it. The acceleration point for lavish spending tends to appear
within households with a net worth of about $10 million or more; below
that level, spending and savings patterns are often much more cautious
(Herring, 2004).
In short, the post-1980 period has been the largest period of individual
wealth creation and economic expansion in American history. Total net
worth doubled to $42 trillion and stock values quadrupled while home
values increased by 50% in the 1990s. At the same time, though, bankruptcy rates increased four fold. Personal income rates rose at only half the
rate of consumer spending, and investment bankers identified substantial
overconfidence in market performance and a correspondingly high level of
expectation for returns on investments (Fitch, 2000).
Only about 3% of the wealthy are celebrities, and about 10% of the wealthy
are considered old money Old-wealth families started falling off the
Forbes list of the most wealthy after the 1980s as they were replaced by
those with far greater wealth. However, those older families have tended to
at least double their net worths in the newly deregulated economic market
(Phillips, 2002). The new rich are frequently lawyers, real estate developers, technology sector entrepreneurs, scientists who have successfully
Defining Class

63

marketed their innovations, and small business owners who have taken
advantage of private equity and venture capital to sell their businesses to
larger ones (Uchitelle, 2007).
Issues

While issues of class are not readily apparent in the consciousness of the
American people, there are a number of pop-sociological studies of the
lifestyles, behavioural patterns, and spending habits of the wealthy. These
include studies of the impact of wealth on the behaviour of the ultra-rich,
the way the rich actually live their lives behind closed doors, and the philanthropic activities of the wealthy.
Anomie & Affluenza

The term anomie was first used by sociologists to describe the sense of
normlessness felt by many people in modern society (Durkheim 1897).
Durkheim contended that without social support structures, such as those
found in small villages, certain religious communities, and close-knit
families, individuals would loose their sense of how to behave in society.
Contemporary theorists in the fields of sociology, psychology, and economics have taken the study of anomie to its logical conclusion in what
they term affluenza. This condition is characterized by feelings of inadequacy and insecurity in the subjects ability to attain the American
Dream. Thus, traditional norms have been replaced by those of capitalist
economics. This is most often manifested in lavish spending in an effort
to keep up with the Joneses. Afflluenza affects members of the upper
class most commonly by causing them to, despite their wealth, experience
feelings of dissatisfaction and anxiety.
Upper class affluenza is particularly noticeable among the suddenly
wealthy (such as lottery winners), affluent adolescents, and those who
inherit wealth. Lottery winners tend to revert to their former levels of happiness about two months after their windfalls (Levine, 2006b). They are
likely to experience social or other adjustment problems about two years
later due to, for example, a loss of motivation and the changes in lifestyle
that accompany sudden wealth. Even more surprisingly, larger windfalls
actually increase the winners likelihood suffering from these problems.
This situation, in which perceived self-worth does not correspond with

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financial worth, is termed sudden wealth syndrome. Sudden wealth


gained through stock market investments or an entrepreneurial endeavour
can cause similar problems.
Madeline Levine (2006a; 2006b) found that upper class affluenza also
affects the children of the wealthy. Counselling affluent adolescents, she
found that they tended to experience higher levels of anxiety and depression and were more prone to eating disorders and substance abuse than
adolescents in the general population and even adolescents in low income
households. For instance, she found that rate of depression among affluent
female adolescent was twenty-two percent, three times the national rate for
adolescent females (Levine, 2006b). Self-mutilation, or cutting, was also
more prevalent in this group than in the general population. According to
Levine, though they were aware of their privileged position, these adolescents derived no satisfaction from it. They also generally lacked creativity,
spontaneity, enthusiasm, and even the ability to feel pleasure; generally,
they were unable to provide a reason for their condition (Levine, 2006a).
Levine attributed their problems to parental over-involvement, arguing
that because these adolescents parents could and did intervene in their
childrens minor, everyday problems, the adolescents did not develop the
resources and self-reliance to solve their problems themselves. As a result,
Levine said, these adolescents developed a false self: they conformed
to family and community standards rather than developed an individual
identity through a trial-and-error process, introspection, or defiance of
parental authority. As a result, their identity tended to become linked with
grades and possessions, such as clothes and electronics, while independence, character, and psychological resources stagnated (Levine, 2006b).
Easterlins Paradox

Research has shown that while in developed nations and wealthy clearly
report higher levels of personal satisfaction than the poor, increased
national wealth tends not to result in greater overall levels of happiness.
This circumstance is known as Easterlins Paradox (Wolfers, 2008). It
states that having wealth above the sustenance level tends not to lead to
substantially greater happiness. Moreover, hedonistic adaptation to a
higher level of comfort requires a person to maintain high level of comfort
in order to prevent a decline in happiness (Frey & Stutzer, 2002; Levine,
2006b). An earlier version of Easterlins Paradox was developed by econoDefining Class

65

mist Tibor Scitovsky, who argued that human consumption ought to be


measured qualitatively as well as quantitatively. Distinguishing between
joyless consumption and joyful consumption, he claimed that we can
adapt to some types of consumption, making the pleasure we derive from
them fade, but not other types of consumption, which are continually pleasurable. Thus, spending money on items that promote beauty, novelty,
or variety is more likely to result in happiness than spending on material
comfort. Scitovsky was an early proponent of the idea that wealth can
result in an overall loss of contentment. Scitovsky contended that luxurious
material consumption causes a decline in the satisfaction one derives from
occasional and partial gratifications of the desire for material comfort. An
increase in income also tends to result in an increase of expectations, and
those expectations are better met through more intellectually or emotionally engaging forms of consumption (Scitovsky, 1992 [1976]; Frey & Stutzer,
2002). In this regard, Scitovsky seems to have anticipated the immergence
of affluenza in contemporary society. Subsequent studies have tended to
confirm the Scitovskys theory. Cross-national studies have shown that
although economic productivity in Ireland is significantly lower than in
it is Germany or Japan, indicators of personal happiness are significantly
higher in Ireland than in German or Japan (Levine, 2006b).
Philanthropy

Contrary to what may be assumed upon initial consideration of the affluenza phenomenon, the upper class do not simply spend their resources
on themselves. Members of the upper class often turned to philanthropy
to augment their professional accomplishments or give back to their communities. The Rockefeller Foundation, for instance, has supported research
on healthcare, urbanization, agriculture, and the environment since 1913.
Similarly, many philanthropic organizations have been founded to combat
poverty and the spread of AIDS, and still other members of the affluent
choose to donate to their alma maters (Uchitelle, 2007). Warren E. Buffett
is perhaps the most famous living philanthropist today. In 2006, the billionaire-investor announced that he would donate $42 billion to philanthropic causes. And though his giving exceeds that of others, Buffet is by
no means alone: according to Slate, in 2006 the 60 largest donations aside
from Buffets totalled roughly $7 billion (Goolsbee, 2007).

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Ethnographic Studies of the Upper Class

Ethnographic studies of the upper class have been relatively uncommon


due to the highly private nature of elite society. Generally, ethnographic
studies intended to provide context-specific information about cultural
behavior have primarily involved studies of poverty-related groups.
However, Case (1994) sought to test the conclusions of the relatively few
ethnographic studies of the American upper class. Her study of New York
Citys Jockey Club, though somewhat limited, confirmed earlier findings
that members of the upper class are generally affable and accessible to researchers, though it also noted that upper class society is distinctly hierarchical in social, as distinguished from strictly institutional, terms (Domhoff,
1974; Domhoff, 1975; Case, 1994). This conclusion seems to suggest that
multiple hierarchies exist within organizations, rather merely across different institutions.
New York Citys Jockey Club is a social organization that was initially
organized around the goal of preserving the integrity of horse racing.
Today, it is largely made up of members of the business elite. The clubs
members involvement in horse racing has become less common than their
participation in educational, medical, financial, charitable, and cultural
organizations. However, their meetings still usually occur at race tracks.
Membership usually lasts for life and is based on hereditary involvement. Nomination from a club member and the absence of dissent from
any member are required for admission (Case, 1994). Although Case emphasized that many members of the Jockey Club were approachable, accommodating, and charming over the long-term interviewing process, she
added that, as a non-elite scholar, she felt like a distinct outsider while
explaining the study and collecting information. Mutual respect and deference, however, appeared to be the key to her success, and indeed the characteristic traits of her subjects (Case, 1994). Though the clubs chairman
declined to participate in the study, Case did succeed in interviewing 20 of
the clubs 99 members. Half were over the age of 70, and half were considered to be old money. Most owned their own business. Throughout the
study, all of the participants seemed to feel obliged to respond politely to
any inquiry, and Case concluded that this trait is nearly codified in upperclass society. Further, she found that, within the culture, argumentativeness is impermissible, and deference to age and the male class is expected,
Defining Class

67

although the latter form of deference appears to be weakening somewhat.


However, criticizing club rules was not uncommon among the participants
(Case, 1994).
Case (1994) concluded that though it may be true that the upper-class
resists interaction with other classes, this resistance can be overcome
through patience and good manners. She also found that there were also
hierarchical cliques within the club. This finding confirms the conclusions
of earlier studies: that the upper class is primarily organized not around
institutions but rather around social networks and kinship (Case, 1994).

Viewpoints
Functionalism

American sociologists first set out to understand issues of class in the


early 1900s. During this period sociology was dominated by a perspective
known as functionalism, which contends that all aspects of society exist for
a reason. Thus, schools, businesses, families, religious organizations, and
socio-economic classes all exist for socially functional reasons. From this
perspective, certain individuals are rich and powerful because they have
special qualities that make them better able to govern society and others
are poor so that the less desirable jobs will be done.
European scholars of the same period took a very different approach to understanding issues of class dynamics. They most often adopted a perspective known as conflict theory which states that the history of society has
been dictated by conflict between the powerful and the powerless. From
this perspective, the upper class are most likely to pursue social agendas
that will maintain the status quo and, thus, their power and prestige in
society.
The social tensions in the US during the 1960s caused major theoretical
shifts in sociology. Functionalism fell out of favour with many sociologists, and those who remained loyal to the paradigm were forced to change
many of their notions. Many sociologists during this period, especially
those studying class, shifted from the functionalist perspective to the social
conflict perspective. Most studies of class after 1960 have been conducted

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by conflict theorists. This has resulted in the majority of contemporary sociological studies of class having a distinctly anti-upper class feel.
C. W. Mills & The Power Elite

The sociologist C. W. Mills provided perhaps one of the most radical critiques of the upper class with his 1956 book The Power Elite. In it, Mills
argued that the business elite essentially controls government at both the
national and local levels and, as such, makes important decisions for the
nation. Further, he argued that the meritocracy is an illusion and that
multiple social and political deterministic forces create the elite rather than
vice versa (Domhoff, 2007). Mills critics have argued that his claims are
often exaggerated or even conspiratorial at times, but he has nevertheless
had an enormous influence on power structure research. The Power Elite
is often identified as the first account of the structure and distribution of
power in the U.S. in the postideological and postmodern era (Summers,
2006, 4). In contrast to the Marxists of his time, Mills argued that power
resides in organizations as social entities rather than in individuals or in
the ownership of private property (Domhoff, 2007; Mills, 1956).
Kevin Phillips more recent Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of
the American Rich (2002) has extended Mills work (Summers, 2006). But
whereas Mills argued that the growth in power of the business elite, the
government, and the military was constant, Phillips has claimed that plutocracy goes through cyclical advances and declines. A probable explanation of Mills view is that he died in 1962, before the civil rights movement,
and that the power of the elite had grown substantially during his relatively short life (Summers, 2006). Philips, in contrast, takes in the history of
the Republican Party and points out that, during certain periods of time, it
favoured certain anti-plutocratic measures (Phillips, 2002, p. xvii). He also
highlights certain elite politicians like Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt who have acted against the interests
of their own class by enacting anti-plutocratic legislation such as the antitrust measures of the 1900s and the New Deal of the 1930s. However, in
other areas, Phillips follows in Mills footsteps. Like Mills, he has argued
that laissez-faire capitalism, the favored doctrine of the business elite, is not
a sound economic policy and that a strict governmental system of policy
intervention or support is necessary to maintain any complex economic
market (p. 93).
Defining Class

69

Dumhoff (2006) has taken a somewhat different view, arguing that while
Mills account the business elites influence on the political process is still
accurate today, Mills overestimated the power of the military elite by portraying it as comparable to that of the business elite. He has also claimed
that Mills under-emphasized or ignored other important trends such as
the efforts of white-dominated universities and Northern churches in promoting the civil rights of non-whites and women; the degree to which the
media forms public opinion; and the conflicts between unions and civil
rights groups. Dumhoff (2006) also claimed that Mills underestimated the
influence of Congress and the Supreme Court in shaping public policy,
and exaggerated the political apathy and disorganization of mass society
(Summers, 2006).
Also taking up C. W. Mills critique of the power elite, New York Times
correspondent David Cay Johnston has written extensively on how the
business elite manipulate government regulations for their own benefit
at the expense of small-business owners and the general public. He cites
Wal-Mart as a prime example, saying that the company urges local governments to lease it land until it can buy the land, pay for store construction
through tax-free municipal bonds, and allow the company to use sales taxes
to pay off the cost of the building. According to Johnston, this scheme hurts
local economies by depriving schools and fire and police departments of
tax dollars and by putting locally-owned stores at a disadvantage since
they have to pay the market rate for their business expenses (Whitehead,
2008). The libertarian Cato Foundations finding that about $75 billion in
government subsidies is provided to businesses annually would seem to
support Johnstons claims (Phillips, 2002, p. 149). However, like some of
Mills colleagues, some of Johnstons colleagues disagree. A fellow New
York Times reviewer has criticized him for emphasizing the extremes of
corporate profit-making and ignoring the contributions that corporate
America makes to the nations economic well-being (Chait, 2008).

Bibliography
Case, C. (1994). Entree to Americas traditional upper class. American Sociologist, 25(2),
46-59. Retrieved August 20, 2008 from EBSCO Online Database SocINDEX with Full
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Bernasek, A. (2006, August 6). The rich spend just like you and me. New York Times.
Retrieved August 18, 2008, from http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/06/business/
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the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense (and Stick
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Levine, M. (2006b). The price of privilege: How parental pressure and material advantage
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Suggested Reading
Allen, M. P., & Broyles, P. (1989). Class hegemony and political finance: Presidential
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471343&site=ehost-live
Baltzell, E. D., & Schneiderman, H. G. (1988). Social class in the oval office. Society, 25(6),
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Scitovsky.pdf
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Converse, P. E. (1962). Information flow and the stability of partisan attitudes. Public
Opinion Quarterly, 26, 578-599.
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Annual Meeting, Montreal, 1. Retrieved August 20, 2008 from EBSCO Online Database
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=a9h&AN=11426222&site=ehost-live
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Assessing Class: Wealth


Jennifer Christian & Alexandra Howson

Overview
The study of social classstructurally produced economic hierarchies
and how to best measure it has been a central theme in sociology since the
work of Marx in the nineteenth century and Weber in the early twentieth century. Social class is a key concept in sociology and the foundation
for scholarship on poverty, stratification, and inequality. However, there
is considerable debate about how best to measure class and how various
measurements translate over time, place, and societies. Indeed, new methodologies, increasing statistical sophistication, and the availability of large
multi-national and longitudinal data sets provide more resources for researchers who seek to uncover not only the best measures of social class,
but how wealth, broadly defined, is interpreted and affects the lives of
people.
Many researchers argue that inequality is a function of class status and the
transmission of wealth (e.g. Wilson, 1980). Wealth, broadly defined, refers
to the money (e.g. income) or assets (such as property or stocks) held by an
individual or a group. It is a key component in the measurement of social
class and stratification, which are also impacted by power and prestige.
Although power is a contested concept, it broadly refers to the probability
of a person or group carrying out their will even when opposed by others
(Giddens, 1997). Prestige is defined as the respect associated with a person
or group according to their social status.
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Measures of Class

Stratification in the United States and around the world is a consequence of


the unequal distribution of rewards. There are several ways this inequality is measured. The three most common are power, prestige, and wealth.
Each measure and definition contributes to our understanding of social
stratification and has various consequences for understanding wealth inequality.
Power

Power is often described as the ability a person has to get others to do


things (Thio, 1992). Those who have access to greater resources (such as
income, education, property) also tend to have more power, whether it is
the home, industry or politics. Those with fewer resources tend to have
less power. Three theoretical perspectives regarding the use of power as a
measure of stratification and inequality are:
Marxs theory of capitalism
Elite theories
Pluralist theories
Marxist theories of power focus on the consequences of the social arrangements between those who own the means of production and those who
do not. For instance, Marxists argue that the ruling class within capitalism
holds not only economic power (because they own the means of production) but also political power, regardless of whether its members hold political office. The ruling class protects its interests through lobbying efforts
and political contributions, and thus shapes the political debate in its favor.
In addition, the ruling class holds social and cultural power by establishing
hegemony, or, manufacturing consent through manipulation of the mass
media (Herman and Chomsky, 1988).
Elite theories of power and its distribution, notably developed by C. Wright
Mills (1956) argue that there is a limited fewmostly associated with the
government, military and a few executives in large industriesthat have
shared values and goals which facilitate the preservation of power and
thus preserve class divisions.

Defining Class

75

Pluralist theories of power put forth an alternative argument regarding


the distribution of power and its relevance to stratification and inequality.
Pluralist theories suggest that power is more widely dispersed and equally
distributed between various social groups. Pluralists argue, however, that
the power of the individual is most evident when people band together to
create social change, for instance, via voter participation and social movements (Piven & Clowerd, 1977; Burstein & Linton, 2002; Brooks & Manza
2008; Christian 2008).
Prestige

The notion that prestige can be an adequate measure of stratification and


inequality is based on the idea that individual occupations have different levels of prestige, which result in pay differentials that form a status
system. For instance, for well over 30 years the General Social Survey in
the US has collected data from households and asked respondents to rate
over 90 occupations based on their perception of prestige. Occupations that
have consistently received the highest rankings include physicians, college
professors, judges, and lawyers. The occupations with the lowest prestige
scores are housekeepers, garbage collectors, and janitors. Research that
has tested the relationship between occupational prestige and income has
suggested, compellingly, that there is a positive association between occupational prestige and patterns of income inequality (Caston, 1985). That
is, occupations that are ranked highly according to socioeconomic prestige
are also associated with higher levels of income. However, this picture is
complicated by status inconsistencies, where other socioeconomic factors,
such as race and gender may result in diminished prestige for minorities
and women (Gittleman & Wolff, 2004), and, concomitantly, lower social
class.
Wealth

The distribution of wealth is another means of measuring class. Wealth,


broadly defined, refers to the money or assets (such as property or stocks)
held by an individual or a group. Wealth is generally described in terms
of accumulated items, including economic resources such as cash and investments, or the possession or control over property and other revenuegenerating industries. Wealth is important because of its relative value: it
can be converted into cash and therefore represents a source of consump-

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tion; it provides collateral to secure credit; and can be passed to future


generations (Deere and Doss, 2006). While wealth is central to determining
income variation between and within groups, it is distinct from income,
which refers to the wages people earn (or income from other sources such
as rented property or dividends).

Further Insights
Measuring Wealth

It is difficult to acquire information about the distribution of wealth. In the


US, data associated with wealth distribution is collected by the Survey of
Consumer Finances, while in the UK, such data is aggregated from statistics collected by Social Trends surveys and HM Revenue and Customs.
Despite data limitations, several reports and publications suggest that in
the US, the wealthiest 1% of families owns roughly 34.3% of the nations
net worth; the top 10% of families owns over 71%; and the bottom 40%
of the population owns less than 1% (Federal Reserve Board, 2004). In
the UK, the top 1% owns 21% of the nations wealth (National Statistics,
2006). Current data also not only offer compelling evidence that there is a
growing gap between those who are among the richest 20% and those who
are among the poorest 20%, but there is a disparity between the capacity of
different racial and ethnic groups to transfer intergenerational wealth. This
intergenerational disparity affects the capacity of these groups to enhance
the next generations life chances by passing down accumulated wealth.
The inequitable distribution of wealth is of central concern as it affects
levels of poverty in the US, inequality, stratification, mobility patterns,
education and employment opportunities. This is mostly due to the fact
that the top fifth of the wealthiest people in the US has consistently held
over two-thirds of the nations wealth. Those who have the least amount
of wealth make up the largest portion of the population. The middle class
has access to roughly 6% of the wealth and the poor and working class has
access to less than 1% of the wealth (Thio, 1992).
Variants in the Measure of Wealth

While data clearly show inequity in the distribution of wealth in American


society, such data tells us little about how the gap in wealth matters to

Defining Class

77

the lives of people. For example, what does it mean to be wealthy and
how does wealth relate to class? Are those who are wealthy part of the
upper class or do the two concepts describe different mechanisms of stratification? Income alone is insufficient to determine class, given that there
are many people who are upper class via means other than occupation,
such as celebrities, lottery winners, and others who inherent money. Thus,
some researchers have advocated for the inclusion of assets, such as ownership in a company, stocks, bonds, or other investments (Brady, 2003), in
measures of class. However, with the availability of credit and financing
that plagued much of the 1990s and early 2000s, many people appeared
to be wealthy or part of the upper and middle class in so far as they had
assets. Yet they owed a significant amount of money to lenders for the lines
of credit used to purchase various commodities. Thus, more attention has
recently been given to investigating the debt to income ratio, better known
as net worth, as a measure of wealth (Campbell & Henretta, 1980).
Measuring Net Worth

Campbell and Henretta (1980) have investigated the measurement of class,


wealth and social status. These scholars view wealth as net-worth: as a
multi-dimensional concept that includes an individuals income, assets,
tax transfers, and debt among many other indices. They used this concept
to investigate various dimensions of social class as it relates to net-worth
and occupation. Their primary objective was to determine if their multidimensional model of net-worth provides a more accurate picture of individual level status (class) than previous measures of status attainment,
including measures of occupational prestige. Using longitudinal data from
the Survey of Labor Force Participants, Campbell and Henretta concluded
that the best predictor of status is one that incorporates net-worth along
with other socioeconomic indices (including occupational prestige). This
suggests that status attainment is not only a function of ones debt to income
ratio but also of family structure, upbringing, educational attainment, and
occupation.
Additional empirical studies have attempted to disaggregate the work of
Campbell and Henretta by considering how these other socioeconomic indicators influence net worth, the accumulation and transfer of wealth, and
social class assignment. In addition, researchers have investigated differences among sub-populations like women and minorities.
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Viewpoints
Variations by Race & Gender

The literature investigating wealth as a measure of social class has increasingly focused on race and gender as the primary factors that contribute to
variation in the accumulation of wealth within ones lifetime and across
generations. The inequitable access to wealth of women and minorities
translates into an inability to be upwardly mobile and break through class
barriers.
Race

In the US, there is great disparity between patterns of wealth accumulation, assets composition, and home ownership between blacks and whites
(Blau & Graham, 1990; Gittleman & Wolff, 2004; Charles & Hurst, 2002).
Moreover, there is a statistically significant difference in the proportion of
wealth ownership between black and white families, and white families
have a greater ability to transfer wealth to future generations. Arguably,
this disparity is most evident in relation to homeownership, personal businesses, and equity.
Historically, white people have had higher rates of home ownership than
blacks. This is partially due to barriers such as segregation and early legislation that barred blacks from borrowing money. Today however, the disparity is more often attributed to the ratio of mortgage applications between
blacks and whites, which favors whites in terms of down payments, and
some other economic qualifications. For instance, Charles and Hurst (2002)
in their study of minority factors in applying for a mortgage, argue that
black applicants are almost twice as likely as comparable white households to be rejected, even when credit history proxies and measures of
household wealth are accounted for (p. 281, Abstract).
Gender

In 1977, Harbuty and Hitchens published a paper on women, wealth and


inheritance. The paper sparked a great deal of subsequent research that
looked at the relation between women and economic wealth. This work
was one of the first to call attention to the variation in personal wealth
between men and women. A central question was how women establish
Defining Class

79

wealth: through inheritance or entrepreneurship. The data suggested that


the majority of women, nearly 60%, accumulated wealth through marriage,
while less than 10% accumulated wealth by starting businesses or through
other entrepreneurial endeavors. However, more recent research suggests
that within marriage and households, the distribution of assets (including economic wealth) is not necessarily equitable. Thus while women may
have married into wealth, we cannot assume they have access to it. While
there are few studies of womens asset ownership, even among the most
wealthy Americans, women are less likely to be among the property elite
than men, and more likely to have their wealth managed in ways that
differ from men (Tickerman, 1981). Indeed, recent data suggest that the
largest gender wealth gap is found at the very top of the wealth distribution (Deere& Doss, 2006). Womens capacity to acquire wealth is affected
by the state, the family, the community and the market (Deere & Doss,
2006, p. 12), in particular, through the gender wage gap, which makes it
difficult for women to accumulate wealth through savings.
The variation in differences between men and women in their money management, property ownership, and resource allocation puts women at a
disadvantage in increasing their wealth compared with men. This variation in wealth accumulation matters because differences in asset accumulation may explain some differences in poverty between men and women.
Intergenerational Transfer of Wealth, Life Chances & Social Class

The distribution of rewards in society has for financial well being and
security (Keister & Moller, 2000). Given that the ownership of wealth is
held by a small percentage of the population, it is no wonder that those
who are not part of the upper classes or wealthy are fearful for their financial well-being and security as it pertains to jobs, housing, access to
healthcare, and education. Moreover, intergenerational wealth transfer
has consolidated the growing gap between the wealthiest Americans and
the poorest (which increasingly include portions of what would be seen
as the middle classes) in ways that have impact on educational opportunity, home ownership and upward mobility. Consequently, those with
resources are more able to provide future generations with a head start
on opportunities and to secure life chances. In contrast, those with limited
resources are unable to share their wealth with children and grandchildren, thus requiring each generation to start from the same place as the
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previous generation. In summary, wealth impacts social class by creating


privilege, through which those with access to wealth are able establish lifestyles and modes of consumption that exclude those without access to
wealth (Scott, 1994) and further divide society into economic hierarchies.

Bibliography
Blau, F. & Graham, J. (1990). Black-white differences in wealth and asset composition.
Quarterly Journal of Economics, 105 (2), 321-339. Retrieved September 16, 2008 from
EBSCO online database, Buisness Source Premier, http://search.ebscohost.com/login.
aspx?direct=true&db=buh&AN=5790847&site=ehost-live.
Brady, D. (2003). Rethinking the sociological measurement of poverty. SocialForces, 81 (3),
715-752. Retrieved September 16, 2008 from EBSCO online database, SocINDEX with
Full Text, http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=sih&AN=9426334
&site=ehost-live
Brooks, C. & Manza, J. (2008). Why welfare states persist: The importance of public opinion
in democracies. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Burstein, P. & Linton, A. (2002). The impact of political parties, interest groups, and
social movement organizations on public policy: Some recent evidence and theoretical
concerns. Social Forces, 81 (4), 381-408. Retrieved September 16, 2008 from EBSCO
online database, Academic Source Premier, http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?
direct=true&db=aph&AN=8593865&site=ehost-live.
Campbell, R. & Henretta, J. (1980). Status claims and status attainment: The determinants
of financial well-being. American Journal of Sociology, 86 (3), 618-629.
Caston, R. (1985). Dimensions of occupational inequality and Duncans Socioeconomic
Index. Sociological Forum, 4 (3), 329-348. Retrieved September 16, 2008 from EBSCO
online database, Academic Source Premier, http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?d
irect=true&db=aph&AN=11056199&site=ehost-live.
Charles, K. K., & Hurst, E. (2002). The transition to home ownership and the black-white
wealth gap. Review of Economics & Statistics, 84, (2), 281-297. Retrieved September 16,
2008 from EBSCO online database, Business Source Premier. http://search.ebscohost.
com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=buh&AN=6650421&site=ehost-live.
Christian, J. (2008). When does public opinion matter? Journal of Sociology and Social
Welfare, 35 (1), 133-156. Retrieved September 16, 2008 from EBSCO online database,
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ph&AN=31120717&site=ehost-live.
Deere, C.D. and Ross, C.R. (2006). The gender asset gap: What do we know and why does
it matter? Feminist Economics, 12(1/2): 1-50.
Federal Reserve Board. (2004). Survey of Consumer Finances. Available at: http://www.
federalreserve.gov/pubs/oss/oss2/scfindex.html. Accessed December 17, 2008.

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Giddens, A. (1997). Sociology. Third Edition. Cambridge: Polity Press.


Gittleman, M. & Wolff, E. (2004). Racial differences in patterns of wealth accumulation.
Journal of Human Resources, 39, (1), 193-227. Retrieved September 16, 2008 from
EBSCO online database, International Bibliography of the Social Sciences, http://
search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ioh&AN=2782633&site=ehost-live.
Harbury, C., & Hitchens, D. (1977). Women, wealth, and inheritance. Economic Journal,
87 (345), 124-131. Retrieved September 16, 2008 from EBSCO online database, Business
Source Premier, http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=buh&AN=4
543003&site=ehost-live.
Herman, E. & Chomsky, N. (1988). Manufacturing consent. The political economy of the
mass media. London: Pantheon Books.
Keister, L., & Moller, S. (2000). Wealth inequality in the United States. Annual Review of
Sociology, 26, (1), 63-81. Retrieved September 16, 2008 from EBSCO online database,
Academic Search Premier. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a
ph&AN=3780365&site=ehost-live.
Mills, C. W. (1956). The power eElite. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
National Statistics. (2006). Share of the wealth. Available at: http://www.statistics.gov.
uk/cci/nugget.asp?id=2. Accessed December 17, 2008.
Piven, F. & Cloward, R. (1977). Poor peoples movements: Why they succeed and how
they fail. New York, NY: Random House.
Scott, J. (1994). Poverty and Wealth: Citizenship, Deprivation and Privilege. London:
Heinemann.
Thio, A. (1992). Sociology: An introduction (3rd Ed.). New York, NY: Harper-Collins
Publications, Inc.
Tickerman, A. (1981). Wealth and power: A comparison of men and women in the property
elite. Social Forces, 60, (2), 463-481. Retrieved September 16, 2008 from EBSCO online
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rue&db=aph&AN=5294439&site=ehost-live.

Suggested Reading
Ehrenreich, B. (2007). The Bloated Overclass. Progressive, 71(8):16. Retrieved December
30, 2008 from EBSCO online database, Academic Search Complete, http://search.
ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=26234616&site=ehost-live
Moller, S. (2008). Framing class: Media representations of wealth and poverty in America.
Social Forces. 86(3):1347. Retrieved December 30, 2008 from EBSCO online database,
SocINDEX with Full Text. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=s
ih&AN=31673152&site=ehost-live
Ozawa, M. N., Jeounghee K. & Myungkook, J. (2006). Income class and the accumulation of
net worth in the United States. Social Work Research, 30(4): 211-222. Retrieved

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December 30, 2008 from EBSCO online database, SocINDEX with Full Text. http://
search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=sih&AN=24091621&site=ehost-live

Wilby, P. (2007). The very rich versus the rich. New Statesman, 137(4865), 16. Retrieved
December 30, 2008 from EBSCO online database, Academic Search Complete, http://
search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=26919985&site=ehost-live
Wilson, W. (1980). The declining significance of race, blacks and changing American
institutions. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

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83

Assessing Class: Lifestyle Choices


Barbara Hornick-Lockard

Overview
Income, wealth, occupation and education are the factors most commonly
used to define class, and the more abundant each of the factors, the more
expansive are the lifestyle options; however, increased affluence and
greater openness of society over at least the last three decades allows
for many more permutations of life courses. Classic sociological theory
showed how those of the same social class pursued the same lifestyles, but
in our increasingly diverse, multi-cultural society, it has become impossible to make the same assumptions.
What is Lifestyle?

Michael Sobel (1983) defined the word lifestyle for sociologists as simply,
a distinctive, hence recognizable, mode of living (p. 120). Attempting
to characterize and correlate those modes of living to social strata is increasingly complicated. German sociologist, Dieter Bgenhold (2001) says
that, what people are and what people do can no longer be conceptualized by a simple one-to-one fit. The concept of lifestyle is linked to social
rank and practice, but how people spend their leisure time and incomes
is not a simple mirror of income level but must be regarded as being
embedded in social behavior (p. 830).
Michael Sobel (1983) quotes Edward Shils when he says that lifestyle
reflects a voluntary participation in an order of values, and goes on to
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say that it is very much related to culture and is one of the most important bases of prestige because, like occupational role, it is among the
most continuous and observable of the various deference entitlements (p.
116). In his research, Sobel also links lifestyle to ethnicity race age
subcultural affiliation urban versus suburban residence, and sexual
preference. He also presents the concept of stylistic unity by which he
means the patterns of behavior which constitute that lifestyle are empirically common; i.e., similar patterns are shared by a sufficient number of
others, relative to all others (p. 117). He also says that lifestyle could be
conceptualized as a property of an individual, a group, or even a culture.
But sociologists, despite the assertions of some to the contrary, typically
use the concept at the individual level. He avoids ascribing lifestyle to
social class and says that [by] definition a lifestyle is expressive, and thus
a lifestyle form is a function of individual choice.
Prosperity in western societies increased steadily through the post-World
War II era of the latter half of the 20th century. Economies grew, standards of living rose, and the average number of weekly work hours was
reduced. In theory, more time was available for personal consumption and
leisure activities. In addition, as educational opportunities have increased,
consumer choices have become seemingly limitless, and technology and
medical advances continue enhance the quality of life; the configurations
of life paths have become diverse and complex.
Capital

The theories of Pierre Bourdieu, first presented in the mid-1980s, are


frequently cited by sociologists as they build new theories on lifestyles.
Many reference Bourdieus expansion on the concept of capital to understand how life choices affect ones advancement in social ranks. Economic
capital, generally defined as accumulated resources or another definition
of wealth is, according to Bourdieu, only one of three types of capital the
other two are social and cultural (Gilbert, p. 94).
Dennis Gilbert (2008) explains that cultural capital, closely linked to lifestyle, is knowledge in its broadest sense including formal education, but
also includes manners, sports abilities or other social skills; social capital
involves obligations that are components of family and other memberships
(p. 94). Further, in an explanation of Bourdieus theory, sociologist BDefining Class

85

genhold describes the metaphor that there is one multi-dimensional social


sphere for social position, but there is another for the sphere of lifestyles.
Material distribution is portrayed in one sphere, whereas in the other
sphere the provisions of cultural resources are staked out and manifested
in the form of varying life styles (2001, p. 835).
Consumption

Growth of our economy is dependent on increased consumption and consequently Michael Sobel (1983) argues that consumption is the best single
index of lifestyle (p. 123). He then differentiates the components of lifestyle into four groups:
Prestige acquisition,
Maintenance,
High life, and
Home life (p. 129).
Sobel believes that lifestyle consists of expressive and observable behaviors, but this doesnt imply the existence of coherent lifestyle forms, or
what he calls stylistic unity. Stylistic unity implies patterns or combinations of behavior that appear with such frequency as to not be unusual to
observers. Stylistic unity, if it exists, he says, is clearly the proximate
cause of a lifestyle (p. 124). The economic health of a capitalist society is
dependent on the levels of effective consumer demand. The production of
goods must find a market and Bgenhold (2001) theorizes that contemporary discussion of the pluralization of life styles reflects the fact that the
level of vertical differentiation in terms of financial resources has little to
do with the level of cultural expression as a form of individual life practice
(p. 832).
Teen Consumerism

Research studies in sociology and consumer markets have long focused on


social groups and their consumption patterns and preferences. As a very
well-defined and lucrative market, American teenagers are consequently
frequently the subject of that research. Tim Clydesdale (2005), attempts to
make some sense of contemporary teenage consumerism. He interviewed
a series of teenagers, from a range of social strata, who had part-time jobs
to maintain their free-spending lifestyles. Most all worked to fund cars,
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clothes, entertainment and technology. In response to questions, few understood what he meant by leisure, but instead responded to questions
about free time. The majority of this interview population responded
that they had little of either.
Another interesting niche study by Karen Bettez Halnon (2003), explored
the phenomenon of poor chic. She found irony that young people of all
classes were dressing down in an age of conspicuous economic inequality. The social phenomenon of dress casual among what used to be
called white collar workers and the trend for the last forty years, where
blue jeans, tee shirts and sneakers have been the favored off-work wear of
Americans, blur at least the superficial appearance of social classes.
Social Memberships

Gilbert also points to involvement in associations as a lifestyle indicator


that is patterned by social class. Membership with explicit purposes and
rules of membership attract individuals with similar social standing. The
most active participants tend to be from the upper income ranges since
it is theorized that lower classes dont have time or energy for them. As
an example, Gilbert explains that type-casting of membership in churches
continues to hold true. He says that higher status individuals belong to
churches with services of quiet dignity such as Unitarian or Episcopal;
while the middle class are Methodist, Mormon and Lutheran. The lower
class favors revivalist and fundamentalist denominations and Catholics
participation reflects the timing of their families immigration to the United
States (2008, p. 116).
Lifestyle may imply choices about leisure, but those, of course, are limited
by resources and other constraints. Demanding occupations, even though
well-paid, do not allow for another scarce commodity of current society
time. Post-war prosperity increased the number of recreational and leisure
choices available to Americans as more education allowed the middle class
to pursue a greater range of activities, whether participants or observers.
Electronic media brought the concert hall (once reserved for the elite) to
the masses.
High-Status Culture

Erickson (1996) refers to Bourdieus theories that class and culture are
both vertically ranked the culture of the highest classes becomes the
Defining Class

87

most distinguished culture (p. 217). In other words, those at the top are
in possession of greater cultural capital. Erickson accepts his theories,
but attempts to show that networks are stronger links to cultural variety,
and does not buy Bourdieus theory about higher-class culture. She cites
studies that show that higher-status people are more likely to consume
highbrow culture than are lower-state people, but only a minority of highstatus people consume any particular high-brow genre. There is no one
kind of taste profile that advantaged people share (p. 219).
Erickson argues that cultural inequality is not so much a hierarchy of tastes,
as it is a hierarchy of knowledge; i.e., someone may know as much about
soap operas as operas and have those cultural weapons can find one to
suit the battle at handThus the most widely useful form of cultural resources is cultural variety (p. 219).
Research by Ningzi Zhang (2003) on high status culture supports this
argument. Zhang sees a movement away from cultural elitism to eclecticism. Another study by Garcia-Alvarez and others (2007) studied heterogeneity in Americans musical taste. They differentiate between breadth and
level of taste, two independent dimensions of cultural consumption and
proposed that that modern high brows were cultural omnivores, but not
necessarily elitists.
Resources for leisure-time activities have became commodities and filled
a huge economic niche. Dieter Bgenhold marvels that we now speak of
entertainment and tourist industries, saying that, due to the rapid growth
of social wealth, it is becoming ever more interesting for sociologists to
see how disposable time is used and how leisure practices relate to money
income (p. 831). Sports are seen as useful cross-class coordinating genre,
popular in all class levels and widely seen as something in common with
others at work. Sports discussions help to build cooperative ties across
class levels. (Erickson, 1996, p. 223,).
Health & Lifestyle

Although most modern sociologists struggle to precisely correlate


consumer and cultural preferences to social class, issues related to exercise,
eating habits, and smoking are more vertically aligned. Socioeconomic
status has an impact on health. It is known that those with lower incomes
smoke more and are more often obese and exercise less than those in higher
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income strata. Is this a factor of despair, lack of education, risk inclination


as much as a decision about lifestyle?
Call for more understanding on how social standing influences health
care comes from Stephen Isaacs and Steven Schroeder (2004), who argue
that the wide differences in health between the haves and have-nots are
largely ignored. Race and class are both independently associated with
health status, although it is often difficult to disentangle the individual
effects of the two factors (par. 3).

Further Insights
What are the variables that sociologists use to assess lifestyle? Michael
Sobels (1983) early study on lifestyle differentiation which he drew from
an even earlier data set, the 1972-1973 Survey of Consumer Expenditures. His analysis led him to develop a matrix of four factors:
Visible success or prestige acquisition
Maintenance
High life
Home-life (p. 129).
His classification evolved from surveys related to research on 19 dependent lifestyle variables. These were:
He then correlated these with the obvious independent variables:
Food at home/Away from home

Alcohol

Housing

Textiles

Furniture

Home decoration

Casual & Dress clothing

Personal Care

Vacation

Clubs

TV

Music

Camping & Sports equipment

Gifts to persons outside


household

Reading

Theatre & Concerts

Sports Events

Defining Class

89

Region of U.S.;
Family size;
Family status;
Location size (city, small town, etc.);
Total consumption,
Education,
Household and individual income (p. 126).
Drawing on data from the same time period, Hughes and Peterson (1983)
re-analyzed a national survey on the arts that was conducted by Louis
Harris and Associates for the American Council of the Arts. The survey
looked at American leisure activities and included evaluation of participation in the performing arts, sports, going out, domestic activity (needlework, cooking, gardening, etc.), outdoor activity, anti-arts attitudes, craft
activities (photography, painting, woodworking, etc.), museum attendance, and amateur performance (participation in music, drama or dance).
Their critique found that the data included nothing about the populations
most common activity watching television. Most importantly, they could
not identify a significant fit between social class and cultural classes.
A relevant study from 1998 by Douglas B. Holt examined whether Pierre
Bourdieus theory of cultural capital applies to consumption patterns in
the United States. He defined six dimensions of taste from those with high
capital resources to those with low:
Material versus formal aesthetics furniture, food and
clothing preferences
Referential versus critical interpretation real life vs.
critical view of books, movies, etc.
Materialism versus idealism luxury vs. metaphysical
experience
Local versus cosmopolitan tastes
Communal versus individualist forms of consumer subjectivity authenticity and connoisseurship decisions about
possessions
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Auto telic versus self-actualizing leisure self-expression


and realization
Holt distinguished between those with high and low cultural capital resources. His findings suggest that consumption continues to serve as a
potent site for the reproduction of social class (1998, p. 1).
Weeden and Grusky (2005) reported on their extensive surveys that categorized class and lifestyles by consumption practices and institutional
participation. Institutional participation included marriage and divorce,
children; union membership, and veteran status. Consumption practices
were broad and involved questions about news knowledge, TV watching
hours, reading (literature), and family life.

Viewpoints
Is Class Structure Declining?

A debate has raged for nearly twenty years among sociologists whether
social classes are fading out. An article with that very title by Terry Nichols
Clark and Seymour Martin Lipset (1991) recognized the emergence of new
social strata and the need to create new models. If there is any one lifestyle
variable that would disprove the decline of the class definitions of social
class it would be health.
Does Class Affect Health?

Does inequitable distribution of income and wealth cause poor health? According to Isaacs and Schroeder (2004), wealth and income are distributed
less equitably in the United States than in any other industrialized country,
and the gap between the rich and the poor has grown over the last thirty
years. They beg social scientists to look at the importance of socioeconomic status as it relates to health. They point to data that indicate that lower
income people generally die sooner than people at higher socioeconomic
levels. It is a pattern that holds true in a progressive fashion from the
poorest to the richest. Their data also shows that those who earned
$15,000 or less per year from 1972 to 1989 were three times as likely to die prematurely as were those with earning in excess of $70,000 per year (par. 5).
Isaacs and Schroeder verify that those in upper classes have healthier
behavior. Their charts clearly show, as is generally acknowledged, that
Defining Class

91

the higher the income, the less an individual is likely to smoke. Likewise,
those in the lower income brackets are nearly three times as likely not
to engage in leisure-time physical exercise. And have less health insurance coverage, poor neighborhoods and exposure to more environmental hazards. Beyond that, they say, . there is something about lower
socioeconomic status itself that increases the risk of premature death (par.
8). This is a gloomy scenario.
In a review of the sociology research literature, Neckerman and Torche
(2007) identified research studies that verify the status hypothesis that
proposes that relative deprivation the subjective awareness of ones own
economic position relative to others influences health directly through
the effects of stress on the body or indirectly through poor health behaviors
such as smoking or alcohol abuse (p. 341). They refer to a recent study by
Eibner and Evans (2004) that supports the contention that income inequality for the poor raises mortality risk as well as the risk of heart disease and
tobacco-related mortality; it is also associated with unhealthy behaviors
such as smoking and sedentary lifestyles. Their results suggest that half
the impact of individual income on mortality may operate through relative
deprivation (p. 342).

Bibliography
Bgenhold, D. (2001). Social inequality and the sociology of life style: material and cultural
aspects of social stratification. American Journal of Economics & Sociology, 60(4), 829.
Retrieved September 6, 2008, from EBSCO online database, SocINDEX with Full Text
http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=sih&AN=5802638&site=eho
st-live
Clydesdale, T. (2005). Work, money, & leisure: Understanding the economic life of
American teens during the first year after high school. Conference Papers -- American
Sociological Association, Annual Meeting, Philadelphia. 1-20. Retrieved September 22,
2008, from EBSCO online database, SocINDEX with Full Text.http://search.ebscohost.
com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=sih&AN=18616628&site=ehost-live
DiMaggio, P., & Mohr, J. (1985). Cultural capital, educational attainment, and marital
selection. American Journal of Sociology, 90(6), 1231-1261.
Eibner , C. E. & Evans, W. N. (2004) The income-health relationship and the role of
economic deprivation. In Neckerman, K.M. ed. (2004) Social Inequality. New York:
Rusell Sage Foundation.
Erickson, B. H. (1996). Culture, class, and connections. American Journal of Sociology.
102 (1), 217-251. Retrieved September 7, 2008, from EBSCO online database, SocINDEX
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with Full Text. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=sih&AN=961


1101910&site=ehost-live
Garca-lvarez, E., Katz-Gerro, T., & Lpez-Sintas, J. (2007, December). Deconstructing
cultural omnivorousness 1982-2002: heterology in Americans musical preferences.
Social Forces, 86(2), 417-443. Retrieved September 7, 2008, from EBSCO online database,
SocINDEX with Full Text.http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=si
h&AN=28056473&site=ehost-live
Gilbert, D. (2008). The American class structure in an age of growing inequality. 7th ed.
Los Angeles: Pine Forge Press.
Goesling, B. (2007). The rising significance of education for health. Social Forces, 85(4),
1621-1644. Retrieved September 25, 2008, from EBSCO online database, SocINDEX with
Full Text.http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=sih&AN=25527577
&site=ehost-live
Halnon, K. (2002). Poor chic: The rational consumption of poverty. Current Sociology,
50(4), 501. Retrieved September 7, 2008, from EBSCO online database, SocINDEX with
Full Text.http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=sih&AN=7295362
&site=ehost-live
Issacs, S., & Schroeder, S. (2004) Class -- the ignored determinant of the nations health.
New England Journal of Medicine, 351(11), 1137-1142. Retrieved September 22, 2008,
from EBSCO online database, EBSCO online database,http://search.ebscohost.com/
login.aspx?direct=true&db=sih&AN=14361322&site=ehost-live
Neckerman, K., & Torche, F. (2007, August). Inequality: Causes and consequences. Annual
Review of Sociology, 33(1), 335-357.
Sobel, M. (1983). Lifestyle differentiation and stratification in contemporary U.S. society.
Research in Social Stratification & Mobility, 2, 115-144.
Zhang, N. (2003, Aug. 16). Elite cultural activity participation and social status: the U.S.
Case. Conference Papers -- American Sociological Association, Retrieved September 3,
2008 from EBSCO online database SocINDEX with Full Text.http://search.ebscohost.
com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=sih&AN=15922508&site=ehost-live

Suggested Reading
Bourdieu, P. (1984). Distinction. (Nice, R. trans.) London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Cross, G. (2006). Crowds and leisure: thinking comparatively across the 20th Century.
Journal of Social History, 39(3), 631-650. Retrieved September 6, 2008, from EBSCO
online database, SocINDEX with Full Text.http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?d
irect=true&db=sih&AN=20499313&site=ehost-live
DiMaggio, P., & Useem, M. (1978). Cultural democracy in a period of cultural expansion:
The social composition of arts audiences in the United States. Social Problems, 26(2), 55.
Dumas, A., & Laberge, S. (2005). Social class and ageing bodies: Understanding physical
activity in later life. Social Theory and Health, 3 (3), p. 183.

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Giddens, A. (1973). The class structure of the advanced societies. New York: Harper & Row.
Hughes, M., & Peterson, R. (1983). Isolating cultural choice patterns in the U.S. population.
American Behavioral Scientist, 26(4), 459.
Jarosz, L., & Lawson, V. (2002). Sophisticated people versus rednecks: Economic
restructuring and class difference in Americas west. Antipode, 34(1), 8. Retrieved
September 22, 2008, from EBSCO online database, Academic Search Premier.http://
search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=6068243&site=ehost-live
Levy, G., & Churchill, C. (1992). New middle class youth in a college town: Education for
life in the 1990s. International Journal of Politics, Culture & Society, 6(2), 229. Retrieved
September 22, 2008, from EBSCO online database, Academic Search Premier.http://
search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=10729516&site=ehostlive
Mohr, J., & DiMaggio, P. (1995). The intergenerational transmission of cultural capital.
Research in Social Stratification & Mobility, 14, 167-199.
Nichols, L., & Wanamaker, N. (1995, September). Needs and priorities in balancing paid
and family work: A gender and social class analysis. Family & Consumer Sciences
Research Journal, 24(1), 71.
Osgerby, B. (2003, January). A pedigree of the consuming male: Masculinity, consumption
and the American leisure class. Sociological Review Monograph, 51, 57-85. Retrieved
September 22, 2008, from EBSCO online database, SocINDEX with Full Text.http://
search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=sih&AN=11914805&site=ehost-live
Riesman, D., Denny, R. & Glazer, N. (1950). The lonely crowd: A study of the changing
American character. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Sobel, M. E. (1981). Lifestyle and social structure; conceptions, definitions, analyses. New
York and London: Academic Press.
Veblen, T. B. (1899/2007). The theory of the leisure class. London: Oxford University Press.

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The Middle Class in America


Jeff Klassen

Overview
The observation that the current generation of middle-class households are
the first generation in American history to experience a lower standard of
living than their parents is now very common. Although the descendents
of the baby boom generation have generally enjoyed a higher level of
educational achievement than their parents, they have also faced higher
inflation-adjusted living expenses and often engage in a higher level of
consumption (spending) than the earlier generation. According to Lehmann-Haupt (1993), family inheritance, rather than accomplishment, is now
likely to provide the primary source of economic opportunity in many
middle-class households.
One of the reasons that the older generation of middle-class households,
the single providers of which were often employed in the manufacturing
sector, is economically secure in that it enjoyed substantial appreciation in
the value of its homes. Many of those homes were purchased with lowinterest mortgages provided through the G.I. Bill of Rights or other government programs. The younger generation of middle-income households
appears to have reacted to this relative decline in the standard of living primarily though long-term anxiety about the future and that of its children
rather than through anger or political activism (Noble, 1993; Reich, 1994).
Political radicalism and frustration politics (or protesting voting) flourished in the 1970s, but have arguably declined in more recent decades.
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95

Middle Class Income

The middle class is often characterized as those households earning between


80% and 120% of the median household income in their local community.
By this standard, the proportion of the population that is middle class has
fallen to 22% from 28% since 1970 (Roberts, 2006). Although the real (that
is, inflation-adjusted) wages of the middle classes have fallen behind that
of even the working class in recent decades, middle-income households
as a group have retained relatively stable levels of assets and savings;
although assets have fallen sharply for the bottom 40% of earners (Frank,
2007). Recent reforms of tax policies, however, have been more beneficial to the working class and the rich than the middle class (Gerteis, 1998).
The ratio of households who leave middle-class classification through
either downward mobility or upward mobility is roughly 2:1, respectively
(Pressman, 2007).
A rough proportional description of the U.S. population based on income
can be broken down into six categories:
The lowest class or largely unemployed underclass at
about 10%;
The working poor at about 15%;
The working (or blue-collar) class at about 30%;
The lower-middle class at about 30%;
The upper-middle (or professional) class at about 15%;
and
The rich at about 1%.
According to the 2003 Census, the middle 20% of the population earned
between $40,000 and $95,000 that year (Baker, 2003). Financial classifications, however, are highly relative. For example, average median incomes
range from $20,000 in Miami to $60,000 in San Francisco (Scott, 2006).
Housing costs in Washington, D.C. are almost twice the national average
(Baker, 2003). Nonetheless, well over 60% of the population claims to be
middle class. An article in the New York Times colloquially invokes the
idea of Marxist class consciousness to imply that conventional class consciousness tends not to operate in the U.S.: In America, the class struggle
has meant trying to fit everyone into the middle (Roberts, 1997, 4).
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Middle Class Values & Concerns

It can be useful to characterize the middle class in terms of values and


social concerns or status. These values and concerns, however, are often
discussed - particularly among the lower-middle class - as negative factors
such as isolation, voter apathy, or economic insecurity.
C. Wright Mills influential 1951 book, White Collar: the American Middle
Classes predicted several trends that are still prominent. Mills observed,
for example, that the working class and the professional class associate
culturally with the middle class in both social and political terms. In
other words, the non-middle classes often express their views in non-class
related terms (Gerteis, 1998).
The lower-middle class tends not to exhibit strong ideological or political
affiliation. As such, the lower-middle class, in particular, is frequently a
crucial demographic group in federal elections; political campaigns tend
to appeal to them (Gerteis, 1998). Somewhat ironically, the middle class
is often associated with voter apathy. Mills termed the administrative
middle-class strangers to politics . . . Not radical, not liberal, not conservative, not reactionary (Mills, 1956 [1951], p. 328). This characterization
can also be at least partially extended to Millss view of the social life of the
middle-class. Kelfalas (2007) argues that the lower-middle class is more
self-conscious about respectability than either the working class or the upper-middle class.
A defining social characteristic of the middle classes has speculatively been
defined as a longing for control associated with the desire for social and
economic security. A slight variation on this characterization for the lower-middle class has been termed keeping up appearances accompanied
by some cynicism about the possibility of upward social mobility. Very
broadly, this group tends to be negatively ambivalent about welfare recipients, the federal government, intellectuals, and foreign-born U.S. residents
(Kelfalas, 2007, p. 65). Also very broadly, the non-professional middle
class are likely to think of themselves as politically conservative; they are
also usually charitable and socially generous unless threatened by the loss
of social or economic security (Kelfalas, 2007, p. 66).
Heckert and Heckert (2004) posit that the ten most common middle-class
behavioral norms are:
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97

Privacy,
Group loyalty,
Conventionality,
Prudence,
Participation,
Responsibility,
Moderation,
Peacefulness,
Honesty, and
Courtesy.
At least five of these traits - group loyalty, participation, responsibility,
conventionality and courtesy - can arguably be grouped together under
the rubric of conformity.
Heckert and Heckert describe how these traits can either be perceived positively or negatively. A workaholic, for example, is likely to be viewed with
disdain by co-workers, but as exceptional by a supervisor; a gifted student
is likely to be resented by most students, but appreciated by a teacher.
In this context, provincialism (or even more disparagingly, parochialism
- an excessively local or narrow outlook) can be termed negatively perceived overconformity to the value of conventionality and group loyalty.
Potential provincialism radicalism and potential radicalism are especially
relevant to a discussion of the lower-middle class and the middle class as
a group. All of these ten social norms can also be subdivided into real (or
commonly achievable) social roles and ideal (or sublime or exceptional) social roles, but these ten values are primarily relevant in their real or
achievable form in this discussion (Heckert & Heckert, 2004).

Further Insights
A Portrait of the American Middle Class

Although as much as 80% of the U.S. population has identified itself as


middle class, a larger portion chose to identify themselves as working class
in the 1980s and 1990s. About 20% making under $15,000 annually and
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90% making more than $75,000 annually identify themselves as middle


class (Roberts, 1997). About 35% of African-Americans can be classified as
middle-class if median income is considered $35,000 annually (Patterson,
1997, p 22). Half of the upper-middle class in the 1990s would likely have
fallen out of that category if one of two working spouses had lost their
income (Roberts, 1997).
Happiness

Self-reported happiness might seem like an unreliable measure of societal


health. Frank, however, argues that self-reported happiness (or subjective well-being) is indeed a reliable indicator of more than one measure
of social health: Happy people agree strongly that When I am doing well
at something, I love to keep at it, whereas unhappy people often seem
not even to understand what such statements are getting at (2007, p. 17).
Self-reported happiness, or unhappiness, also tends to be consistent over a
period of several months or longer, and happiness correlates strongly with
minimal absence from work and minimal workplace conflict (Frank, 2007,
p. 16, 19).
Politics

A survey of political culture in the 1990s, Hunter and Bowmans, The


Study of Disunion found that the working poor and the lower middle
class - especially African-Americans - were significantly more supportive
of identity politics based on small group differences, particularly those
based on ethnicity, than professionals and the affluent. The wealthy were
also found to be substantially more likely to express distrust of the federal
government than the middle classes. About 75% of those surveyed were
at least pleased with their jobs, and more than 90% indicated that their
childhood and current family life were mostly happy or better (Steinfels,
1996). These categories - arguably including happiness - tend to coalesce
in studies of changing middle-class voting patterns during late twentieth
century recessions.
Gerteis (1998) attempts to find a functional approach to describing class
roles or class consciousness in the U.S. using surveys about self-reported political and ideological loyalty. A possible avenue emphasizes
social status as opposed to material self-interest. Gerteis argues that this

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99

approach accounts for voting patterns during the political and economic
crises of the early 1970s, but that the recession of the early 1990s is not as
easily explained. The surveys from both periods indicate that professionals claimed to be strongly engaged: they identified themselves firmly
as liberals or conservatives and with either Democrats or Republicans.
Lower middle-class workers, however, consistently identified themselves
as neutral both in terms of ideological and party loyalty.
In this model, intellectuals - including the clergy, academics, researchers,
social workers, and professionals in cultural fields - are generally leftleaning and derive self-worth from cultural capital, including prestigious
possessions and credentials that can potentially be used for exclusionary
purposes. Engineers, managers, and corporate executives that tend to be
right-leaning derive self-worth from economic capital or straightforward
wealth. These differences can be easily mapped onto a political landscape.
The lower-middle class - including sales people, accountants, clerks, and
teachers - tend to be centrists and devoid of the influences of either cultural
capital or economic capital (Gerteis, 1998).
The Marxist class consciousness model appeared to grow less relevant
between the 1970s and the 1990s. Levels of self-interest or unified occupational solidarity appeared to become less identifiable with voting behavior
over time. This confusing situation can be partially explained by an
analogous condition on the political left in the 1960s: the counterculture
movement was generally anti-government at the same time that federal
Democrats were expanding civil rights and funding on social programs.
Gerteis concludes that voting patterns in the 1990s had moved even further
away from a unified class consciousness model in which group solidarity
is evident, through what is termed segmentation, in which occupational or social groups exhibit some similar voting trends, and into a period
of fragmentation in which even that trend is not clear (1998). Gertaiss
analysis, however, does not explicitly link growing fragmentation with
escalating voter radicalism.
Middle Class Radicalism or Voter Volatility?

Both internal and external factors combined after the early 1970s to contribute to the potential radicalization of the middle classes and what has
been termed frustration politics. In the 1970s, the Watergate scandal,
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the OPEC oil crisis, and a recession combined to grant some perceived
national credibility - or popularity - to the radical populist George Wallace,
who presented a platform based on Southern economic and cultural dissatisfaction. Wallaces speeches asserted that both African-Americans and
the affluent had gained too much political influence. He also termed his
supporters Middle American Radicals. Patrick Caddell, a prominent
Democratic pollster, found that public willingness to support Wallace for
president in the early 1970s was as high as 35%, half of which identified
their potential support as a protest vote against the established parties.
Caddells interpretation of this alarming trend was that the:
People smack in the middle - the people who are the least ideological - are the most volatile. Forty one percent thought that the
American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to
use force to save it (cited in Phillips, 2002, p. 381).
He also termed the trend [c]enter extremism.
The term radicalism is largely used pejoratively to describe voter volatility or dissatisfaction, but the well-known poverty activist Barbara Ehrenreich implicitly claims that it also has another meaning. She argues
that labor protests in the 1970s and the counterculture opposition to the
Vietnam War were consistent with the American tradition of activism, but
some intellectuals were uncomfortable with the idea of politically active
working or lower-middle class groups and ascribed that behavior to a
recent, divergent culture of permissiveness (Morley, 1989).
The October 1987 stock market plunge and a subsequent recession marked
a less severe continuation of this trend. In the 1980s, the federal Republicans, in effect, favored soaking the middle: the professional class was
taxed at a higher rate while rich individuals and corporations received tax
breaks (Gerteis, 1998). White-collar unemployment grew steadily between
1983 and 1993 from about 5.5% to over 8%, as blue-collar unemployment
fell from 10% to 8%. In the 1980s, the federal government also took the
unprecedented step of protecting the banking and finance sectors, and
[b]usiness magazines spoke of the first white-collar recession after 1990
(Phillips, 2002, p. 97).

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101

The populist agenda resurged, and what is known as the swing vote
- including Reagan Democrats - was estimated to be as high as 70% of
voters. The right-wing populists Patrick Buchanan and Ross Perot campaigned on a defense of working-class and the middle class interests.
Voter turnout was about 55% in 1992, whereas in 1998 and 1996 it was 50%.
Perot, the successful third-party candidate, garnered 19% of the popular
vote in 1992; George H.W. Bush had received 53.6% in 1988, and in 1992,
Republican Robert Dole received 37.7%. Perots success clearly aided the
Democratic victory. In 2000, however, the left-wing populist Ralph Nader
used a similar platform to garner 3% of the vote that otherwise would
have primarily benefited Democrats. Polls after the election revealed that
public support was as high as 8% for Nader, and post election behavior
[is] usually reflective of underlying sympathies (Phillips, 2002, p. 97-98,
384-388).
If Caddells center extremism was an accurate description of voter
behavior in the 1990s, the later period certainly did not result in a radical
change. The Republican party, however, has since assumed a more fundamentalist and socially conservative stance, which resonates more with
the working class than the business elite - traditionally the key Republican
base (Gerteis, 1998).
Income Instability Since the 1970s

Both income inequality and income instability appear to have risen since
the 1970s, but the issue of income stability may have more to do with perception and the loss of high-quality jobs. A recent study by the Congressional Budget Office using comprehensive Social Security Administration records concludes that levels of income were relatively stable in the
1980s and 1990s. The public perception of income instability and greater
economic volatility may be due to the fact that layoffs now occur en masse
and are widely reported in the media. On a smaller but more frequent
scale, layoffs had been relatively normal when much more of the lowermiddle class was employed in the manufacturing sector before the 1970s
(Leonhardt, 2007).
It is true, however, that college-educated workers are now more likely
to be laid off than laborers, but the college-educated have also formed a
larger part of the workforce since the 1980s. A recent Gallup Poll indicates
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that about 12% of respondents claimed they were likely to be laid off. That
is roughly the rate at which workers in the manufacturing sector were laid
off before the 1970s. It is also true that temporary jobs are more common
now, and that job tenure is declining. Income inequality, however, clearly
has grown substantially since the 1970s (Leonhardt, 2007).
Greater income inequality (larger portions of poverty and affluence) tends
to undermine democratic stability (Gutmann, 2006). The stability that has
emerged since the 1970s, therefore, appears to be of a rather undesirable
sort. In 2003, 25% of workers suffered an income loss of 20% or more, while
22% experienced an increase in income of 25% or more (Leonhardt, 2007).
Between 1968 and 1980, about 6% of the population moved upward from
the middle class, and roughly the same portion fell downward into the
middle class. Families with children, however, are now statistically more
likely to experience bankruptcy than divorce; about 1.5 million families file
for bankruptcy annually (Kilborn, 1992; Gutmann, 2006).
Although the middle classes are clearly anxious about the prospect of
losing ground financially, they do not appear to be bothered by not getting
ahead. The middle classes apparently enjoy consuming cultural products
such as magazines and television programs featuring luxurious homes.
Frank (2007), however, argues that they might be pressured to overextend
themselves financially for a valid reason. The quality of public schools is
linked to local levels of property taxation; therefore, middle-class families
with school-aged children might be compelled to spend more than they can
afford on housing in order to gain access to higher quality public education
(Frank, 2007, p. 43-44). Tax policies continue to place a heavy burden on
the middle class, but state and federal politicians have actively sought to
temper these policies in other areas (Leonhardt, 2007). For example, politicians in Iowa recently attempted to prevent a large Maytag plant from
closing by offering to build a new energy-efficient plant and providing
college scholarships for the children of its employees. That offer was not
accepted (Uchitelle, 2007).
Demographic Shifts

Although the oft-reported decline of the middle class seems to reflect


income more than a proportion of the population, a distinct trend of demographic stratification has emerged. New York City, followed closely by
Defining Class

103

Los Angeles, has the lowest proportion of middle-income households in


the nation among large metropolitan cities. In New York, 16% of families
and 28% of neighborhoods are considered middle class, and those neighborhoods are disappearing faster than the families. Levels of high- and
low-income housing are rising, and rich and poor neighborhoods have
become more homogeneous since 1970. Baltimore, Chicago, and Philadelphia have been marked by a very high rate of change along these lines.
The national proportion of middle-income housing has fallen from 58%
to 41% of metropolitan neighborhoods (Roberts, 2006). This trend often
necessitates that firefighters and police officers often cannot afford to live
in the area in which they work and, therefore, must commute. It is likely
that those public servants perform better when they are more familiar with
the area in which they work and when they have a personal investment in
the location (Scott, 2006).

Viewpoints
Middle Class Women

Whereas an earlier generation of feminist activists struggled to release


women from the near-requirement that they sacrifice career opportunities
in order to raise children, it is now more common for women to lose the
opportunity to raise children in their own home due to the financial need
for a full-time income (Toner, 1993).
Women have often been more successful in fields - such as academia, social
work and radiography - in which cultural capital is more easily obtained
than financial capital. There is some evidence that the level of cultural
capital that such fields are perceived as conferring has declined as more
women have excelled in them (Gerteis, 1998). The appearance of the decline
of the middle class might be partially accounted for by the fact that highearning men and women tend to marry one another and thereby rise out of
middle-class status more readily. In all developed nations, however, fairly
drastic changes in the gender-based make up of domestic households have
had virtually no effect on the proportion of the middle class in comparison
with other economic groups (Pressman, 2007).

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Is the Middle Class in Decline?

The apparent decline of the middle class in the United States has been compared
with the more decisive decline of the bourgeoisie in late eighteenth century
Holland and late nineteenth century England. The probable upsurge of radicalism in recent decades is at least partially analogous to the late eighteenth
century Dutch reactionary revitalization known as the Patriot movement,
which distrusted aristocrats, plutocrats, and the unruly poor and favored
industry and hard work over financing practices. It has also been compared
with late nineteenth century British John Bull nationalism and the imperialist exercises in the Boer that resulted in a resounding 1900 Conservative election victory (Phillips, 2002, p. 382). The similarities of these three
eras include a high trade deficit, social stratification, and financialization
(government debt and high foreign investment in the domestic market).
The dissimilarity is that both Holland and Britain were small nations dependent on nautical power, whereas the United States has ample natural
resources and a large domestic economic market (Lehmann-Haupt, 1993).

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3BF935A25756C0A965958260&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=all
Patterson, O. (1997). The ordeal of integration: Progress and resentment in Americas
racism crisis. Washington, D.C.: Civitas/Counterpoint.
Phillips, K. (2002). Wealth and democracy: A political history of the American rich. New
York: Broadway Books.
Pressman, S. (2007). Decline of the middle class: An international perspective. Journal of
Economic Issues, 41(1), 181-200. Retrieved August 8, 2008 from EBSCO online database
Business Source Complete http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=b
th&AN=23779789&site=ehost-live
Reich, R.B. (1994, August 31). The fracturing of the middle class. New York Times.
Retrieved August 8, 2008 from: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=980
2E7DE1738F932A0575BC0A962958260&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=all
Roberts, S. (1997, May 18). Another kind of middle-class squeeze. New York Times.
Retrieved August 8, 2008 from: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=940
1E0DE1038F93BA25756C0A961958260&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=all
Roberts, S. (2006, June 22). Study shows a dwindling middle class. New York
Times. Retrieved August 8, 2008 from: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/06/22/
nyregion/22income.html?scp=34&sq=Middle%20Class&st=cse
Scott, J. (2006, July 23). Cities shed middle class, and are richer and poorer for it. New
York Times. Retrieved August 8, 2008 from:http://www.nytimes.com/2006/07/23/
weekinreview/23scott.html?sq=Middle%20Class&st=cse&scp=5&pagewanted=all
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Steinfels, P. (1996, November 2). Beliefs. New York Times. Retrieved August 8, 2008 from:
http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9F05E2D61F39F931A35752C1A960
958260&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=all
Toner, R. (1993, June 20). America out of reach. [Book Review]. New York Times. Retrieved
August 9, 2008 from: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9F0CE4DD153
AF933A15755C0A965958260&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=all
Uchitelle, L. (2007, August 26). Is there (middle class) life after Maytag? New York Times.
Retrieved August 10, 2008 from: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/26/business/
yourmoney/26maytag.html?sq=Middle%20Class&st=cse&scp=31&pagewanted=all

Suggested Reading
Converse, P.E. (1962). Information flow and the stability of partisan attitudes. Public
Opinion Quarterly 26, 578-599.
Converse, P.E. (2000). Assessing the capacity of mass electorates. Annual Review of
Political Science 3, 331-353.
De Soucey, M. (2005). Living in their parents basements: How traditional mechanisms
of social reproduction are failing middle class kids. Conference Papers -- American
Sociological Association, 2005 Annual Meeting, Philadelphia, 1-27. Retrieved August 8,
2008 from EBSCO online database SocINDEX with Full Text:http://search.ebscohost.
com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=sih&AN=18615359&site=ehost-live
Easterly, W. (2000). The middle class consensus and economic development. SSRN: World
Bank Policy Research Working Paper No. 2346. Retrieved August 9, 2008 from:http://
papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=630718
Ehrenreich, B. (1989). Fear of falling: The inner life of the middle class. New York: Harper
Collins.
Felski, R. (2002). Why academics dont study the lower-middle class. Chronicle of Higher
Education, 48 (20), B24. Retrieved September 11, 2005 from EBSCO online database
Academic Search Complete: http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db
=a9h&AN=5989251&site=ehost-live
Gans, H., (1982 [1962]). The Levittowners: Ways of life and politics in a new suburban
community. New York: Columbia University Press, 1967.
Gans, H. (1991 [1988]). Middle American Individualism: Political Participation and Liberal
Democracy. New York: Oxford University Press.
Helmstetter, C. (2008) The stratification of ideological sophistication in the general public.
SSRN. Retrieved August 9, 2008 from: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1158142
Kilborn, P.T. (1992, January 12). The middle class feels betrayed, but maybe not enough to
rebel. New York Times. Retrieved August 10, 2008 from: http://query.nytimes.com/
gst/fullpage.html?res=9E0CE6DB1230F931A25752C0A964958260&sec=&spon=&page
wanted=all
Lewis, M. (1961). The City in History. New York: Harcourt Brace.
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Miller, J.C. (1996). An uncommon tranquility of mind: Emotional self-control and the
construction of a middle-class. Journal of Social History, 30 (1). Retrieved August 8,
2008 from EBSCO online database SocINDEX with Full Text:http://search.ebscohost.
com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=sih&AN=9610071701&site=ehost-live
Newman, K.S. (1999). Falling from grace: Downward mobility in an age of affluence, (2nd
ed.). Berkeley, CA, University of California Press.
Russell, J. (1981). Theory of the new middle class. Sociological Spectrum, 1(3), 24758. Retrieved August 8, 2008 from EBSCO online database SocINDEX with Full
Text:http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=sih&AN=10615223&sit
e=ehost-live
Shipler, D.K. (2004, January 18). A poor cousin of the middle class. New York Times.
Retrieved August 11, 2008 from:http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=95
03E2DB1530F93BA25752C0A9629C8B63&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=all
Warren, E. (2006). Rewriting the rules: Families, money and risk. The Privatization
of risk. Retrieved August 11, 2008 from Social Science Research Council: http://
privatizationofrisk.ssrc.org/Warren/
Warren, E., & Tyagi, A.W. (2003). The two-income trap: Why middle-class mothers and
fathers are going broke. New York: Basic Books.
Weller, C. (2006). The middle class falls back. Challenge, 49(1), 16-43. Retrieved August 8,
2008 from EBSCO online database SocINDEX with Full Text:http://search.ebscohost.
com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=sih&AN=19513056&site=ehost-live
Wolff, E. N., (2007). Recent trends in household wealth in the United States: Rising debt
and the middle-class squeeze. SSRN: Levy Economics Institute Working Paper No. 502.
Retrieved August 10, 2008 from: http://ssrn.com/abstract=991901

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Contradictory Class Locations


Jennifer Kretchmar

Overview
The notion of class is a fundamental conceptual tool in the social sciences.
And yet, as Beckert and Zafirovsky explain, there is no general consensus among sociologists about how best to define the concept or about the
broader theoretical framework within which it should be studied (2006,
p. 62). Some theorists follow closely in the footsteps of Max Weber, others
adhere to the tenets of Marxism. Within these larger theoretical landscapes,
more specific topics emerge: class location, class structure, class consciousness, and class struggle to name just a few. What unites those who study
class, however, is a firm belief in the significance of class in explaining a
wide variety of social phenomena (Wright, 1997a).
In the late 1970s, one young scholar Erik Olin Wright began what would
become a lifelong commitment to the study of class. His original research
was motivated by the desire to demonstrate to non-Marxist social scientists that Marxist categories mattered (Wright, 1978, p. xix). And he
intended to do so through a quantitative study of income inequality and
class. What Wright soon discovered, however, was that class although a
central concept in Marxs work was never systematically defined, even
by Marx himself (Wright, 1996, p. 6). Furthermore, he realized that Marxs
conceptualization of capitalist societies as comprised of two increasingly
polarized classes those who own the means of production, or the bourDefining Class

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geoisie, and the working class, or the proletariat was inadequate. What
was needed was a more nuanced understanding of class structure that
would allow theorists to differentiate among the growing middle class.
Wright introduced his theory of contradictory class locations as a way to
fill the gap.
The Original Theory of Contradictory Class Locations

In the nearly four decades since Wright first introduced his theory, he has
continually attempted to revise it. As he explains, the process of concept
formation is a continual process of concept transformation. New solutions pose new problems, and the efforts at resolving those problems in
turn generate new solutions (Wright, 1996, p. 92). As a result, the theory
of contradictory class locations as it exists now differs in significant ways
from its original presentation. Well look at the theory as Wright first introduced it in the 1970s, then explore some of the arguments of his critics, and
finally, look at the ways in which he has attempted to revise it.
In his 1978 publication, Class Structure and Income Determination,
Wrights initial task was to present the concept of class from Marxist perspective. Wright begins by recognizing that Marxists have defined class
primarily in terms of common structural positions within social organizations of production (1978, p. 4). According to this definition, classes do
not constitute groups of people, or statistical aggregations, or social organizations. Rather, classes represent common positions within a hierarchy;
importantly, it is the positions themselves which are the primary unit of
analysis, not the individuals who occupy those positions. For Marx, the
primary positions in the class structure were the capitalists or bourgeoisie,
and the proletariat or workers, although he did identify others too, such as
the petty bourgeoisie.
Before characterizing these positions further, Wright provides a broader
context for his discussion of class by further distinguishing Marxist and
non-Marxist perspectives (1978). First and foremost, Wright argues,
Marxists view class as a relational concept as opposed to a gradational one
(1978). In the latter approach, classes are often defined in terms of spatial
relationships for example, upper and lower class and members of one
or another class typically have more or less of something, such as income
or status. In relational definitions, on the other hand, classes are defined in
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terms of qualitative differences rather than quantitative ones - according to


functions performed in work, for example, rather than in terms of income
accumulated. In addition, relational definitions of class emphasize change
over stasis; that is, according to Marxists, class structures provide the basis
collective action and class struggle.
Relational definitions of class can be further differentiated from one another
along a second dimension - whether relations are situated in the market,
or in the production process itself. Those who subscribe to a Weberian
conception of class concentrate on market relations, or the exchange that
occurs between sellers and buyers. Marxists, on the other hand, place
class analysis firmly in the sphere of production, and the relations between
the actors who participate in the production process. Definitions of class
grounded in the sphere of production branch once again; some theorists
characterize production relations in terms of the division of labor, some
in terms of authority, and others in terms of exploitation. For Marxists,
exploitation is the central organizing concept, and occurs when those in
dominant positions appropriate the labor of the people they dominate.
Based on these key elements relations, production, and exploitation
Wright proposes a Marxist definition of class as common positions within
the social relations of production, where production is analyzed above all
as a system of exploitation (1978, p. 17).
Although Wright was able to bring some clarity to Marxs interpretation of
class, the outline sketched above proved inadequate, especially for those
wishing to investigate class empirically, and not just conceptually. Theoreticians had difficulty categorizing a growing segment of society into any
of the class positions Marx identified that is, they seemed to be neither
capitalists nor members of the working class, or they seemed to have characteristics of both at the same time. Although many critics of Marx interpreted this classification difficulty as evidence of the inadequacy of Marxs
theory, Wright believed differently. He writes, Many critics of the Marxist
framework have argued thatambiguities in the class structure negate the
value of the Marxist perspective on classes altogether. This is equivalent to
saying that because the platypus has webbed feet and a bill, the concept of
mammal is useless (Wright, 1978, p. 41). Instead, Wright decided to reevaluate the assumption that every position within the class structure has
to fall into one and only one class. If we drop this assumption, he writes,
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an entirely new kind of solution to the problem of conceptually mapping


the middle class becomes possible (Wright, 1996, p. 43).
As a result of dropping this assumption, Wright stumbled upon the notion
of contradictory class locations. The new middle class, he argued, largely
occupied such positions. In presenting his argument Wright first had to
distinguish contradictory class locations from other classes, which he recognized as inherently contradictory in and of themselves. In a sense all
class positions are contradictory, in that class relations are intrinsically antagonistic social relations (1996, p. 26). The bourgeoisie and proletariat,
for example, are not only defined in relation to one another that is, the
existence of one class presupposes the existence of the other but also in
opposition to one another. The bourgeoisie exist only to the extent they
can dominate and exploit the proletariat. Thus, the class interests defined
by this class relation are fundamentally opposed to each other. It is in this
sense that there is an intrinsic as opposed to purely contingent contradiction between classes (Wright, 1978, p. 22).
Contradictory class locations, on the other hand, represent certain empty
places in the class structure [which] constitute doubly contradictory locations: they represent positions which are torn between the basic contradictory class relations of capitalist society (p. Wright, 1978, p. 26). Rather
than using what he calls a cumbersome expression contradictory positions within the basic contradictory class relations of capitalist society
Wright simply refers to such positions as contradictory class locations. In
order to further distinguish them from other class positions, he discusses
how contradictory locations arise in specific circumstances; for Wright,
understanding the notion of control and the three separate dimensions of
social relations of production are critical to understanding contradictory
class locations (1978).
Again, the difference between class positions and the individuals within
those positions becomes critical in Wrights analysis. Importantly, individuals themselves do not have control; rather it is by virtue of being in
a particular position within a social relation and not by virtue of being an
individual human being that capitalists have control (Wright, 1978, p.
25). Control itself implies the capacity to make decisions or to utilize some
kind of resource. Within the social relations of production, Wright argues,
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there are three specific types of control: control over money, control over
the physical means of production, and control over labor. It is precisely
because these three types of control function independently of one another
that is, one class position might be characterized by control over labor
but not money that contradictory class locations arise. Wright writes,
The three processes that comprise capitalist social relations of production
do not always perfectly coincide. This fact is the key to understanding the
class position of the new social categories that are labeled middle class
(1978, p. 26). According to Wright, three specific clusters of contradictory
locations managers/supervisors, semi-autonomous workers, and small
employers are most prominent within the class structure (1978).
Managers and supervisors occupy the first contradictory class location
between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. As Wright acknowledges,
some contradictory locations will be closer to one boundary or another
(1978). Foreman or line supervisors, for example, occupy a contradictory
location closest to the working class. They have control over labor in that
they supervise workers, but they have little control over the physical production process, and have no control over capital. As organizations have
become increasingly bureaucratic, such positions have lost some of their
authority, moving them even closer to the working class. Other middle
managers who have more technical or professional expertise may occupy a
position closer to the bourgeoisie, or a position more equally torn between
the two. Middle managers may participate in investment decisions, for
example, and have control over parts of the labor process but rarely control
physical production itself.
Semiautonomous workers occupy a contradictory location between the
working class and the petty bourgeoisie. According to Wright, this contradictory location is a direct by-product of the attempt by capitalists to exert
increasing levels of control over the labor process, or what is referred to in
Marxist terms as the proletarianization of labor (1978). Within this ongoing
struggle, some workers semiautonomous workers have managed to
maintain a level of control over their immediate labor process. To the extent
they are no longer self-employed nor supervise the work of others, they are
members of the working class. However, to the extent they control their
own work even to a small degree they are petty bourgeoisie. Wright acknowledges that a significant amount of ambiguity remains in defining the
Defining Class

113

boundaries of this location; how much control and/or autonomy is needed


to classify someone as semi-autonomous is unclear (1978).
The last of the contradictory locations small employers inhabit a
position between the petty bourgeoisie and the bourgeoisie. This location,
Wright argues, is conceptually simpler because it involves a single mode of
production rather than different modes (1978). That is, petty bourgeoisie
participate in simple commodity production because they produce their
own goods and rarely employ others to produce for them. As a result, they
cannot appropriate surplus labor through exploitation of others. However,
when a small business begins to hire help, the social relation of production
changes and exploitation even if on a small scale is now possible. Such
employers, although still largely petty bourgeoisie, now inhabit a position
that shares characteristics with the capitalist class. The number of employees needed to tip the balance, so that the smaller business owner identifies
more closely with the bourgeoisie rather than the petty bourgeoisie, will
vary across different kinds of technologies and historical periods (Wright,
1978).

Viewpoints
Criticism & Evolution of the Theory

In his 1996 publication, Classes, Wright himself gives voice to many of


the criticisms of his original formulation of contradictory class locations.
From the start, he acknowledges, there were some conceptual problems
with his theory. The four issues he believes deserve the most attention are
introduced below.
Contradiction

Perhaps most significantly, critics have taken issue with the use of the
term contradiction itself. While some of the contradictory class locations Wright identifies may indeed have intrinsically antagonistic interests, other positions may be better described as having heterogeneous
rather than contradictory interests (Wright, 1996). Managerial positions,
for example, are arguably contradictory its impossible to be both a capitalist who appropriates surplus labor through exploitation of laborers,
and be a member of the proletariat, the recipient of the exploitation, at the

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same time. At a minimum, Wright argues, it makes sense to describe


the interests of managers as internally inconsistent (1996, p. 52). On the
other hand, semi-autonomous workers and small employees who inhabit
contradictory locations between modes of production rather than within
modes might have competing interests but not necessarily internally inconsistent interests. Wright suggests these latter locations would be better
described as inhabiting dual or heterogeneous classes (1996).
Autonomy

The use of autonomy as a class criterion has been problematic, from a conceptual as well as empirical standpoint. Conceptually, critics have questioned
whether the distinction between petty-bourgeoisie and proletariat in terms
of autonomy is a useful one. Do the petty-bourgeoisie farmers, shopkeepers, independent artists truly have more autonomy than wage-laborers? Some argue the petty bourgeoisie are equally constrained in their pro
duction choices by forces in the market, contracts, and credit institutions, for example. Wage-laborers, on the other hand, continue to make
decisions and utilize judgment even in the most routine jobs. Self-employment, rather than autonomy, may be what distinguishes the classes
most (Wright, 1996). Autonomy has also been difficult to operationalize.
Wright explains, If autonomy is defined in terms of control over what
one produces and how one produces it, then many janitors in schools who
also perform a variety of handyman tasks will end up being more autonomous than airline pilots (1996, p. 55).
Historical Experience

A third and perhaps more fundamental criticism of Wrights theory, and


Marxism more generally, is the degree to which actual historical experience has provided contradictory evidence. Marx argued, unequivocally,
that socialism was the only logical trajectory for capitalists societies; what
has emerged instead, some suggest, are post-capitalist societies.
Rather than an increasing proletarianization (e.g. de-skilling) of the labor
force, post-capitalist societies are characterized instead by increasing
technical expertise and professionalism, or a de-proletarianization of the
workforce (Wright, 1997b). As Wright admits, the conceptual frameworks

Defining Class

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adopted by Marxists for analyzing classes in capitalist societies do not


contain adequate criteria for systematically understanding post-capitalist
classes (1997b, p. 55). While Wright concedes that capitalism may have
changed in ways unanticipated by Marxists, he also poses two challenges
to the contention that class structure has become post-capitalist (1997a).
Possible measurement bias or more specifically, an overestimation of the
size of the working class in the 1960s and a concomitant underestimation
of the size of the working class in the 1990s may call the de-proletarianization trend into question (Wright, 1997a). Without concrete evidence,
however, Wright entertains a second possibility namely, that the narrow
lens through which many study capitalism (e.g. the national lens) distorts
their perspective. A second line of response is to accept the results but
to argue that the transnational character of capitalism in the world today
makes it inappropriate to study transformations of class distributions
within single national units. The Marxist theory of proletarianization is a
theory about the trajectory of changes in class structures in capitalism as
such, not national units of capitalism (Wright, 1997a, p. 110).
The last criticism, and the one which Wright (1997b) has addressed most
fully, is a criticism introduced by fellow Marxists. Even though Wrights
theory of contradictory locations was developed within a Marxist framework, and therefore reaffirmed the relationship between exploitation and
class, Wright concedes that his theory rests on the notion of domination
more so than exploitation. The important distinction between the two,
Wright argues, is that domination does not imply that the two actors have
inherently contradictory interests (1997b). Exploitation, on the other hand,
occurs when one persons welfare is obtained at the expense of the other
(Wright, 1997b, p. 65). Wright builds upon Roemers notion of exploitation
in order to reconfigure his theory of contradictory class locations (1982, as
cited in Wright, 1997b).
According to the reconfiguration, the new middle class is characterized
by complex exploitation relations; that is, there willtend to be some positions which are exploiting along one dimension of exploitation, while on
another are exploited (Wright, 1997b, p. 87). Professionals, for example,
are exploited by the bourgeoisie because they lack capital, but they exploit
the skills of others. Wrights reconfiguration also makes a distinction
between different types of exploitation among non-wage earners exploitation of what he calls organization assets and skill/credential assets. This
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shift allows him to distinguish within this framework a whole terrain of


class-locations that are distinct from the polarized classes of the capitalist mode of production (Wright, 1997b, p. 87). The exploitation-based
conceptualization of contradictory locations also makes it easier, Wright
argues, to determine alliances whether managers, for example, will side
with capitalists or workers in a class struggle (1997b). Although the reconfiguration solves some conceptual problems, Wright acknowledges that
other issues remain how to conceptualize interactions among forms of
exploitation, for example, and the nature of relationship between skill exploitation and class (1997b).
Conclusion

Wright, of course, is not the only person to recognize the shortcomings


of his own theory. He has been criticized by others as well, including
Meiksins, who argues that Wrights exploitation-based theory of contradictory locations fails on three grounds (1989). First, Meiksins argues that
Wrights conceptualization of exploitation runs counter to the original
Marxist definition (1989). For Marx, exploitation was defined as the appropriation of surplus labor; Wrights argument rests upon the idea that
multiple exploitations exist. Secondly, Wright suggests that the existence
of multiple exploitations might lead to the development of a post-capitalist
class (1997b). Meiksins (1989) questions again whether such extensions are
logical within a Marxist framework. It is important to ask whether this
makes sense as an analysis of capitalist class structure (p. 178). Finally,
Meiksins criticizes Wrights conceptualization of the relationship between
class structure and class formation (1989). In the end, Meiksins calls into
question whether the notion of contradictory class locations is helpful at all
in conceptualizing the growing middle class (1989). He writes, Undoubtedly, the complexities of contemporary class structure pose many problems
for Marxist theory; many questions do remain unresolved. However, it is
not at all clear that the theory of contradictory class locations helps us to
understand these complexities (Meiksins, 1989, p. 183).

Bibliography
Beckert, J., & Zafirovsky, M. (2006). Class. In The International Encyclopedia of Economic
Sociology (pp. 62-68). New York, NY: Routledge Press.
Retrieved September
12, 2008 from: http://www.ssc.wisc.edu/~wright/selected-published-writings.
htm#ARTICLES

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Meiksins, P.F. (1989). A critique of Wrights theory of contradictory class locations. In E.O.
Wright (Ed.), The Debate on Classes (pp. 173-183). New York, NY: Verso.
Wright, E.O. (1978). Class structure and income determination. New York, NY: Academic
Press.
Wright, E.O. (1979). Class, crisis, and the state. New York, NY: Verso.
Wright, E.O. (1997a). Class counts: Comparative studies in class analysis. New York, NY:
Cambridge University Press.
Wright, E.O. (1997b). Classes. New York, NY: Verso.

Suggested Reading
Buroway, M. (1989). The limits of Wrights analytical Marxism and an alternative. . In
E.O. Wright (Ed.), The Debate on Classes (pp. 78-99). New York, NY: Verso. Retrieved
September 12, 2008 from: http://www.ssc.wisc.edu/~wright/selected-publishedwritings.htm#ARTICLES
Wright, E.O. (1996). The continuing relevance of class analysis: Comments. Theory and
Society, 25(5), 693-716. Retrieved September 12, 2008 from EBSCO online database,
SocINDEX with Full Text: http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=s
ih&AN=9708135530&site=ehost-live
Wright, E.O., & Dwyer, R.E. (2003). The patterns of job expansions in the USA: a
comparison of the 1960s and 1990s. Socio-economic Review, 1, 289-325. Retrieved
September 12, 2008 from: http://www.ssc.wisc.edu/~wright/selected-publishedwritings.htm#ARTICLES

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The Working Class


Ilanna Mandel

Overview
Workers are often considered the backbone of a society. To a large degree,
the working class is made up of the people we refer to as blue-collar
workers. These workers may be skilled or unskilled and work in a wide
range of fields such as manufacturing, mining, construction, home renovations, temporary daily labor, maintenance and repair, and other forms
of physical labor. The notion of a working class can actually be a vague
term and it can vary from country to country depending on the ways in
which the various social strata are defined. In America, the working class
is generally comprised of laborers who are distinguished from white
collar workers such as academics, business people or sales executives.
The working class is also generally thought of as having a lower or limited
education. However, defining the working class is becoming ever more
difficult. According to Smock (1995):
In addition to bluecollar workers, arguing justifiably that the demarcation between working class and lower middle class has become even more
blurred in recent years. What the men and women in these families have in
common are jobs paying low wages, little or no discretionary income, and
vulnerability to bouts of unemployment (p. 187).

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Class, Social Mobility & Social Inequality

While the dream of upward mobility and achieving the American Dream
continues to persist not only in the U.S. and in other countries, the reality is
that America has always been a stratified society. There have always been
the rich, the middle class and the poor. Today, the lines between middle
class and the working class are beginning to blur. The majority of these
people are in the working class. They have regular jobs, bring in a regular
salary, and may even have a pension fund and health insurance. However,
the likelihood of ever moving beyond the working class is becoming less
and less likely all the time.
One of the key issues facing the working class is social inequality. In fact,
one could make the argument that decreasing social mobility and social
inequality are very much related to each other. The longer an individual or
family remains part of the working class, the more difficult it becomes to
move out of that class and the more they are impacted by social inequality.
Social mobility in the U.S. has a strong correlation with white collar work
and the ability to save money beyond ones monthly paycheck. In other
words, if a person or family continues to subsist on their monthly income
but cannot save beyond that, there is little to no likelihood (unless they win
the lottery or inherit money) that they will ever move beyond the working
class.
The Working Poor

Within the larger group referred to as the working class there is the group
known as the working poor. These are people who live either on or just
below the poverty line and the most recent statistics are grim. According
to a 2006 article, 7.8 million were classified as working poor - persons
who, during the year, spent 27 weeks or more in the labor force during the
year . . . but whose incomes still fell below the official poverty level (U.S.
Department of Labor, 2006, p. 1).
Although social mobility is more difficult to achieve today, America is still
considered to have an open class system. This suggests that while people
may be born into a class they are not expected to remain there. One of the
most enduring principles of American society is that hard work and especially achievement can lead to a persons movement up the social ladder.
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Hard work has always been highly prized in America and viewed as a
means of improving ones life (Loeb, 1961).
Some would suggest that there are inherent inequalities in American
society which make social mobility difficult. As stated above, persons
in the working class usually work some form of physical labor, or they
work in the service industry. After a day of such work people are often
tired to the point of exhaustion. Many come home to families and face
a whole new set of responsibilities decisions regarding children,
bills to pay, etc. The majority of these people do not have the money,
energy, or freedom to attend night school and educate themselves
for a better job and higher salary. There are many who cannot afford
a home computer in order to pursue online education. In addition, the
countrys recent economic downturn has led to a high percentage of layoffs,
which leaves the working class in an even more vulnerable position. If they
are fortunate enough not to be laid off, they may still be in the position of
having uncertain or part-time employment and the possibility of unstable
work.
Race & the Working Class

The subject of race and class in America continues to be one of the most
contentious and emotional to deal with. The history of race in America
has been a difficult one even though the country has often been thought of
(and has actually been) a haven for people from a wide range of countries
and cultures. Yet, the truth is that people of color are the majority of the
working class in America. Black and Hispanic or Latino workers continued to be more than twice as likely as their white counterparts to be among
the working poor (U.S. Department of Labor, 2006, p. 1).
The fact that African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans continue to be
the majority of the poor or working class translates into fewer opportunities for social mobility. This color divide represents a disturbing reality for
American society. It translates into a grim future for people of color and far
less chance to change that reality than was previously thought to be true.
Education & Social Class

Education has long been considered the bridge to social mobility in


America. It has generally been accepted that the higher ones education, the
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121

greater the opportunities for social mobility. Education and social mobility
were once thought to be highly connected. While that may be true to some
degree, there is also a case to be made that education simply reinforces
class status rather than serving as a bridge for social mobility.
Some researchers suggest that instead of creating a path to social mobility,
the educational system often reinforces the status quo. While there have
been and continue to be initiatives implemented to try and ensure that
the educational system is equal for all, some still say that this is more of
a fantasy than a reality. The truth for working class students is that they
come from a background where resources are limited, and there may be a
need for them to take a part-time job at a younger age than theyre ready
to in order to access post-secondary education. According to Rouse and
Barrow:
For low-income students, greater psychological costs, the cost of
forgone income (continuing in school instead of getting a job),
and borrowing costs all help to explain why these students attain
less education than more privileged children. And these incomerelated differences in costs may themselves be driven by differences in access to quality schools. As a result, U.S. public schools
tend to reinforce the transmission of low socioeconomic status
from parents to children (Rouse & Barrow, 2006, p. 99).
At least one study suggests that children from working class families are
always behind the proverbial eight ball due to the reduced access to resources and information. Students in poor and minority neighborhoods
are less well prepared academically; ill-prepared to select colleges, apply
for admission, and secure acceptance; and poorly informed about the cost
of attending college and the availability of needs-based financial aid
(Haveman & Smeeding, 2006, p. 126).
According to Hurst (2007), barriers for working class students exist in
higher education too. In particular, they have difficulty in building a bridge
between their two worlds the world they come from (its culture and
values) and the world theyve entered into (with its culture and values).
The discrepancies between the two worlds often leave these individuals
feeling lost, frustrated and confused. Hurst suggests that an important
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skill for working class students in post-secondary education is to recreate


their own identity an identity that can relate to and exist in both worlds.
Working class students are faced with a terrible choice to assimilate into
the new culture or resist and maintain their identity at all costs. Being a
rebel and still managing to be academically successful is not an easy task,
and may explain why there appear to be many more assimilators than resistors (again, this goes to the heart of social reproduction theory) (Hurst,
2007, p. 84).
One of the primary barriers to post-secondary education is economic. Universities and colleges are expensive. Many students cannot afford to extend
their education beyond high school. In addition, competition for scholarships is fierce. Even among students with similar test scores and class
ranks and from identical schools, students from higher-income families are
significantly more likely than those from lower-income families to attend
college (Haveman & Smeeding, 2006, p. 126).
America has often thought of itself as an education-based meritocracy, in
which higher education serves as a means for social mobility. However,
the process to gain spots in top universities and colleges has become more
of a struggle (and a competition), and excellent grades are not always
enough. For example, to attend schools like Harvard, Columbia, Stanford
and other top universities is not only financially prohibitive to all but the
extremely wealthy, a potential student also often needs the right social
connections. As Haveman and Smeeding explain:
Contrary to its stated goals and repeated claims, the U.S. higher
education system fails to equalize opportunities among students
from high- and low-income families. Rather, the current process
of admission to, enrollment in, and graduation from colleges and
universities contributes to economic inequality as measured by
income and wealth (2006, p. 128).
Secure Retirement

One of the most serious issues for people in the working class is the concern
of Social Security and the notion of a secure retirement. Without a secure
retirement, people in the working class either have to rely on their children
to support them or risk falling into dire poverty. The retirement income
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123

landscape is becoming more treacherous. The length of retirement is increasing as the average retirement age hovers at 63 for men and 62 for
women and life expectancy continues to rise (Munnell, 2008, p. 41). Some
employers are no longer providing pension plans; even if one works for an
employer who does, the opportunities to save money beyond the required
employee donation are limited.
The lack of ability to save and a pension that will likely decrease in value as
interest rates rise means that many in the working class will face a decline
in their standard of living once they reach retirement:
The rise in life expectancy and the contraction of conventional
retirement income sources means many people are going to have
to work longer to gain a reasonably secure and comfortable retirement. Continued work means that the employee must recognize the need to stay in the labor force and the employer must be
willing to hire the older worker (Munnell, 2008, p. 43).
Although people generally are living longer lives in developed countries,
this is not always true for people in the working class. Given that many
people work at hard, manual labor, the thought of early, not later, retirement is something they hold on to as a promise for the future. However,
if the retirement money they have available cannot support that, then no
matter how difficult it is, many in the working class will have to accept
a much longer working life. The decision to work later than the age of
65 may not always be possible even if people are willing and able. Not
all employers are willing to keep older workers, especially in a physically
demanding job. One of the ideas to help ease this situation is stated by
Munnell: with a diminished Social Security program, uncertain outcomes
from 401 (k) plans, and one third of households with no pensions at all, it
might be worth considering the introduction of an additional tier of retirement income (Munnell, 2008, p. 49).

Applications
Health Care & Social Mobility

An enduring reality of American life is the crisis of the countrys health


care system. Yet, there is also a distressing link between health and social
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mobility. People who work at manual labor are far more likely to injure
themselves (more than once) and often work for employers who take advantage of a willing labor force to pay lower wages and to not provide
health insurance. The combination of a greater likelihood of injury and no
health insurance is a dangerous one. It leaves many in the working class
vulnerable to complete financial breakdown.
There is a linear progression that can easily be explained as good health
equals good opportunities. The equation should read the ability to pay
for good health services equals better health and this translates into the
ability to work harder. The lack of proper health care often translates into
poor health, which can lead to loss of income and a downturn in social
mobility. Palloni (2006) argues that in fact childhood health is a strong correlate to social mobility. He emphasizes that early childhood health is
an important, albeit not the most powerful, determinant of social stratification. It is a non-ignorable mechanism through which social inequalities
could be reproduced across generations (p. 588). He explains that both
chronic physical or mental health issues in childhood can translate into
poor health in adulthood and thus less chance for social mobility.
The health of the working class is also quite often affected by the environments in which they work. They are often working in stressful and unsafe
environments which can lead to mental health issues and physical injuries
or other conditions. Research conducted by Griffin-Blake, Alarcon-Yohe,
Grady, and Liburd (2008) reveals that women in the working class experience an extremely high rate of stress and other conditions such as fibromyalgia, insomnia, high blood pressure and diabetes. This report identifies a
key dilemma for working women the lack of power to change their situation. Many in the working class experience a distinct lack of ability to make
positive change in their social status.
The lack of access to affordable health care remains the key to all these
issues. Health care is becoming increasingly expensive, co-payments
are rising, and the number of procedures and treatments that insurance
companies will not pay for are increasing. In testimony before Congress,
Diane Rowland, Executive Vice President of the Kaiser Family Foundation
remarked:

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125

And, even for those with health coverage, rising premium costs,
the increasing out-of-pocket costs from more limited coverage,
and decreasing availability of employer-based coverage make
obtaining and paying for health care an increasing financial
burden. For many, health insurance coverage through the workplace now has higher deductibles and more cost-sharing as well
as higher premiums (Rowland, 2007, p. 1).
In the final analysis, it comes down to the fact that affordable health care
is even more elusive than ever. For those in the working class, this translates into health problems both short-term and chronic, which affects their
ability to work and any hope of real social mobility.
Conclusion

The dawn of the 21st century may have also been the beginning of the
end for what has been termed the American Dream. So many people
have immigrated to the U.S. over the past few centuries in order to pursue
the dream of working hard and becoming successful. The old notion was
that if you worked hard enough you could achieve anything and become
anybody. It is possible that to some degree, this may be true. If it is, it
exists on a very small scale. The reality of life for people in the working
class is that their lives are difficult. They work long hours, many in physically demanding and even dangerous jobs. Far too many will spend their
entire lives as workers. The children of the working class will feel caught
between home and the promise of a better life their own culture and the
one they hope to be a part of.
The working class no longer has any direct path to success; not hard work
and not even education. There are no guarantees that one who is born
into the working class wont die as part of the same class. It may be that
social mobility is becoming far less attainable today than it has ever been
in American history.

Bibliography
Case, A., & Paxson, C. (2006). Childrens health and social mobility. Future of Children,
16(2), 151-17. Retrieved July 22, 2008 from EBSCO online database Education Research
Complete. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ehh&AN=224661
63&site=ehost-live
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Griffin-Blake, S., Alarcon-Yohe, M., Grady, M.A., & Liburd, L. (2008). Impact of stress of
female blue-collar workers. Retrieved July 23, 2008 from Directors of Health Promotion
and Education: www.dhpe.org/ImpactOfJobStressOnFemalBlueCollarWorkers.pdf
Haveman, R., & Smeeding, T. (2006). The role of higher education in social mobility.
Future of Children, 16(2), 125-150. Retrieved July 22, 2008 from EBSCO online database
Education Research Complete: http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&
db=ehh&AN=22466162&site=ehost-live
Hurst, A.L. (2007). Telling tales of oppression and dysfunction: Narratives of class
identity reformation. Qualitative Sociology Review, 3(2), 82-104. Retrieved July 22,
2008 from EBSCO online database SocINDEX with Full Text: http://search.ebscohost.
com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=sih&AN=26297796&site=ehost-live
Katz, M.B., & Stern, M. J. (2008). Beyond discrimination understanding African American
inequality in the twenty-first century. Dissent, 55(1), 61-65. Retrieved July 22, 2008,
from EBSCO online database, Academic Search Premier.http://search.ebscohost.com/
login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=28627085&site=ehost-live
Rowland, D. (2007, January 31). Health care: Squeezing the middle class with more costs
and less coverage. Testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives Ways and
Means Committee. Retrieved July 22, 2008 from Kaiser Family Foundation website:
http://www.kff.org/uninsured/upload/7612.pdf
Loeb, M.E. (1961). Social class and the American social system. Social Work, 6(2),
12-18. Retrieved July 22, 2008 from EBSCO online database Education Research
Complete:http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ehh&AN=143806
37&site=ehost-live
Munnell, A. (2008). The declining players in the retirement income game: Risks and policy
implications. Journal of Financial Service Professionals, 62(2), 40-53. Retrieved July 22,
2008 from EBSCO online database Business Source Premier: http://search.ebscohost.
com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=buh&AN=31138427&site=ehost-live
Palloni, A. (2006). Reproducing inequalities: Luck wallets, and the enduring effects of
childhood health. Demography, 43(4), 587-615. Retrieved July 22, 2008 from EBSCO
online database Academic Search Premier.http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?dir
ect=true&db=aph&AN=23128291&site=ehost-live
Rouse, C.E., & Barrow, L. (2006). U.S. elementary and secondary schools: Equalizing
opportunity or replicating the status quo? Future of Children, 16(2), 99-123. Retrieved
July 22, 2008 from EBSCO online database Education Research Complete:http://search.
ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ehh&AN=22466161&site=ehost-live
Shoeni, P.E. (2005). The health care crisis: A moral and economic issue. Retrieved July22,
2008 from National Coalition on Health Care: http://www.nchc.org/materials/
speeches/2005-2007/53-04_26_2005.pdf
Smock, P. (1995). Families on the faultline: Americas working class speaks about the
family, the economy, race, and ethnicity. Contemporary Sociology, 24(2), 187-188.
Retrieved July 22, 2008 from EBSCO online database Academic Search Premier:http://
search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=9505154055&site=ehostlive
Defining Class

127

U.S. Department of Labor and U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2006). A profile of
the working poor, 2004. Retrieved July 23, 2008 from: http://www.bls.gov/cps/
cpswp2004.pdf

Suggested Reading
Arnold, K.A. (2008). Americas new working class.
State University Press.

University Park, PA: Pennsylvania

Frisch, M. J. & Walkowitz, D. J. (1983). Working-class America. Champaign, Illinois:


University of Illinois Press.
McDermott, M. (2006). Working class white. Berkeley, California: University of California
Press.
Shipler, D. K. (2006). The working poor: Poverty in America. New York, N.Y.: Knopf
Publishing Group.
Zweig, M. (2001). The working class majority: Americas best kept secret. Ithaca, N.Y.:
Cornell University Press.

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The Underclass in America


Geraldine Wagner

Overview
What is the Underclass?

The term, underclass, is attributed to American sociologist and anthropologist Oscar Lewis, who in the 1960s, studied and wrote about many Latin
American communities. Lewis was able to identify what is often referred to
as a culture of poverty. He found in his research, for example, that people
who populate the underclass tend to live for the present moment and often
do not plan for the future, something that may hinder a persons ability to
do some of the things necessary to avoid further poverty (Philen, 2007).
The term became more widely used in the 1980s and refers to people who
are habitually unemployed, who have low educational attainment, often
not finishing high school, and who often rely on long term social welfare
programs for their well-being. The underclass is also comprised of drug
addicts and low-class prostitutes, hustlers who deal in the black market,
and homeless mental patients. These are people with little or no access
to the resources that would help them from their poverty. Thus, 50% of
children born into the underclass will remain there throughout their lives.
Karl Marx described the underclass of 19th century Europe (a group he
called the lumpenproletariat) as gamblers, tinkers, brothel keepers, discharged soldiers and prisoners. He called the underclass the dangerous
class that would rot society from the bottom up.
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129

The Culture of Poverty

The underclass concept has two origins. One perspective refers to the inner
city poor in African American communities. The argument is that generous
welfare programs have removed any desire to work, thus creating a culture
of poverty and the underclass. Another perspective points to civil rights
gains that have allowed many African Americans to enter the middle class,
leaving behind their old cultural neighborhoods and the stabilizing effect
they might have had on them. With the decrease in working class jobs and
an increase in low-paying, low motivational service sector jobs, those left
in the African American communities in hyper-segregation are not only
poor, but also disenfranchised, and they form the bulk of the underclass.
This concentration of poverty, created by economics and changes in the
social structure, creates a pathological culture with behaviors such as low
marriage rates, high levels of illegitimacy, and poor work habits frequently
exhibited. The culture perpetuates itself and keeps blacks in poverty even
when barriers to their mobility are rapidly disappearing (Arena, 2005). In
America, estimates of the current size of the underclass range from 5% to
12% of households, whose incomes fall very far below the official governmental poverty line.
Oscar Lewis may have been correct in assuming a culture of poverty. In
the 1990s, with welfare reform enacted under the Clinton administration,
the country believed that if people were trained and sent out to jobs, they
would rise out of poverty and that their childrens lives would improve,
thus breaking the cycle of poverty (Samuelson, 1997). But data showed that
despite a rise in their parents incomes, poor childrens environments did
not change for the better. Kids who were able to score high on school tests,
or get a job, or remain in school until graduation were able to improve their
life chances regardless of their parents income. But those who dropped
out of school, or who got pregnant as a teenager, or both, did not have any
success of climbing out what has been called a culture of poverty, and what
is now referred to as the underclass (Samuelson, 1997).
It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that a discussion of the underclass
is a discussion about poverty in the U.S. Many Americans believe that
the U.S. is a classless society where people have reasonable expectations
to be free, happy and relatively well off. However, experts believe that
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the United States is one of the most stratified countries in the world, and
has the distinction of keeping its poor in their state of being longer and
more often than any other western country (Stephen, 2007), whether it is a
culture of poverty or discrimination that keeps them there.
The Class System

All countries have some system of stratification, or division among people


based on social class. Regardless of the type of stratification system in use,
it is always a hierarchy, putting those with the most wealth, power, or
prestige (or a combination of all three) at the top of the hierarchy, giving
them the most privileges, life chances and share of the wealth, and putting
others below in a range of categories to the poorest among us.
For example, in the American class system, several classes have been identified, beginning with those in the upper class, which comprises about 15 %
of the population, and includes the old-money rich, sports and entertainment figures and highly educated professionals. People in this class tend to
have a great deal of influence on the economy and society (Gilbert, 2003).
They also own approximately 40% of the nations wealth, while everybody
else shares the remaining 60% (Rothchild, 1995).
Falling below the upper class, another 60% of the population combines to
make up the middle and working classes. The middle class includes white
collar and skilled blue collar workers, while the working class includes
factory, clerical and retail sales workers. This group is said to be the heartland of American society. Farther down the hierarchy, the working poor,
about 13% to 20% of the population, includes laborers and service industry
workers. These people are called the working poor because while they
work full time, they do not earn enough to support themselves or their
families. Many single mothers belong to this class, as do African Americans and Latino/as (Gilbert, 2003).
Finally, there is the underclass, about 5 to 12% of the population, which is
made up of temporary, seasonal, or part time workers, most of whom also
receive some form of long term public assistance. This group is generally
uneducated and does not work consistently, essentially remaining jobless
much of the time (Gilbert, 2003).

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Further Insights
Two Sociological Perspectives

Each sociological perspective, structural functionalist and social conflict


explains social class differences from its unique viewpoint.
The Structural-Functionalist Perspective

Structural functionalists, from the beginnings of American Sociology in the


Chicago School, have been interested in how what keeps society stable,
and how it operates most efficiently. This perspective argues that inequality must exist for the smooth running of society and that in and of itself, inequality is beneficial. A meritocracy, a system which rewards people based
on their abilities and their credentials, must identify certain positions in
society that are more important than others and must be filled by the
most qualified people. These people must have the ability and the talent
to perform these jobs and therefore, must be compensated with a higher
level of income, wealth, prestige and power. In 2006, one poll found that
firefighters, doctors and nurses all shared in the most prestigious positions
in the U.S., although their salaries might have large discrepancies (Harris
Interactive, 2006). To be certain, physicians in America earn higher salaries
than nurses and firefighters.
Davis and Moore have argued that the greater the functional importance
of a persons job, and the more he or she is rewarded for it, the more others
will strive for similar success. This motivation thus increases productivity
and is therefore beneficial to society. Equality among all people would essentially make them lazy and not motivated to achieve (cited in Macionis,
2007). This argument is often used against the idea of implementing a socalled socialized medical program in the U.S.
Social-Conflict Perspective

The Conflict perspective argues that stratification does not simply reward
some people for their extraordinary effort; it gives them an unfair advantage over others that is difficult to overcome. It also points out that many
unqualified people are rewarded when others are overlooked because of
bias and discrimination.

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The most well-known conflict perspective regarding social class is the work
of Karl Marx. Marx recognized only two classes: the capitalists, or bourgeoisie who owned the land, capital, factories, and mines and the working
class, or proletariat, who worked for the capitalists to earn a living wage.
Marx explained that exploitation of the proletariat became profit for the
capitalists. Exploiting the workers in this way would alienate them and
ultimately lead to extreme class conflict, an overthrowing of the capitalists
and a more equal distribution of wealth.
Max Weber took the Marxian perspective further and identified power and
prestige along with financial wealth, as indicators of social class. Wealth
is identified as ones assets such as property and income. The more wealth
one has, the higher the social class to which he or she belongs. But according to Weber, one can have prestige, without wealth, and command power
in society. A typical example of this is Mother Teresa, a woman who voluntarily lived a life of poverty to become a champion of the poor and to
live among them.
Another indicator in Webers notion of social class is power, where a
person can obtain his or her will despite the objections of others. An easy
example of power would be the President of the United States, who can
make very unpopular decisions and remain unaffected by the will of the
people. Many Americans believe that one must stand behind the decisions
of the President, whether he is right or wrong.
Absolute & Relative Poverty

Within the U.S. class system, which uses stratification, an institutionalization of inequality that distributes societys resources based on ones class,
some people have more of everything. Using the wealth of others as a
yardstick, some people experience relative poverty, meaning that they can
provide for the basic necessities of life such as food, shelter and clothing,
but compared to those around them, they cannot afford the other material
goods and services that are available. If people cannot provide even the
basic necessities of life, they are said to experience absolute poverty. The
ability to obtain material goods, as well as to accumulate wealth, power
and prestige, is linked to a persons socioeconomic status, or social class.

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Most Americans believe that a meritocratic system, where those who


attain higher incomes, more prestige, and more wealth, must deserve their
bounty, is fair and just. This belief goes back to what Max Weber called,
the Protestant Work Ethic (Weber, Parsons, & Tawney, 2003). Today, it is
simply called the work ethic, but it means basically the same thing: that
hard work and effort will produce the fruits, or rewards, of ones labor.
Yet inequalities exist that run against this belief and these inequalities
often run along race, age, class and gender lines. A growing segment of the
U.S. population is falling below the poverty line and actually lies outside
its boundaries. This includes the underclass, people who experience what
is called social exclusion and who have little or no chance of achieving the
American Dream.
The Underclass

Some things have changed for the demographics of the poor. The elderly
have pulled out of poverty through social security benefits. But poor urban
blacks remain the most isolated both physically by congregating in cities,
and economically, by being forced into the lowest paying jobs, which
often exist in those areas. This underclass, which resides outside the class
structure, displays high rates of unemployment, crime and family deviation. They are avoided by Middle America and thus ignored. Not until
the economic problems that plague the underclass begin to filter into the
middle classes (as happened during the Great Depression of the 1930s) will
Americans take any appreciable notice of urban poverty except to understand intellectually that it exists.
People identified as part of the underclass often have no living wage. Their
employment tends to be seasonal or sporadic at best, and they have to rely
on public assistance programs to achieve levels of absolute poverty. Their
children have only a fifty-fifty chance of rising out of the same poverty
themselves (Gilbert, 2003). The underclass is not simply poor for a short
period of time; they are chronically, or long term deprived because of their
lack of education, jobs skills and access to income. African Americans and
single mothers make up a large part of the underclass (Gilbert, 2003).
Researchers have determined the size and composition of the underclass
as relatively small: 2.2 million people living in 775 neighborhoods, accord134

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ing to an analysis of 2000 census data. Members of the underclass tend to


be minorities and living in large urban areas in the mid-Atlantic and the
Midwest. The underclass is not just poor; it exhibits behaviors that exacerbate its poverty (Sawhill & Jargowsky, 2006).
Many social scientists believe that training and employment opportunities
are the only things that can bring people out of this type of poverty. The
underclass must have jobs that pay a living wage and that offer them some
type of medical insurance. They need safe housing and neighborhoods,
and healthy food for themselves and their children (Fine & Weiss, 1998).
Others do not agree that it is simply a matter of better jobs when it comes
to moving people, especially the next generation, out of the underclass.
However, some claim that the underclass is breaking up.

Viewpoints
Is the Underclass Shrinking?

Some researchers point to progress made since the Clinton welfare reforms
of 1996, claiming that a new work ethic foisted on the poor is getting good
results. The number of people living in poor neighborhoods has decreased
by 24 percent, or 2.5 million people.
However, a distinction must be made between the poor and the underclass. The poor lack income, but have middle class ideals. Their ranks
may include women recently divorced, or recently unemployed blue or
white collar workers, both of whom have the opportunity and often the
motivation to end their poverty in a relatively short period of time. But
the underclass is characterized by what have been termed as dangerously
self-destructive behavior patterns reminiscent of the notions of a culture
of poverty. But even underclass neighborhoods have declined by 33%, or
about 1.2 million people (Sawhill & Jargowsky, 2006).
The causes of these drops in poverty and underclass levels are attributed
to improved real wages, and the social policy changes of the Clinton administration. Child care assistance allowed single mothers to work and
many poor housing projects were demolished. More programs aimed at
getting children to remain in and finish school could develop behavioral
Defining Class

135

changes that could break the cycle of poverty. If poor Americans finished
school, waited to have children until they are married and worked full
time, poverty would be cut in half. Therefore, the focus must be rewarding work and responsible behavior as the right way to fight poverty in
America (Marshall, 2005).
The Rise of a New Underclass

While some researchers argue that the underclass is shrinking in America,


others point out that the underclass is still with us, albeit changing in composition.
Immigrants

The number of both legal and illegal immigrants in the United States has
been increasing so that at 12.6% of the population, or 37.9 million people, it
is now higher than it was at the 1920s height of immigration. But there is a
difference between immigrants of an earlier era and immigrants of today,
the so-called rainbow underclass (Zuckerman, 2002). The new immigrants
are not as eager to fit into their new culture or assimilate as previous generations did.
The children of Mexican immigrants are an example. While they do better
educationally and in the workplace than their parents, they do not remain
upwardly mobile. Some researchers fear that Mexican Americans will
suffer the same discrimination as African Americans, many of whom have
been almost permanently relegated to lives of poverty. Why does this
happen? It is simply a matter of prejudice and discrimination that lead
to segregation, substandard schools and resulting high school drop out
(Cose, 2007).
Immigrants are marginalized and therefore cannot, or perhaps will not
assimilate into the culture, bringing fears that they will become the new
American underclass.
Conclusion

Problems of a poor inner city population with no prospects for bettering


itself remain, despite years of a strong economy and public policy changes
that encouraged educational goals and job training. To be certain, there
have been some improvements, but many inner city communities remain
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troubled and their problems could be spilling into older suburban areas as
well, given the dire economic climate of the latter part of 2008.
More neighborhoods are experiencing lower crime rates, teen pregnancy
and birth rates, all behaviors of the underclass. Public policies must underscore and encourage high risk populations, providing a ladder to the
working and middle classes. Single working mothers must receive wage
supplements, child care, health care and employer training programs.
Youngsters must be encouraged to remain in school, to be offered mentoring and after school enrichment programs (Cose, 2007). Immigrants from
Mexico must not be segregated, but welcomed and incorporated into the
American mainstream society so a new underclass does not simply replace
the old one, in a pattern of human gentrification. And working class people
who slip into poverty because of current economic circumstances must not
be allowed to become alienated from government and industrial behaviors
that cause them to feel the discouragement and hopelessness that has so
often characterized the underclass in America.

Bibliography
Arena, J. (2005). Bringing back in the black working class: A critique of the underclass
and urban politics literature. Conference Papers, American Sociological Association;
2005 Annual Meeting, Philadelphia, 1-24. Retrieved October 6, 2008 from EBSCO online
database, SocINDEX with Full Text. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=tr
ue&db=sih&AN=18614536&site=ehost-live
Cose, E. (2007). The rise of a new American underclass. Newsweek, 151 (1), 74-74. Retrieved
October 3, 2008 from EBSCO online database, Academic Search Premier, http://search.
ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=28018202&site=ehost-live
Ewing, H. & Grady, R. (2005). The boys of Baraka. [Documentary film]. New York: Loki
Films.
Fine, M. & Weis, L. (1998). The unknown city: The lives of poor and working class young
people. Boston: Beacon.
Gerstmann, E. (1999). The constitutional underclass: Gays, lesbians, and the failure of classbased equal protection. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Gilbert, D. (2003). The American class structure in an age of growing inequality. 6th ed.
Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
Harris Interactive, Inc. (2006). Firefighters, doctors and nurses top list as Most Prestigious
Occupations according to latest Harris poll. The Harris Poll #58. Retrieved October 6,
2008 from website http://www.harrisinteractive.com/harris_poll/index.asp?PID=685

Defining Class

137

Koepke, D. (2007). Race, class, poverty and capitalism. Race, Gender & Class, 14 (3/4), 189205. Retrieved July 2, 2008, from EBSCO online database, SocINDEX with Full Text,
http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=sih&AN=31792793&site=eh
ost-live
Macionis, J. (2007). Society: The basics. New York: Prentice Hall.
Marshall, W. (2005). Shrinking underclass. Blueprint, 2005 (3), 27-27. Retrieved October 3,
2008 from EBSC online database, Academic Search Premier, http://search.ebscohost.
com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=17780712&site=ehost-live
Philen, R. (2007, March 21). Oscar Lewis and the culture of poverty. Robert Philens Blog.
Retrieved October 6, 2008 from http://robertphilen.blogspot.com/2007/03/oscarlewis-and-culture-of-poverty.html
Rollins, J. (1985). Between women: Domestics and their employers. Philadelphia: Temple
University Press.
Rothchild, J. (1995). Wealth: Static wages, except for the rich. Time Magazine, 145 (4), 60-61.
Sawhill, I. & Jargowsky, P. (2006). The decline of the underclass. Center on Children and
Families Brief Number 36. Retrieved October 3, 2008 from Brookings Institute. http://
www.brookings.edu/papers/2006/01poverty_jargowsky.aspx
Stephen, A. (2007). Born equal? New Statesman,137 (4857), 28-31. Retrieved July 2, 2008
from EBSCO online database, Academic Search Premier, http://search.ebscohost.com/
login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=26150864&site=ehost-live
Samuelson, R. (1997, April 30). The culture of poverty. Washington Post, A21. Retrieved
October 6, 2008 from http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/special/
welfare/stories/op043097.htm
Weber, M., (2003). The Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. Parsons, T., & Tawney,
R., eds. New York: Dover.
Zuckerman,
M.
(2002).
Our
rainbow
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&
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118.
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from EBSCO online database, Academic Search Premier, http://search.ebscohost.com/
login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=7357361&site=ehost-live

Suggested Reading
Dalrymple, T. (2003). Life at the bottom: The worldview that makes the underclass. New
York: Manhattan Institute.
Massey, D. & Denton, N. (1998). American Apartheid: Segregation and the making of the
underclass. Boston: Harvard University Press.
Peterson, W. & Burgess, A. (2004). Silent depression. New York: Norton.

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Cultural Theories of Poverty


Michael P. Auerbach

Overview
In his 1935 State of the Union Address, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt stressed the importance of helping Americans who had fallen into
poverty and destitution. However, he also warned that aid to poor people
whose plight remained largely unchanged over a long period of time could
be dangerous for America. [Continued] dependence on relief induces a
spiritual and moral disintegration fundamental to the national fibre, he
said. To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit . . . It is in violation of the traditions of America
(Roosevelt, 2004).
FDRs comments speak to two types of sentiment that have long been
prevalent in American society. The first is that those who fall upon hard
times and into poverty must be given every resource necessary to reemerge
above the poverty line. The second is that no one should be complacent
about their impoverished status for the United States government to
support those who do not seek to better their situation is akin to perpetuating their complacency, which is counter to the American dream. In other
words, these two ideas stress a central point: Poverty is not a status Americans should embrace should they fall into hardship, they should work
diligently to return to economic health.

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139

While Roosevelt warned the people of the dangers of eschewing the


American tradition of hard work and persistence and, instead, enabling
the poor to remain poor, there are those who believe that poor communities have their own culture, one with values somewhat different from
the American dream ideals proffered above by FDR. Among those who
espouse this school of thought was anthropologist Oscar Lewis. Lewis suggested that poor people had created for themselves a culture of poverty
which became ingrained among impoverished peoples. In fact, he argued,
this culture was so deeply rooted in poor communities that it would be
handed down from generation to generation.
Understandably, such theories created a storm of controversy, but also
raised a valid point: There are a wide range of factors that can create
poverty in a given society, and such contributors are not limited to the
political or economic arenas. There are sociological forces at work, many
of which may have cultural underpinnings. This paper explores many of
these cultural factors within the broader context of the causes of poverty.
In doing so, the reader will glean a more comprehensive understanding
of the multifarious elements that foster and maintain poverty in the postindustrial international community.
What is Poverty?

Billions of people around the globe live in poverty, and yet there is no
single, universally-accepted definition of what this individual status is.
There is a wide range of definitions, to be sure; encompassing the political,
economic and sociological arenas. Indeed, painting a definitive picture of
poverty is at best an arbitrary undertaking.
Then again, its impacts are equally far-reaching. The President of the
World Bank recently wrote that poverty remains a global problem of
huge proportions. Of the worlds 6 billion people, 2.8 billion live on less
than $2 a day, and 1.2 billion on less than $1 a day. Six infants of every 100
do not see their first birthday, and 8 do not survive to their fifth. Of those
who do reach school age, 9 boys in 100, and 14 girls, do not go to primary
school(UN Economic and Social Committee, 2001).
As the World Bank quotation above indicates, arguably the most popular
of the definitions of poverty is along economic lines. Nations, as well as the
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international community, have largely embraced the establishment of an


absolute line to distinguish a systems impoverished population. Those
who earn less than about one US dollar (a determination based on the year
in which the threshold was established 1993) are considered below the
poverty line.
Then again, such rigid parameters are, as many scholars contend, flawed.
Even the $1 US figure is subject to controversy. In fact, given the varying
size of individual national economies, even those who introduced the $1/
day concept to the World Bank have largely sought to update or replace it
with a more complex (and realistic) figure that includes the economies of
the nations in which incidences of poverty are more prevalent (The Economist, 2008).
In fact, there are a number of contributors to poverty rates, and not all
are manifest in income levels. In some cases, the economy under which a
society operates fails to provide development opportunities for the people.
In other situations, political leadership does not provide the resources and
institutions that enable the people to avoid falling in hardship.
In another arena, there are cultural elements that can contribute to poverty.
In many cases, poverty is increased and the policy responses designed to
mitigate the issue falls far short over the long-term, due in no small part
not to limits in income but in limited appeal to certain social groups with
distinct cultures and traditions. This paper will next turn to some examples
of the theoretical causes of poverty in the international community.
Culture & Poverty

In a 2007 study, a social service group experienced a number of failures


in attempting to mitigate poverty in one community. Staff complained
about the fact that clients rejected their efforts in strong fashion. Some felt
insulted at the assumption that poverty and racial issues could be generalized across countries and cultures. Other staff members felt that they were
not properly trained on the cultural and traditional norms of the region in
which they would work (Vu & Austin, 2007).
It is the myriad of international, national and sub-national social groups
and cultures, and the failure of service providers to appreciate the number
Defining Class

141

and profile of such groups, that have led to situations such as those described above. Social service groups often fail to mitigate poverty because
they do not appreciate the cultural forces that created it within the system.
One researcher observes that many anti-poverty programs fail because the
real experts on how to address the issue in a given system are the poor
themselves. The study continued to note that some systems have seen
small successes by enabling the people to help grow and appreciate the
advances they had just taken part in (Xiaoyun & Remenyi, 2008).
The Role of the Family Unit

Such a statement finds particular veracity in studying the relationship


between poverty and the family. The family unit is arguably the most
important entity in any given culture. Social norms, traditions, religious
ideals and other cultural elements are shared among parents, siblings and
countless generations of relatives. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that
many sociologists believe that life in poverty may also be one of the cultural
elements imbued in the family structure.
This theory suggests that generations of individuals who had previously
been subjected to impoverishment have a certain perspective of the world
that is based on a life of poverty. Some of these values and traditions may
be positive in nature, such as Roosevelts espousal of an American tradition of individual effort to succeed without external help. Then again,
many of those in whom this bootstraps ideal is ingrained are those who
see the benefits of escaping poverty, either by examples set by close relatives or perceived role models. Others may have at one time in their lives
lived above the poverty line and, as a result, aspire to return to that status.
On the other side of the coin are those who have no such inspiration. For
many, poverty is all they may know simply because such a life is all that
they have ever seen and experienced. The most glaring examples of such
a heritage are seen in such places as sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia,
but such a lifestyle exists in virtually every region on Earth, including rural
and urban centers in many wealthy nations. Only when impoverished
families are exposed to the elements and resources that may help facilitate
upward mobility do some break away from the life to which they have
become complacent.

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In a recent study in the Philippines, two groups of Filipinos raised in


poverty demonstrated identical perspectives on their status they had
never seen their basic needs met, had negative emotions about their way of
life and attributed their respective states of poverty to family heritage. One
of these groups did experience upward mobility, however. This elevation
occurred when the family was exposed to services, educational resources
and other elements that provide a path towards greater wealth than that
to which they were accustomed. By breaking these individuals away from
their family tradition of poverty, this group was able to move up in socioeconomic class, while the second group, unexposed to such elements,
remained mired in poverty; complacent in the only life they knew (Tuason,
2008).
Theorists of Cultural Poverty

The idea that families help perpetuate their own state of poverty leads to
a more general theory of poverty as a culture in and of itself. As stated
earlier, Oscar Lewis offered the view that poverty is handed down from
generation to generation as a culture of poverty. He wrote that once
this culture is introduced, it tends to perpetuate itself. By the time slum
children are six or seven, they usually have absorbed the basic attitudes
and values of their subculture, he said. Thereafter they are psychologically unready to take full advantage of changing conditions or improving
opportunities that may develop in their lifetime (Bradshaw, 2006).
Lewis was not alone in his view that poverty had its roots in a deeply
embedded culture of impoverishment. In 1984, Charles Murray echoed
this sentiment, but expounded on its causes. In fact, Murray asserted a
rather daring point responsibility for the continuation of poverty in the
United States despite the 1960s war on poverty rested squarely on the
shoulders of the system that was intent on defeating it.
Murrays theory centered on the fact that attitudes (especially among upper-class elites) about poverty in the United States changed in the 1960s.
No longer, he argued, was poverty being considered the result of individual vice or misstep. Rather, liberal-minded activists believed that the
system had failed a growing segment of the population, keeping it mired
in poverty with little opportunity to reemerge. With regard to the large
number of blacks below the poverty line, Murray contended, elites viewed
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143

this disparity as the product of white racism. The result, Murray said, was
that US society sought to spend exorbitant sums of money to help the poor.
This money, coupled with an educational system that dumbed down
school curricula to help poor citizens, served not to help poor citizens out
of squalor but rather keep them firmly entrenched in it (Magnet, 2005).
Understandably, the Lewiss theory of a culture of poverty, as well as
Murrays notion that state-sponsored relief policies did little more than
help entrenched poverty maintain itself and generated considerable
backlash primarily from liberal-minded critics. Certainly, scholars did
find holes in such theories. For example, the culture of poverty theory
suggests that poverty exists as the result of deviance in behavior from
mainstream society but critics have repeatedly doubted this claim, suggesting that most poor people share the same values as those of upper
classes (Long, 2007). Nevertheless, many policymakers have begun to take
such views seriously.
Alternatives to the Cultural Poverty Theory

As mentioned earlier, there are countless definitions of poverty. In a


similar vein, there is a myriad of theories about the causes of impoverishment. Sociologists proceed from two general theoretical approaches to
this mystery. The first of these is the failure of the individual to advance
upward in society.
Within this school of thought is the conclusion that the system has not failed
an individual, but rather that the individual, for a number of reasons, fails
to take advantage of the resources available for him or her to avoid falling
below the poverty line. How an individual falls into poverty has a number
of explanations poor financial decisions, committing crime, becoming
addicted to drugs, mental illness or emigrating to a wealthier country from
a less developed country. However, under this theoretical framework, the
perpetuation of poverty is also borne of a culture, although it is something
of a departure from the culture of poverty theory espoused by Lewis and
Murray. Under this model of classism, the liable culture views those
who live in poverty in an inequitable fashion, a perspective that is in turn
ingrained into the individual.

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Classism within the Education System

One study of the American public education system sees classism based on
a number of myths that stem largely from the culture of poverty framework. Among these misconceptions about poor people are the beliefs that
these individuals lack motivation or a work ethic and as a result, so do their
children. Also, a belief among higher classes is that poor people are inattentive and non-nurturing to their children, that they cannot speak English
and that they are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, which further
keeps them mired in poverty. These myths, founded in the Lewis and
Murray ideal, lend to the continuation of poverty and the failure of schools
to either help students elevate out of their lower-class status or give them
the tools to extricate themselves, according to the studys author. He continues, saying:
The myth of a culture of poverty distracts us from a dangerous
culture that does exist the culture of classism. This culture continues to harden in our schools today. It leads the most well-intentioned of us . . . into low expectations for low-income students.
It makes teachers fear their most powerless pupils. And, worst of
all, it diverts attention from what people in poverty do have in
common: inequitable access to basic human rights (Gorski, 2008).
The central imperative that results of the classist point of view is not that
the system must spend more to remove individuals from their impoverished state. Rather, it is that the system must have the resources available
for all classes to utilize for their betterment. In a society in which privilege
creates choices for all, classists maintain, the society must enable an equitable set of benefits for all social groups (Koepke, 2007).
Poverty Amidst Certain Social Groups

Controversy over the theories of Lewis and Murray has persisted, even
though many believe that they are at the least fundamentally intriguing.
Still, although the perpetuation of poverty may be evident in these theories,
the fundamental causes of poverty among certain social and racial groups
are not as clear. Some theories regarding the plight of minority groups
suggest that there may in fact be a collective grouping of factors that have
contributed to poverty at its advent and perpetuated it during the course
of history.
Defining Class

145

In one study of African Americans, for example, researchers employed


a multi-level approach, combining individual-level data with contextual
information from community-based organizations. The author concludes
that young, poor black people face a number of layers of disadvantages,
many of which have been described in this paper. On one level, instability
at the family level tends to embed in young African Americans a sense that
their poverty will undoubtedly continue, for it has persisted throughout
family history. On another level is the community and neighborhoods,
which have largely failed to present avenues and resources that enable
black men and women to escape the mindset of the perpetuity of poverty
suggested to them by the family. Such individual and community issues,
the study concludes, contribute heavily to continued social disparity and
the poverty that is endemic to it (Kirk, 2008).
Similar to the theory of classism, the distinctive element of this theory is
not that society must overcompensate to correct the inequities that perpetuate poverty. Rather, it is to stress that there are inequities in the current
system, and that in situations where resources are not distributed in an
equitable fashion (more specifically, the resources available to wealthier
individuals are also available for the less wealthy), poverty is likely to be
maintained.
Conclusion

There is an old English proverb that says Poverty is not a shame, but
the being ashamed of it is (Columbia University, 1996). Indeed, in every
society in the modern world, there is a group of citizens who have fallen
upon hard times or have grown up in a state of poverty.
Poverty has many faces and definitions, but the most basic of these is a
lack of the resources to live a comfortable life in society. The causes of
poverty are equally elusive, and lack universally accepted definition due
to the wide range of schools of thought on the subject.
For millennia, the commonly accepted view of poverty was that
it was the result of individual missteps it was the responsibility
of the individual to return to prosperity. Of course, many individuals did
not seek a remedy, falling further into personal disrepair drugs, crime,
limited education and conditions of abject squalor were part of their lives
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and although they had the choice to better themselves, for reasons all their
own, they failed to take advantage of a system designed to help those who
seek to help themselves.
In the 1960s, however, the view among American leadership was that those
who had fallen behind the veil of poverty were the products of a system
that had failed to meet their needs. The necessary response, in the minds
of adherents to this school of thought, was for the government to spend the
funds necessary to improve the lives of poor members of the community.
This liberal approach to understanding poverty (and thereby formulating a policy response) led to the controversial theory about a culture of
poverty. Under this model, the poor are seen as part of an ingrained
subculture, knowing only the impoverished way of life. For adherents to
this mode of thought, such as Oscar Lewis and Charles Murray, any form
of state assistance only perpetuated poverty by feeding a segment of the
population that chose not to feed itself.
As this paper has demonstrated, there is a great deal of data to support
many of the theories surrounding the links between culture and poverty.
Such data has led to the war on poverty during the administration of
Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s, and it has led to the comprehensive reform
of the US welfare system in the mid-1990s. Although poverty will almost
certainly continue as the world enters the post-industrial era, it remains to
see if any these theories on the substance of poverty will prevail, or if new
data will support other theories.

Bibliography
Bradshaw, T. K. (2006). Theories of poverty and anti-poverty programs in community
development. Rural Poverty Research Center Working Papers. Retrieved August 6,
2008, from www.igloo.org/eckerlecurwood/.download/theories
The Columbia world of quotations. (1996). Columbia University Press. Retrieved August
7, 2008, from http://www.bartleby.com/66/40/2440.html
Gorski, P. (2008). The myth of the culture of poverty. Educational Leadership, 65(7), 32-36.
Kirk, D. S. (2008). The neighborhood context of racial and ethnic disparities in arrest.
Demography, 45(1), 55-77. Retrieved August 6, 2008, from EBSCO Online Database
Academic Search Complete. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db
=a9h&AN=28627035&site=ehost-live

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Koepke, D. J. (2007). Race, class, poverty, and capitalism. Race, Gender and Class, 14(3/4),
189-205. Retrieved August 7, 2008, from EBSCO Online Database SocINDEX with Full
Text. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=sih&AN=31792793&si
te=ehost-live
Long, R. (2007, May 27). Chapter 7: Poverty. Social problems. Retrieved August 8, 2008,
from http://www.delmar.edu/socsci/rlong/problems/chap-07.htm
Magnet, M. (2005). Ending welfare as we knew it. National Review, 57(23), 110-111.
Retrieved August 6, 2008, from EBSCO Online Database Academic Search Complete.
http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=19082069&site=e
host-live
On the poverty line. (2008). The Economist, 387(8581), 100. Retrieved August 5, 2008, from
EBSCO Online Database Academic Search Complete. http://search.ebscohost.com/
login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=32190476&site=ehost-live
Roosevelt, F. D. (2004). State of the Union Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Retrieved
August 5, 2008, from http://www.scribd.com/doc/2429098/State-of-the-UnionAddresses-of-Franklin -D-Roosevelt.
Tuason, M. T. G. (2008). Those who were born poor. Journal of Counseling Psychology,
55(2), 158-171. Retrieved August 6, 2008, from EBSCO Online Database Academic
Search Complete. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN
=31712236&site=ehost-live
United Nations Economic & Social Council. (2001, May 10). Poverty and the international
Covenant on economic, social and cultural rights. Retrieved August 5, 2008, from
http://www.unhchr.ch/tbs/doc.nsf/(Symbol)/E.C.12.2001.10.En?Opendocument.
Vu, C. M. & Austin, M. J. (2007). The explosive nature of the culture of poverty. Journal
of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 16(1/2), 167-172. Retrieved August
5, 2008, from EBSCO Online Database Academic Search Complete. http://search.
ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=30035675&site=ehost-live
Xiaoyun, L. & Remenyi, J. Making poverty mapping and monitoring participatory.
Development in Practice, 18(4/5), 599-610. Retrieved August 5, 2008, from EBSCO
Online Database Academic Search Complete. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx
?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=33158126&site=ehost-live

Suggested Reading
Garrity, R. (2005). Classism: Why should we care? Off our Backs, 35(1/2), 22-23. Retrieved
August 8, 2008, from EBSCO Online Gender Studies Database. http://search.
ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=fmh&AN=WMST-112752&site=ehost-live
Gross, D. (2008). Todays Culture of Poverty. Newsweek, 151(14), 18. Retrieved August
8, 2008, from EBSCO Online Database Academic Search Complete. http://search.
ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=31506770&site=ehost-live
Lehning, A. J. (2007). Political science perspectives on poverty. Journal of Human
Behavior in the Social Environment, 16(1/2), 87-103. Retrieved August 8, 2008, from
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EBSCO Online Database Academic Search Complete.


http://search.ebscohost.
com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=30035671&site=ehost-live
Long, C. (2006). Understanding poverty. NEA Today, 24(7), 16. Retrieved August 8, 2008,
from EBSCO Online Database Academic Search Complete. http://search.ebscohost.
com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=20357053&site=ehost-live
Morely, J. (1988). The new anti-poverty debate. Nation, 246(6), 196-198. Retrieved August
8, 2008, from EBSCO Online Database Academic Search Complete. http://search.
ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=8800005641&site=ehost-live
OConnor, B. (2001). The intellectual origins of welfare dependency. Australian Journal
of Social Issues, 36(3), 221-236. Retrieved August 8, 20, from EBSCO Online Database
Academic Search Complete. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db
=a9h&AN=5382168&site=ehost-live

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Demographics of Poverty
PD Casteel

Overview
In America poverty is measured by annual income. The poverty line is
based on a calculation that takes into consideration the minimum required
to feed an individual, child and adult not differentiated, multiplied by
three. The calculation was designed by Mollie Orshansky, a Social Security
Administration employee, in 1963. Despite recommendations from researchers and the Panel on Poverty and Family Assistance, a early 1990s
government panel that studied the issue for two and a half years, the calculation for of the American poverty line has remained unchanged and
in the opinion of many experts greatly misstated. This paper explores the
demographics of poverty in a two-fold manner. First it breaks down the
demographics based on the official calculation and second suggests how
much further poverty may reach in a certain category based on available
data, various methodologies used in measuring statistics around the issue
of poverty, income, and work and the suggestions by Panel on Poverty and
Family Assistance. A broader perspective of the demographics of poverty
can shed light on the changes in the American economy over the last few
decades and aid the researcher and policy maker in both understanding
of wealth and poverty and constructing new approaches to remedying
poverty.

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The War on Poverty

The War on Poverty was unofficially waged from President Johnsons declaration in his 1964 State of the Union Address. Johnson called for a nationwide war on the sources of poverty. The program included programs
such as Head Start, School Breakfast program, Minimum Wage Bill, Job
Corps, and the College Work Program. These programs were passed as
part of Johnsons Great Society plan which included the Civil Rights Act
of 1965 and Voting Rights Act of 1965. Taken as a whole, the Great Society
was to benefit many Americans, but its focus was on the Civil Rights and
economic hardships of African Americans. In 1980 President Reagan was
elected and started the process of dismantling the institutions that were
erected in the War on Poverty. In 1981 the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act was passed which cut eligibility for welfare programs, cut benefit
levels, and allowed states to cut off benefits if new state work regulations
were not met. The plan cut many benefits to the lowest wage earners,
but left most of the middle class initiatives like the College Work Program
intact. The idea behind the initiatives was to keep the poorest welfare recipients from becoming entrenched in welfare programs. Research shows that
it may have had the opposite effect (Englander & Jane, 1992). In his 1988
State of the Union Address, Reagan said, My friends, some years ago, the
Federal Government declared war on poverty, and poverty won. From
1963 to 1979 the official poverty rate dropped from 19% of the population
to 11.7%. The number of Americans officially considered poor dropped
from 36 million to 26 million. Since Reagans overhaul of the Great Society
the percentage of people living in official poverty has remained largely
unchanged and the number of poor has returned to 36 million.
The demographics of poverty continue to evolve. Changes and trends
can been recognized in measurements of race, gender, and age. Shifts in
poverty reflect a growing Latino population, a split between fortunes for
African American men and women, the affluence of Asian Americans, an
overall feminization of poverty, a perplexing loss of progress on the issue
of children living in poverty, and the aging of the generally more affluent
Americans of the Silent Generation.
The Poverty Line Calculation

Mollies measurement is straight forward and may have served as a


functional measurement in the Sixties. However, the formula has become
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flawed over time. In 1963 it was assumed that the cost of food made up one
in every three dollars in an individuals budget. That figure has dropped
to one in nine dollars (US Department of Labor, 2006). This might lead to
the assumption that the poverty line is too high. However, the calculation
also doesnt take into account the increase of women in the workforce and
increase in single mother heads of households since 1963 and the associated increase in daycare expenses, changes in the costs of healthcare, exacerbated differences in costs from region to region, substantial difference
in costs from rural to urban areas, and rapid acceleration of housing costs
(Citro, Michael, et al, 1995). This calculation and the Panel on Poverty and
Family Assistance also do not take into account the breathtaking rise in
oil prices since 2005. The current government calculation for a two parent
family of four is $20,444 (DeNavas-Walt, Proctor, & Smith 2007). Based
on that figure, over thirty 36 million Americans live in poverty. Based
on various recommendations by the Panel on Poverty and Family Assistance that figure could go up one to four points (Pear, 1995). Each percentage point represents approximately 3 million people. It is reasonable to
consider the demographics of the 12 million people who live just above
the official poverty line and may well be considered poor based on current
economic conditions.

Applications
Latinos

In 1979 roughly 22 percent of Latinos living in America lived below


the poverty line. In 2006 that figure remained approximately the same.
However, the Latino population grew more than three and a half times
during that period and the number of Latinos living beneath the official
poverty line grew from 2.9 million in 1979 to 9.2 million in 2006 (DeNavasWalt, Proctor, & Smith 2007). Officially 1 out of every 5 Latinos in America
live in poverty. The figure drops to 1 out of 4 for children (Kreider, 2008).
This is due to the large number of single male immigrants in the Latino
population base. Overall Latino poverty may be more understated than
any other given the Panel on Poverty and Family Assistance suggested
guidelines in measuring poverty and more importantly the lack of good
data on the millions of illegal Latino immigrants in America.

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Many factors influence the high number of Latinos living in poverty including the breakdown of the extended families experienced by new immigrants, the relative youth of Latinos, illegal immigration status, lack of
English proficiency, discrimination, and low educational attainment (De La
Rosa, 2000). What is significant about Latino poverty is that Latinos made
up only 6% of the population in 1979 and that figure is over 15% today.
The growth in the number Latino poor is in direct proportion to their explosive growth in the population at large. In 2000 US Census projections
predicted that Latinos would represent over 25 percent of the population
shortly after 2050. If these trends are projected to the end of the century
Latinos will outnumber Whites in America. Given that Latinos passed the
2010 projected figure in 2007, it is plausible that these changes will happen
faster than anticipated. It is important to keep this in mind when considering the issue of poverty. As America moves forward the issue of poverty
will become increasingly a Latino American issue. Approximately 60% of
Latinos over the age of 25 have a high school degree and only 13% have a
bachelors degree (US Census, 2008). And an amazing 1 in 3 Latinos do not
have access to health insurance (DeNavas-Walt, Proctor, & Smith 2007).
African Americans

Currently 24% of African Americans live below the official poverty line.
The figure was nearly 31% in 1979. However, today 9.4 million African
Americans live in poverty compared to 8.0 million in 1979. These figures
are understated if we accept the assumptions of the Panel on Poverty and
Family Assistance related to the cost of living in urban areas. The issues
surrounding African American poverty are neighborhood entrenchment
(Ross, & Mirowsky, 2008), mass imprisonment (Western, 2008), erosion of
the nuclear family, low levels of education attainment, high unemployment for African American men, and discrimination.
The most striking issues in the demographics of poverty in the African
American community are related to the fortunes of the African American
male. In 1979 the incarceration rate of African American men was about
5%. This is figure has increased to approximately 12% without any significant increase in crime rates (Western, 2007). It is estimated that 44% of all
youth in juvenile jails are African American (Butterfield 2003). Unemployment for African American men exceeds 9% and only 6 in 10 adult African
American men have jobs. These figures are understated because unemDefining Class

153

ployment rates exclude the incarcerated population. Because of this there


are nearly 3 million more African American women in the general population men and over 1 million more in the labor force (Department of Labor,
2008). Due to these and other factors 7 of 10 African American children are
born to an unwed mother (Martin, Hamilton, et al, 2007). Approximately
82% of African Americans over the age of 25 have a high school degree and
19% have a bachelors degree (US Census, 2008). 1 in 5 African Americans
do not have access to health insurance (DeNavas-Walt, Proctor, & Smith
2007).
Asians

Asian poverty figures have been tracked since 1987. The number of Asians
living in poverty has dropped from 1 in 6 in 1987 to 1 in10 in 2006. The
reasons behind the Asian success has been attributed to parental economic
status, immigrant status, expectations, and values (Vartanian, Thomas, et
al, 2007). In the 2006, for the first time, Asian Americans surpassed White
Americans in median income for full time workers (DeNavas-Walt, Proctor,
& Smith 2007). Approximately 52% of Asians in America have a bachelors
degree and nearly 61% of all Asian Americans between the ages of 25 and
29 have bachelors degrees. Perhaps most telling is that over 20% of Asians
have a graduate degree. This is twice as high as the percentage of Whites
who have graduate degrees and greater than the percentage of Latinos and
African Americans who have bachelors degrees (US Census, 2008). Surprising, despite their economic success, 1 in 6 Asian Americans still do not
have access to health insurance (DeNavas-Walt, Proctor, & Smith 2007).
Whites

Since 1979 the percent of White, non-Hispanic, people living below the
official poverty line remain just above 8%. The number of Whites living
in poverty increased from 14.4 million in 1979 to 16.0 million in 2006.
Reasons for the entrenched nature of White poverty can be attributed to
reconstruction of the American economic system shifting unskilled jobs
from high paying industrial sector jobs to low paying service sector jobs
(Mulherin, 2000), failure to immigrate out of the rural South to urban areas
offering more opportunity as African Americans have done (Hooks, 2000),
and poor Whites alignment with conservative political movements slowly
dismantling the very social welfare programs that would benefit them

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(Gilens, 1996). Approximately 91% of American Whites over the age of 25


have a high school degree and 32% have a bachelors degree (US Census,
2008). 1 in 10 Whites do not have access to health insurance (DeNavasWalt, Proctor, & Smith 2007).
Feminization of Poverty

In 1979 8.7 million families had a female head of household. Today


that figure is 14.4 million or quickly approaching 1 in 5 families (DeNavas-Walt, Proctor, & Smith 2007). In 1979 approximately 2.6 million or
48% of all families that lived below the official poverty line had a female
head of household. Today the numbers have escalated to 4.1 million and
54%. Overall, woman make up 60% of Americas poor (Gimenez, 1999).
Primary issues related to women in poverty are the wage gap, cost of child
care (Davis, 2000), the effects of divorce (Gimenez, 1999), and government
policy on leave and other benefits (Casper, McLanahan, & Garfinkel, 1994).
This trend has been referred to by numerous scholars as the feminization
of poverty. With the anticipation of continually high birthrates for unwed
mothers and the erosion of welfare and company provided benefits the
slowing of the feminization of poverty does not look promising. In one
positive response to these trends young women have turned to education
and recent studies show that women now obtain approximately 60% of all
newly awarded associates, bachelors, and masters degrees.
Statistically, the fortunes of children closely follow the successes and failure
of their mothers. In 1979 16.4% of children lived in poverty. The figure shot
up in the 1980s and 1990s to well over 20% and has only recently begun to
decline. Today the figure is 17.4% (DeNavas-Walt, Proctor, & Smith, 2007).
Silent Generations

Historically late Silent Generation children were the first generation to


enjoy broad middle class affluence from an early age through adulthood.
This generation had fathers who enjoyed the benefits of the GI Bill and
became the first generation in America that expected to go to college.
This is also the first generation to enjoy a lifetime of contributions to the
Social Security program and the resulting income in retirement. Once
criticized for their focus on just getting an education and a good job
while remaining silent on political issues their focus has translated into

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155

lower poverty rates for Americans over the age of 65. In 1973 the poverty
rate for the elderly was 15.2%. Today that figure is 9.4%. The actual
number of poor elderly has dropped while the population of elderly has
increased from 24 million in 1979 to 36 million in 2006. Some caution is
required when trying to interpret these figures. First, medical care and life
expectancy improved greatly for the Silent Generation in comparison to
their predecessors. Second, there is at the very least a correlation between
poverty and mortality (Sakamoto, 1990).
The Silent Generation will be followed by the Baby Boomers, Americans
born between 1946 and 1964. The Boomers have been the most prosperous
generation on record. With access to better health care than previous generations, the Boomers will create a dramatic shift in the age of the American
populace. If past earnings are any indication of wealth in retirement, the
Boomers should continue the gains seen in the Silent Generation.

Viewpoints
In 1964 the War on Poverty began. From then until 1979 poverty dropped
from 19% to 11.7%. In 1980 Ronald Reagan was elected President. Since
1980 the poverty rate has remained largely unchanged in the 12% to 13%
range. The gains from the War on Poverty have not continued. With a
stagnant poverty rate the number of poor will increase in step with the
growth in the general population. In 2006 the number of poor in America
returned to the 1964 figure of 36 million people. Though the rate has
been largely stable the demographics beneath have had some significant
changes. African American poverty rates have dropped dramatically.
This gain has been offset by slight increases within the much larger White
population. Though there has been a lowering in the Latino rate of poverty
the dramatic increase in the Latino population has created a very large
Latino poverty population.
The most significant change has been in the acceleration of the feminization of poverty. In 1954 families with a female head of household represented only 23% of poor families. Today that figure is 54%. Many of
the dynamics that has hastened this growth followed the American Feminists Movement of the 1970s. In 1969 the percent of households in poverty
with a woman head of household was 36%. In 1979 the figure was 48%.
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The same can be said of the politically charged 1980s. Political reform of
the welfare system saw the decade end with female head of house hold
families representing 52% of the families living in poverty in America. In
the relatively prosperous 1990s this figure remained largely unchanged.
Need to Improve Public Policy

Understanding the demographics beneath poverty is essential if we desire


to create good public policy. The War on Poverty was primarily designed to
attack the issue of African American poverty, because this was how poverty
was understood in 1964. The percentage of families in poverty with female
head of households had remained largely unchanged over the previous decade
and the Latino population was relatively small.
In hindsight,
the Great Society policies were largely effective. Over half of all African
Americans lived in poverty in the 1950s. Today that figure has been
reduced to 1 in 4. Unfortunately, the War on Poverty was not equipped
to deal with the feminization of poverty. New initiatives were needed in
the late 1970s and early 1980s to attack this new trend in poverty. Instead
welfare policy was stripped down. The federal government made it more
difficult to get welfare and the welfare that could be obtained was significantly reduced. States were slow to fill the gap. States with the greatest
number of poor and the highest birth rates to unwed mothers were conservative states in the South that formed the foundation of support for the
new federal government restrictions on welfare programs.
The Sociologists Role

Currently, the discussion of public policy and Latino poverty is being


drowned out by the debate on immigration. The inevitable demographic
certainty that America will become a Latino nation and that Latino issues
must be considered in addressing public policy has yet to sink in with policy
makers. The role of the sociologists is to continue to study the underlying demographics of poverty and publish their findings in hope that their
work will once again inform public policy. The challenge is greater than
ever. Policy makers now get much of their information on demographics from private foundations funded by corporations and individuals with
a particular political interest. Informing the public debate with rigorous
academic research is becoming more difficult. However, the role of the
independent academic researcher is vital. Its a role similar to having a free
press. Like the press, it is the responsibility of the sociologists to inform.
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157

This paper gives a brief overview of some of the demographics underlying poverty in America. One of the concepts assumed in this paper is that
these demographics represent the working poor. What is not seen in the
figures is how the working poor earn their wages and what this means
relative to their quality of life. Additionally, the 5.5 million Americans
who work more than one job cannot be separated from other single wage
earners in these demographics. Today 36 million Americans officially
live in poverty. If that figure were to include suggestions from the Panel
on Poverty and Family Assistance for calculating the official poverty line
the poor in America would number 48 million. Approximately the same
numbers of Americans do not have access to health insurance (DeNavasWalt, Proctor, & Smith 2007). For perspective, if the 48 million people were a
separate country they would be larger than 169 of the worlds 195 countries.

Bibliography
Butterfield, F. (2003). Racial disparities seen as pervasive in juvenile justice. In Rosenthal,
P. S. (ed), Race, class, and gender in the United States, Sixth Edition, 224 225. New
York: Worth Publishers.
Casper, L., McLanahan, S., & Garfinkel, I. (1994). The gender-poverty gap: what we can
learn from other countries. American Sociological Review, 59(4), 594-605. Retrieved
June 28, 2008 from EBSCO Online Database SocINDEX with Full Text, http://search.
ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=sih&AN=9408220178&site=ehost-live
Citro, C.F., Michael, R.T., & Panel on Poverty and Family Assistance. (1995). Measuring
poverty: A new approach. Washington D.C: National Academies Press.
Davis, M. (2000). Four cornerstones to ending womens poverty. Georgetown Journal
on Poverty Law & Policy, 7(2), 199 224. Retrieved June 28, 2008 from EBSCO Online
Database SocINDEX with Full Text. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=tr
ue&db=sih&AN=3643250&site=ehost-live
DeNavas-Walt, C., Proctor, B.D., & Smith, J. (2007). Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance
in the United States: 2006. In Current Population Reports, 60-233. U.S. Government
Printing Office: Washington D.C.
De La Rosa, M.R. (2000). An analysis of Latino poverty and a plan of action. Journal of
Poverty, 4(1/2), 27 62. Retrieved June 28, 2008, from EBSCO Online Database
SocINDEX with Full Text. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=
sih&AN=27647277&site=ehost-live
Englander, F. & Kane, J. (1992.) Reagans welfare reforms: Were the program savings
realized? Policy Studies Review, 11(2), 3-23. Retrieved June 27, 2008 from EBSCO
Online Database SocINDEX with Full Text. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?d
irect=true&db=sih&AN=11446023&site=ehost-live

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Gilen, M (1996). Race Coding and white opposition to welfare. American Political
Science Review, 90 (3). 593 604.
Gimenez, M. (1999). Reflections on the feminization of poverty: Myth or reality. Critical
Sociology, 25(2/3), 333-335. Retrieved June 27, 2008 from EBSCO Online Database
SocINDEX with Full Text. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=
sih&AN=4434552&site=ehost-live
Hooks, B. (2000). Where We Stand. Taylor & Francis Ltd. / Books. Oxfordshire, UK.
Retrieved June 28, 2008, from EBSCO online database SocINDEX with Full Text.
http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=sih&AN=16697640&site=eh
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Kreider, R.M. (2008). Living Arrangements of Children: 2004. In Current Population
Reports, 70 -114. U.S. Government Printing Office: Washington D.C.
Martin, J.A., Hamilton, B.E., Ph.D., Sutton, P.D., et al. (2006). Births: Final data for 2005.
National Vital Statistics Report, 56(6). Division of Vital Statistics: Washington D.C.
Retrieved July 1, 2008. http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr56/nvsr56_06.pdf
Mulherin, S. (1995). Affordable housing and white poverty concentration. Journal of
Urban Affairs, 22(2), 139 156. Retrieved June 27, 2008, from EBSCO Online Database
SocINDEX with Full Text. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=si
h&AN=3238272&site=ehost-live
Pear, R. (1995, April 30). A proposed definition of poverty may raise number of U.S. poor.
New York Times.
Ross, C.E., & Mirowsky, J. (2008). Neighborhood socioeconomic status and health: Context
or composition? City & Community, 7(2), 163-179. Retrieved June 27, 2008, from
EBSCO Online Database Academic Search Complete. http://search.ebscohost.com/
login.aspx?direct=true&db=sih&AN=32006465&site=ehost-live
Sakamoto, A. (1990). Gender Differentials in Poverty-Mortality Well-Being. Sociological
Perspectives, Vol. 33(4), 429-445. Retrieved June 27, 2008, from EBSCO Online Database
SocINDEX with Full Text.http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=sih
AN=9606215880&site=ehost-live
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2008). Preliminary 2007 Data on Employment Status by
State and Demographic. Washington D.C. Retrieved June 29, 2008. http://www.bls.
gov/lau/ptable14full2007.pdf
U.S. Census Bureau. (2008). Annual social and economic supplement: Educational
attainment in the United States: 2007. In Current Population Survey, 2007. Washington
D.C. Retrieved June 29, 2008. http://www.census.gov/population/www/socdemo/
education/cps2007.html
U.S. Department of Labor. (2006) Consumer Expenditures in 2005 Survey. Washington
D.C.
Vartanian, T.P, Karen, D., Buck, P.W., & Cadge, W. (2007). Early Factors Leading to College
Graduation for Asians and Non-Asians in the United States. Sociological Quarterly,

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48(2), 165-197. Retrieved June 27, 2008, from EBSCO Online Database SocINDEX with
Full Text. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=sih&AN=3210035
9&site=ehost-live
Western, B. (2007). Mass imprisonment and economic inequality. Social Research, 74(2),
509-532. Retrieved June 27, 2008, from EBSCO Online Database SocINDEX with Full
Text.http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=sih&AN=26378602&sit
e=ehost-live

Suggested Reading
Newman, K.S., & Chen, V.T. (2006). The Missing Class: Portraits of the Near Poor in
America. Boston: Beacon Press.
Payne, R.K. (1996). A Framework for Understanding Poverty. Highlands, TX:
Process, Inc.

aha!

Shipler, D.K. (2004). The Working Poor: Invisible in America New York: Alfred A, Knopf.

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Stratification & Class: Income Inequality


Jennifer Christian

Overview
What is social stratification? How does income inequality contribute to
stratification in the Unites States? Is stratification necessary for society to
function?
These issues are of central importance to understanding the very nature of
society and how individual opportunities are restricted or expanded based
on their family status. Yet, many people are oblivious to how social stratification and income inequality influences their daily lives. Issues such as
these fit into the broader study of social inequality, and more specifically,
income inequality. They also shed light on the consequences of inequitable
access to resources and how income inequality affects individuals, educational opportunities, job opportunities, advancement in employment, and
living a long and healthy life.
Social stratification is the umbrella under which these concepts are united.
In the United States, as is the case around the world, there is patterned inequality that divides society into categories in which there are disparities
between access to social and economic rewards, with some people having
more opportunity than others. Most scholars who investigate income inequality start from the foundation that there is social inequality that exists
in the United States. This is attributed to variation in wealth, power, and

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prestige (Thio, 1992). Under the umbrella of scholarship on social stratification is one that focuses specifically on income as a primary factor that leads
to differential opportunities and outcomes for members of society. Once
thought of as a part of life (i.e., people are rich because they always have
been, and the poor are poor because they dont work as hard), today many
scholars are pointing to structural factors rather than individual choices
as the major driving force behind social stratification, income inequality
and the growing disparities between the rich and the poor. These scholars
argue that inequality is not necessarily a function of society, but rather a
result of institutional arrangements that perpetuate inequality from generation to generation.
The results of inequality have also garnered additional attention among
sociologists, economists, political scientists, criminologists, healthcare, and
social service providers. Social and income inequality are political issues
that are gaining attention in the media, among the public and politicians.
Today there is still little consensus among these scholars regarding the
causes and consequences of social inequality, income inequality, and ultimately the effects of inequitable opportunity on individual lives.
Theories of Inequality

There are many competing theories that attempt to explain income inequality on a national and international level. Most of these theories can be
categorized into one of two theoretical camps: Functionalism and Conflict
theory. The Functionalist perspective asserts that inequality is a central
component to the organization of society and serves a purpose in structuring social relationships. On the other hand, Conflict theorists argue
that income inequality is part of a socio-structural force lead by elites to
increase their wealth and opportunity at the expense of the working and
middle classes.
Functionalism

The theory of Structural Functionalism coined by Davis and Moore (1945)


asserted that stratification was necessary in society. The primary reasons
given for their claims were that stratification serves a useful function of
society. That is, not every job or task is equally important or desirable;
these various tasks require different skills and therefore, in order to fill
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such positions there must be variation in the types of rewards given. Davis
and Moore (1945) go on to explain that the function of stratification is to
motivate the labor force in a highly competitive market and that without
competition for higher pay (and thus, access to resources) it would be difficult to fulfill all of the needs of society. In other words, if a lawyer whose
job requires extensive training and multiple degrees and the garbage collector were paid the same amount, nobody would want to collect the garbage
or spend the additional time earning a Jurist Doctorate to become a lawyer.
More specifically related to income inequality, Davis and Moore (1945)
argue that the reason that there is such a disparity in income between those
at the top of the social ladder and those at the bottom is because 1) those at
the top have more skills; and 2) those at the bottom perform jobs that are
less important than those at the top.
Conflict Theory

In a significant departure from Structural Functionalism, many scholars


who adhere to the writings of Karl Marx regarding capitalism, arguing that
inequality is not necessary, nor does it serve a pertinent function. Rather,
inequality is a symptom of societal dysfunction. Scholars such as Tumin
(1953) claim that inequality provides opportunity to the privileged while
at the same time limiting the possibilities for those in the working class.
Moreover, it works to reinforce the status quo whereby the rich are able
to secure their privilege in society and those who are less privileged are
forced to work under the rules of the privileged. Finally, because of the
disproportionate system of rewards, there is the possibility for those who
are less privileged to become hostile to the status quo resulting in crime or
other acts of resistance.
Other scholars who subscribe to the ideas of Marx have further argued that
income inequality is an unjust distribution of power whereby those who
own large corporations and provide jobs to the working class have the
ability to manipulate wages, perception of competition, while preserving
their status by exploiting others.
These two competing theories paint a very different picture of the factors
that contribute to income inequality. Structural functionalists argue that
inequality is a functional force in society that rewards those who do more
meaningful work greater than those who do less important jobs. Conflict
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163

theorists argue that inequality is a result of larger socio-structural forces


that manipulate those with the least power and privilege by promoting
competition and controlling wages in favor of the wealthy.

Further Insights
Socioeconomic Factors & Inequality

Understanding the theoretical underpinnings of scholarship on social


stratification and income inequality is only part of the vast work that has
been completed on the subject. One of the most controversial aspects of
inequality scholarship is the disparity not only between the rich and the
poor but also the patterned inequality that has been illustrated between
whites and minorities, men and women, and between those with low IQs
and high IQs.
The contributions of socioeconomic indicators such as race, gender, and
IQ to social stratification and income inequality are central to scholarly
debates surrounding the causes and correlates of various subgroups in the
population and their social status. Scholars who study these issues often
find themselves in the most heated debates that especially view inequality
as a function of preexisting cleavages rather than precursors to inequality.
Race

The issue of racial inequality has been at the forefront of sociological scholarship for decades. There is a significant body of research that specifically
focuses on the relationship between inequality and race. Most scholars
agree that there is a disproportionate percentage of minorities in the lower
and lowest income brackets (Wright, 1978; Zandvakili 1998; McLeod, Nonnemaker, Call, 2004). However, this is where much of the agreement ends.
Currently, the central focus of scholarly debate is on what causes income
inequality between whites and minorities.
Wright (1978) asserts that one of the most consistent findings in sociological research is that Blacks make considerably less income than whites, regardless of educational attainment or occupational status. Central to his
research agenda is the rate of return for minorities and whites given their
overall level of education. Much of this work is based on the notion that
education is the great equalizer in American society and that meritocracy
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prevails in educational settings which favor those who work hard rather
than those who have preexisting privilege. Following the work of Wright,
additional scholarship has found that education does not in fact equalize
opportunity among students but rather inequality in education begins
before students enter the classroom, much of which is due to race and class
cleavages (Lee & Burkam, 2002).
Together this body of research indicates that individuals of color are significantly disadvantaged with respect to earning potential which consequently contributes to income inequality regardless of education or other
equalizing factors often used by functionalists to justify why individuals
are inequitably rewarded for their efforts.
Gender

Another central concern of sociologists is the differential pay and income


inequality that exists between men and women. While early scholarship
suggested this was simply due to women choosing to work in less prestigious sectors of the workforce, more attention has recently been paid to the
differences between men and women who work in similar jobs in similar
industries (Mount & Bennett, 1975; Zandvakli, 1998).
The work of Mount and Bennett (1975) was one of the first to investigate
income inequality as a function of both social and economic indicators.
These variables included gender as well as education, occupation, industry
and race. There research yielded some of the most controversial information of the time, suggesting that education, occupation and industry was
less important in explaining income inequality between men and women
than gender. This highlighted the notion that regardless of training or job,
women made less money than men for no reason other than their sex.
More recent studies investigate the intersection of gender and assume
there is a synergistic effect of race and gender, which predicts women of
color are even more disadvantaged in the work place than white women
(Zandakili, 1998). Given the results of such studies, and the growing body
of literature on gender and income inequality, there is growing support for
conflict theories regarding income inequality in so far as it suggests that
women, many of whom occupy just as prestigious and meaningful jobs
as men and have desirable skill sets, are consistently paid less. This does
Defining Class

165

not serve a function in society as Davis and Moore would suggest, but
rather women appear to be inequitably rewarded for their performance as
a result of discrimination, socio-structural forces, and stratification in the
workplace.
Intelligence

Finally, one of the most controversial factors attributed to income inequality was put forth by Herrnstein and Murray (1994) in their infamous book
The Bell Curve. Their analysis fueled blistering debates among scholars
as to the psychological/ genetic correlates that may account for income inequality, individual success, and upward mobility. While the preponderance of work that has been done looking at IQ and income inequality since
The Bell Curve was released has discounted their findings, the notion that
psychological and genetic factors play an influential role in shaping the life
chances of individuals from different social classes and income brackets is
still prevalent today.
The central arguments made by Murray, which have continued into his
recent work, emphatically state that stratification, whether necessary or
not, is a fact of life and that regardless of individuals social positions,
people are born with different abilities, as measured by IQ, and therefore
are rewarded differently (Murray, 2002). For Murray, this social fact
suggests that there is no need for policy change or political intervention
to increase opportunities for the most disadvantaged, or to ameliorate the
differences between the rich and the poor, as social and income inequality
are merely part of social evolution.
The scholarship looking at socioeconomic indicators and income inequality suggest that there are far more complex phenomena that contribute
to inequality than early social theorists may have expected. This body of
scholarship continues to grow and branch off into various directions that
include social, psychological, genetic, geographical, and environmental
conditions that further contribute to income inequality.

Issues
Consequences of Income Inequality

In addition to looking at theories that attempt to explain the causes of


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nomic indicators it is important to look at the consequences of inequality


on individual life chances. This scholarship includes in-depth analysis of
the consequences of many different social problems. Here we will focus
primarily on the literature that investigates health outcomes, and incarceration rates and violent crime.
Health

Recent controversial work focusing on the relationship between adverse


health outcomes and inequality has recently focused on both domestic and
international hypotheses as to how inequality contributes to individual
health trajectories (Mellor & Milyo, 2001; Beckfield, 2004). Scholars in this
area assert that income inequality has a direct causal relationship to individual health including ones life expectancy and infant mortality. Beckfield (2004) specifically initiates a cross-national comparison of income inequality at aggregate levels and how the distribution of wealth impacts
health. His findings strongly support the notion that there is a negative
relationship between inequality and health outcomes, thus suggesting that
scholars reconsider earlier theories of the impact of income inequality on
individuals life trajectories and policy positions related to aiding those
who have the least access to resources.
A central theme of this work suggests that income inequality has real
consequences for those who are least fortunate and further suggests that
something should be done to ameliorate some of the disparity such that
those in the lowest income brackets are not as disadvantaged with respect
to life expectancy and infant mortality. This issue is important at the local,
national, and international level of social policy development.
Crime

Another issue that is often associated with inequality is the problem of


crime, violence, incarceration rates, and sentencing disparity between the
rich and the poor. Much of the scholarship in criminology and criminal
justice has explicitly described the empirical relationship between income
inequality and disparities within nearly every facet of our criminal justice
system. Two recent examples of work in this area is the scholarship by
Arvanties and Asher (1998) and Fajnzylber, Lederman, and Loayza (2002).
Each has investigated the positive relationship between income inequality
and violent crime and incarceration rates.
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Arvanties and Asher (1998), focus primarily on the direct and indirect
effects of race and income inequality on imprisonment rates at the state
level. Their research focuses on three distinct questions:
Does income inequality and race correspond to imprisonment rates, regardless of crime?
What is the magnitude of the direct and indirect effects?
What is the magnitude of the relationship?
Their data suggest that race is a central factor in determining imprisonment rates. However, income inequality also played a major part in predicating the level of incarceration at the state level. More simply put, these
researchers were able to disentangle the relationship between crime and
incarceration and attribute that the majority of incarcerations can be traced
back to the race of the offender and level of income inequality in the state.
Fajnzylber, Lederman, and Loayza (2002), focus on the impact of income
inequality on violent crime. Their research attempts to answer several key
questions regarding the robust nature of the relationship between inequality and violence in 37 countries. Most notably they focus on the degree to
which income inequality (once standardized between countries) explains
robbery and homicide rates and accounts for overall variation in crime.
Using advanced statistical measures of income inequality most often found
in macro studies of stratification, these scholars conclude that income inequality is in fact positively related to crime both within and between
countries. That is to say, in countries where there is a large disproportion
in income inequality, such as in the United States, there is a greater amount
of crime. When there is less income inequality, such as the case in Norway,
there is less crime.
Conclusion

Income inequality is a central topic of political, sociological, psychological, and economic scholarship. Many factors have been investigated that
arguably contribute to income inequality in the United States. Recently
a growing body of scholarship has looked at the socioeconomic factors
that contribute to the growing gap between the richest of the rich and the
poorest of the poor. Additional work in this area has uncovered several
import political and social consequences that are specifically related to
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income inequality, including variation in health outcomes, incarceration


rates and violent crime. More attention needs to be given to the factors
that contribute to and result in the growing disparity between the rich and
the poor.

Bibliography
Arvanites, T. & Asher, M. (1998). State and country incarceration rates: the direct and
indirect effects of race and inequality. American Journal of Economics and Sociology,
57, (2), 207-221. Retrieved September 12, 2008 from EBSCO online database, Business
Source Premier, http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=buh&AN=
683157&site=ehost-live.
Beckfield, J. (2004). Does income inequality harm health? New cross-national evidence.
Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 45, (3), 231-248. Retrieved September 12, 2008
from EBSCO online database, SocINDEX with Full Text. http://search.ebscohost.
com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=sih&AN=15216351&site=ehost-live
Davis, K. & Moore, W. (1945). Some principals of stratification. American Sociological
Review, 10, (2) 242-2349. Retrieved September 12, 2008 from EBSCO online database,
SocINDEX with Full Text. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a
9h&AN=12781047&site=ehost-live
Fajnzylber, P., Lederman, D. & Loayza, N. (2002). Inequality and violent crime. Journal of
Law and Economics, 45 (1), 1-40.
Herrnstein, R. & Murray, C. (1994). Intelligence and class structure in American life. New
York, NY: Free Press.
Lee, V. & Burkam, D. (2002). Inequality at the starting gate: Social background differences
in achievement as children begin school. Washington, D.C.: Economic Policy Institute.
McLeod, J., Nonnemaker, J., & Call, K. (2004). Income inequality, race, and child wellbeing: An aggregate analysis in the 50 United States. Journal of Health and Social
Behavior, 45, (3), 249-264. Retrieved September 12, 2008 from EBSCO online database,
Academic Search Premier, http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a
ph&AN=15216352&site=ehost-live.
Mellor, J. & Milyo, J. (2001). Income inequality and health. Journal of Policy Analysis and
Management, 20, (1), 151-155.
Mount, R. & Bennett, R. (1975). Economic and social factors in income inequality: Race
and sex discrimination and status as elements in wage differences. American Journal
of Economic and Sociology, 34 (2), 161-174. Retrieved September 12, 2008 from EBSCO
online database, SocINDEX with Full Text. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?di
rect=true&db=sih&AN=4511064&site=ehost-live.
Murray, C. (2002). IQ and income inequality in a sample of sibling pairs from advantaged
family backgrounds. American Economic Review, 92, (2), 339-343. Retrieved September
12, 2008 from EBSCO online database, SocINDEX with Full Text database. http://
search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=sih&AN=6881942&site=ehost-live.
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Thio, A. (1992). Sociology: An introduction (3rd Ed.). New York, NY: Harper-Collins
Publications, Inc.
Wright, E. (1978). Race, class, and income inequality. American Journal of Sociology, 83,
(6), 1368-1397.
Zandvakili, S. (1999). Income inequality among female heads of households: Racial
inequality reconsidered. Economica, 66 (261), 119-133. Retrieved September 12, 2008
from EBSCO online database, Business Source Premier. http://search.ebscohost.com/
login.aspx?direct=true&db=buh&AN=1602665&site=ehost-live.

Suggested Reading
Lareau, A. (2003). Unequal Childhoods: Class: Race and Family Life. Berkeley, CA:
University of California Press.
Reiman, J. (2007). The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison: Ideology, Class, and
Criminal Justice (8th Ed). Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
Schein, V. (1995). Working From the Margins: Voices from Mothers in Poverty. Ithaca,
NY: Cornell University Press.

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The Poor & the Working Poor


Geraldine Wagner

Overview
Many Americans believe that the U.S. is a classless society where people have
reasonable expectations to be free, happy and relatively well off. However,
experts argue that the United States is one of the most stratified countries in
the world and beyond that, has the distinction of keeping its poor in their state
of being longer and more often than any other western country (Stephen,
2007). To begin this discussion, a few terms need to be introduced: social
class, stratification, and poverty, as well as the sociological perspectives on
each.
What is Social Class & How is it Determined?

At some point in our development as human beings living in the United


States, we begin to realize that some people have more than others: more
material goods such as houses, cars, nice clothing, toys, and an easy
ability to procure those goods. It seems that some people have all the
latest stuff that arrives on the market, while others struggle to simply
put food on the table for their families. The ability to obtain certain
goods and the quality of the goods obtained is generally linked not only
to personal preference, but also to social class, part of a system of stratification. Those institutionalized inequalities in the distribution of resources include power, wealth, and status between categories of persons
within a single social system. These inequalities run along race, class and
Defining Class

171

gender lines and help to determine the ownership and control of resources
and the type of work that people perform.
To compound and perpetuate the problem is the fact that the U.S. economy
is blind to the needs of people who have fewer resources than others. Thus,
a large group of Americans are not only poor, but also less able to participate fully in society (Koepke, 2007).
Differences in the ability for some to accumulate more than others have
historically turned into conflicts between groups of people who have felt
that they were not receiving their fair share of societys wealth. This inequality continues to exist today in the United States. In fact, among the
wealthy nations of the world, the United States receives the distinction
of being first in a list of societies with inequality of income distribution
(Rothchild, 1995).
Sociological Perspectives on Social Class

Sociologists use the accepted theoretical perspectives to look at and explain


social class differences and how they relate to social inequality.
Functionalist Perspective

Functionalists look for the things in society that make it stable and help
it to run smoothly and efficiently. Their perspective finds that inequality
must exist and is not harmful. Certain positions in society are more important than others and they must be filled by the most qualified people. These
people must have the ability and the talent to perform these jobs and therefore are best compensated with a high level of income, wealth, prestige
and power. For example, a heart surgeon must spend years in school and
in training and has the welfare, if not the entire life, of an individual in her
hands. This system of rewarding people for their work with wealth, power
and prestige for jobs that are unique and demanding is called meritocracy.
A meritocracy rewards people based on their abilities and their credentials.
It is a hierarchical system.
Conflict Perspective

The most well-known conflict perspective regarding social class is the


work of Karl Marx, who believed that our wealth and position in society is

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based on how we fit into the system of production as either the owners of
the means of production of goods, such as the factories, or as sellers of our
labor for an hourly wage. Marx recognized only the two classes: the capitalists, or bourgeoisie who owns the land, capital, factories, and mines and
the working class, or proletariat, who worked for the capitalists to earn a
living wage. Marx explained that exploitation of the proletariat by the capitalists occurred because the excess production produced, which did not go
to the workers, became profit for the capitalists. This made for an unequal
distribution of the accumulated wealth produced. When this occurred, the
workers felt a sense of alienation, or powerlessness within the equation
of capitalist over proletariat. Exploiting the workers would lead to class
conflict and an overthrowing of the capitalists and a more equal distribution of wealth overseen by a more or less just government.
While neo-Marxists continue to follow the predictions of Marx, others find
that because the relationship between ownership and worker has blurred,
with workers having their pensions buying stock, or partial ownership, in
the companies which employed them, that a workers revolution will not
likely occur. With the advent of the credit card and the ease of obtaining it,
the workers often feel that they can afford the things in life that they equate
with wealth. They can purchase a home, a car, a big screen television, a
computer, and a cell phone using credit, and still have money left in their
checking accounts for groceries. With this surface material complacency, it
is now difficult to find the deep alienation that Marx described.
Another prominent social scientist, Max Weber, pointed out that the relationship between the haves and the have-nots was more than simply a
two-class conflict between the capitalists and the proletariat. Weber identified three dimensions of stratification - wealth, prestige and power - which
determine a persons social class.
Wealth is identified as ones assets such as property and income. Those
who have a similar level of such assets are included in one social class. The
more wealth one has, the higher the social class to which he or she belongs.
A case in point is Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft Corporation, who
enjoys not only wealth, but also two other dimensions, prestige for his accomplishments and his philanthropy and power for his ability to affect the
lives of others using his wealth and prestige.
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173

One can also be in a higher social class even without a lot of wealth, if
he or she commands prestige: the respect of others based on life work, or
position. For example, Mother Teresa, a nun from Macedonia who won the
1979 Nobel Peace Prize (Nobel Foundation, 1979), spurned the accumulation of wealth, and chose to live in poverty, but she was courted by the
wealthiest and most powerful people in the world because of her prestige
as a champion of the poor.
A third dimension of Webers notion of social class is power, where a person
can obtain his or her will despite the objections of others. An example of
social power would be the President of the United States, who can make
very unpopular decisions and remain unaffected by the will of the people.
Many Americans believe that one must stand behind the decisions of the
President, whether he is right or wrong.
Symbolic Interactionist Perspective

While functionalist and conflict sociological perspectives take in the big


picture of society and look at large groups of people, the symbolic interactionist perspective takes a micro level view of topics such as social class
and stratification. A symbolic interactionist would then study the effects of
poverty, for example, on a group of high school students and their grades
and ability to attend college. Or, the symbolic interactionist might study
the language used in the workplace to identify workers, noting that those
with less prestige are often called by their first names, while those with a
higher office might be referred to by a title and last name (Rollins, 1985).
What is Stratification?

Because the United States is divided into social classes based on wealth,
prestige and power, it is said to have a system of stratification; this is a
hierarchical system that puts those with the most wealth, power, and/or
prestige at the top of the hierarchy, and those with the least, at the bottom.
Several classes have been identified in American society, beginning at the
top, with 0.5% of the population belonging to the upper-upper class. These
people have accumulated wealth over long periods of time due to inheritance, or have come into a great deal of money through investment. People
in this class tend to have a great deal of influence on the economy and
society, despite the fact that there are few of them (Gilbert, 2003).
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The lower-upper class makes up another 0.5% and includes executives,


movie stars, television personalities, and sports figures.
The upper-middle class makes up about 14% of the population and includes
highly educated professionals such as physicians, attorneys, and stockbrokers, and those in upper managerial positions.
While most Americans consider themselves part of the middle class, only
about 30% of the American population, including white collar and skilled
blue collar workers, actually falls within this category.
The working class makes up another 30% of the population and includes
factory, clerical and retail sales workers.
The working poor, about 20% of the population, include laborers and
service industry workers. These people are called the working poor because
while they work full time, they do not earn enough to support themselves
or their families. Many single mothers belong to this class as do people of
color (Gilbert, 2003).
The underclass, about 5% of the population, is made up of temporary,
seasonal, or part time workers, many of whom also receive some form of
public assistance. This group is generally uneducated and does not work
consistently (Gilbert, 2003).

Applications
What is Poverty?

As the categories of the working poor and the underclass indicate, many
people in the United States work, but live in poverty. Poverty is defined
by the Social Security Administration as the minimum amount of money
needed to maintain a subsistence lifestyle. In 2002, nearly 35 million people
lived below the official poverty line of $18,556 for a family of four. This
number has steadily increased since that time (Proctor & Dalaker, 2003).
Who are the Poor?

Statistics show that the poor in the United States go across all races and
ages, but that those considered most poor are children under the age of
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175

18 as well as those in the 18-24 years bracket, for all races. In other words,
nearly one out of three persons below the official poverty line is under 18
years of age and many are only lingering slightly above that poverty line.
The official poverty line is determined by figuring the cost of a low-budget
food diet for a family of four, multiplied by three. For African Americans
and Hispanics, however, the numbers are much larger for these age groups
than for whites. Regarding education, those with no high school diploma
tend to live in poverty. Twenty two percent of people with no high school
diploma in all races are poor; again, those percentages increase to nearly
33% and 25% for African Americans and Hispanics, respectively (Proctor
& Dalaker, 2003).
Who are the Working Poor?

Some 52 million working poor people live in the United States and the
numbers could continue to increase due to the 2008 economic recession.
While the working poor often earn more than the official poverty level
wage, they find it difficult to make ends meet. These earnings often make
the working poor ineligible for assistance programs such as food stamps,
which currently do not reflect contemporary economic conditions and the
rising cost of housing, fuel, and food (Lubrano, 2008).
Relative & Absolute Poverty

When people live in life-threatening conditions because they have no


means to adequately feed or house themselves, or their dependents, they
are said to live in absolute poverty. Homeless people fall into this category
for obvious reasons. If people can provide the basic necessities of food and
shelter for themselves and/or their dependents, but they cannot afford
any of the other material comforts that an average working person might
provide for herself, they are said to live in relative poverty. In other words,
compared to others in society, they are living in poverty.
Income Distribution in the United States: How Equal is it?

According to the categories determined by social scientists, even if they


differ somewhat in percentages and terminology, it is obvious that income
distribution in the United States is unequal and that wealth is concentrated
in a small percentage of the American population. Only 1% of the American
population controls about 33% of all wealth; the next lower class holds
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about 51% of the nations wealth. In other words, 20% of Americans, the
super rich, control or own 84% of the wealth of the nation. This leaves only
16% of the wealth for the remaining 80% of Americans (Domhoff, 2006).
What Key Factors Produce Inequality in Wealth in the U.S.?

Inequality is both an economic and a social issue. The major cause of social
inequality and poverty is low wages. Fifty percent of all families living in
poverty live on a family members wages and barely one third of those
who are earning the family wages work full time (Proctor & Dalaker, 2003).
From Industrial to Post-Industrial Economy

There are problems inherent within the infrastructure of the United States
economy as well, that contribute to inequality and poverty. Most importantly, America has moved from an industrialized society with many factory
and manufacturing jobs, to a post-industrial society. Corporations have
moved most of the manufacturing of goods to other countries where they
can obtain cheap labor and avoid many of the restrictions on workplace
safety and environmental integrity, leaving millions of American workers
unemployed, or needing to learn new job skills. These new jobs exist not
in the industrial sector, but in the service sector (Bluestone & Harrison,
1982). Service sector jobs such as motel maids, restaurant and fast food
workers, and retail sales in the malls springing up across America, do not
pay as well as manufacturing jobs and often are part time, or have little or
no benefits attached to them.
Inheritance & the Old Boys Network

About 42% of the people who are considered the wealthiest people in the
United States, achieved their wealth through inheritance (Gilbert, 2003). In
other words, these people are born into wealth and maintain their position
by buffering their lives from the rest of society. The super-rich tend to affiliate themselves and their offspring with one another exclusively in what
is typically referred to as an old boys network. They attend the same
schools, move in the same social circles, and often sit on one anothers corporate boards. Wealth then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for these
people, and while Americans believe that the class system in the U.S. is an
open system, with anyone being able to achieve the American Dream and
beyond, the chance of the bottom 80% of the population breaking through
the barrier into the super-rich realm is very slim indeed.
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Race & Ethnicity

While some two-thirds of those who live below the official poverty level
are white, that figure can be misleading. Disproportionately, about 24% of
all African Americans and 22% of all U.S. Latinos lived below the poverty
line in 2002, and one third of all Native Americans continue to live below
the poverty line (Proctor & Dalaker, 2003). These statistics indicate that
discrimination based on race and ethnicity continues to thrive in American
society.
Gender

Women make up about two-thirds of all adults living below the poverty
line. With an increase in single-parent families, typically with a female
head of household, these families had a 35% poverty rate while two-parent
families weighed in at a 10% poverty rate. This feminization of poverty
means that women are disproportionately represented among the poor
because of their primary role in childrearing, making it difficult to maintain
full time, steady employment. Even the women who work steadily and full
time continue to earn only about 70 cents for every dollar men earn in the
U.S. (Pearce, 1978).
Age

A high degree of poverty exists among the elderly and children under the
age of 18. The statistics increase for African American children under the
age of 18 and Latino children. In fact, American children of all races and ethnicities are poorer today than they were nearly three decades ago because
of cutbacks in programs originally designed to alleviate the problems associated with poverty such as poor nutrition and health (Proctor & Dalaker,
2003). Among elders, women over the age of 65 have twice the likelihood
of being poor than older men (Proctor & Dalaker, 2003).
The Consequences of Inequality Reduced Life Chances

The United States enjoys a class system, which while imperfect, does allow
some upward mobility between classes and especially between generations. Consider the proud working class parents with a high school education background as they sit together at their childs graduation from law
school. They can almost feel their childs graduation not only in academic

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terms, but socially, from working class to upper middle class. Of course, in
the parents school days, one only needed a high school diploma to land
many good paying jobs. Today, a working class job often requires at least a
2-year college degree. Post high school education has become another big
business in America.
Yet many parents do not have the pleasant experience of seeing their
children graduate from college at all. In Americas large cities, some fifty
percent of students drop out of high school before graduation (Thomas &
Date, 2006). Those who do finish high school and go on to college find that
student loans have become a big business in the United States, with many
students graduating from college owing enough money in student loans to
equal a mortgage payment on a house.
Others attempt to attend college on a part time basis while they work, or
continue to live at home. This type of schedule takes perseverance and
discipline. College is often interrupted by unforeseen economic situations;
the birth of a child, or the illness of a parent.
Stratification in the Future

With the reduction in good paying jobs via industrialization, the protection
of wealth by a small number of people in the U.S., and an economic down
turn causing a rise in the costs of every day living, many people are feeling
the pinch.
Some current economic conditions such as recession and rising fuel prices
may be short lived. But they are doing economic damage to all Americans except the super-rich, who maintain a buffer from such hardships
due to their extreme wealth. Yet those in upper middle classes are finding
that they cannot afford to spend money on many of the luxuries that keep
the American economy going. Consider that if the economic sector relies
heavily on service industry jobs and if people cannot afford to shop and
buy, or to eat out in restaurants, or order pizza delivery, that a ripple effect
is likely to occur (Fram, 2008). Employers will stop hiring and reduce their
work force. If no one buys cars except for the few models that get good gas
mileage, the one stronghold of American manufacturing, the automobile
industry, is likely to take a hard economic hit.

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But the greatest hardship moves to the bottom of the social equality hierarchy: the poor and the working poor. The poorest of the poor, of course,
suffer the most and will have difficulty with the basic necessities of daily
living such as food, shelter and heating or cooling. Those who have lived
in relative poverty are in danger of moving into the category of absolute
poverty, where they cannot provide for the welfare of themselves and their
families.
Downward mobility is as likely to occur as upward mobility, with working
Americans moving on two different escalators: one is going up, but the
other is going down (Reich, 1993).

Viewpoints
Solutions to the Problem of Poverty in the U.S.

Many people believe they have the solution about where to break the cycle
of poverty in America. Michael Harringtons 1962 ground breaking book,
The Other America, discusses the people traveling on the down escalator. While the U.S. has the highest standard of living in the world, it is
home to millions of impoverished people who may not be starving (as are
millions in African countries), but who are, according to Harrington, invisible. Poor people may be overweight because they eat high fat, nonnutritional food; not because they are living in abundance. Go to the local
thrift shop and notice the amount of good quality clothes that have been
discarded by some, only to be picked up by others. Or watch a television
documentary about a poor African country and notice that many of the
people being filmed are wearing western tee shirts and other clothing. It is
easy to hide poverty in inexpensive clothing (Harrington, 1962/1997).
Repeatedly, champions of the poor insist that American society must stop
ignoring the poor, and must not continue to make them invisible. To eradicate poverty in the U.S., the government and its citizenry must work in
concert on a variety of tasks (Morris, 2005).
Education

Some experts rely on high quality early education for low-income children,
with the federal government providing matching funds for state-sponsored programs. There is evidence that a good early childhood education
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sets the tone for success later on in high school and college. If lack of even
a high school education is an indicator of the eventuality of poverty, then
encouraging higher education and thus more earning power could be one
avenue for reducing poverty in the U.S. (Sawhill, 2007).
Others look at college education as the primary means of escaping poverty.
Yet they also point to the high cost of college education for the poor and the
working poor. But the federal government and universities are not helping
matters. Student aid does not fully cover costs for poor students. Furthermore, there needs to be reform in the financial aid system, the welfare
system, and the taxation policy on higher education. Congress needs to
increase how much a student can earn at a job and still be eligible for full
financial aid benefits. Families with low incomes cannot be expected to
contribute to a students college finances to the extent currently required.
It has also been recommended that college attendance count as work under
the welfare to work program. These measures would help more poor
students achieve the college education that could pull them out of poverty
(Ashburn, 2007).
Postpone Child-Bearing

Families, communities, schools and individuals need to encourage young


girls to postpone child-bearing until they are older and more capable of
caring for children both emotionally and economically. Because poverty
has been linked to gender and age, as well as to educational achievements,
society and the government can support young women in choices regarding remaining in school and postponing childbearing (Sawhill, 2007).
Provide a Living Wage

Because some 30% of the U.S. population falls into the category of the
working poor, it is important that workers receive a living wage. This can
be achieved with raising the minimum wage and with programs for affordable child and health care (Sawhill, 2007).
Programs such as New Hope strive to help the working poor by offering a
social contract with volunteer participants to help supplement a workers
earnings. A host of cost effective benefits become available to the participants as long as they work the minimum of 30 hours per week in a job they
can obtain with help from the program. These benefits can change as a
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181

workers life circumstances change. For example, the person may become
a parent and need health care, or day care assistance (Gennetian, 2008).
Equal Opportunity for Women & Minorities

The feminization of poverty is well-documented. Women must be given


the opportunity to earn a living wage for themselves and their families.
With divorce rates and single parent families on the rise, the income disparity between men and women must be eradicated for women to be better
able to contribute to their households and to society.
Poverty still moves along racial lines. Statistics show that while many
Americans are affected by low income and poverty, the numbers increase
dramatically in the African American, Latino and Native American communities. The institutional racism that continues to exist in the United
States must be eradicated with continuation and expansion of equal opportunity programs.

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Lubrano, A. (2008, April 8). Working poor struggle to get by. Philadelphia Inquirer. P. A01.
Morris, C. (2005). Who are the working poor? Retrieved June 30, 2008 from: http://www.
democracycellproject.net/blog/archives/2005/06/who_are_the_wor.html
Mother Teresa. (1979). Retrieved June 29, 2008 from The Nobel Foundation. http://
nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1979/teresa-bio.html
Oxfam International. (2008). Organizational information retrieved June 30, 2008 from:
http://www.oxfamamerica.org
Pearce, D. (1978). The feminization of poverty: Women, work, and welfare. Urban and
Social Change Review, 11 (1/2), 28-36.
Proctor, D. & Dalaker, J. (2003). Poverty in the United States: 2002. U.S. Census Bureau,
Current Population Reports, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
Reich, R. (1993). Why the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer. In Baker, P., Anderson,
L. & Dorn, D. (eds.) Social problems: A critical thinking approach 2nd ed., 145-149.
Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
Rollins, J. (1985). Between women: Domestics and their employers. Philadelphia: Temple
University Press.
Rothchild, J. (1995, January 30). Wealth: Static wages, except for the rich. Time Magazine,
60-61.
Sawhill, I. (2007). Solutions to poverty. Testimony before the House Committee on Ways
and Means, Income Security and Family Support Subcommittee. Retrieved June 30,
2008 from: http://www.brookings.edu/testimony/2007/0426poverty_sawhill.aspx
Stephen, A. (2007). Born equal? New Statesman 137 (4857), 28-31. Retrieved July 2, 2008
from EBSCO online database Academic Search Premier: http://search.ebscohost.com/
login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=26150864&site=ehost-live

Suggested Reading
Blank, R. (1998). It takes a nation. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Harding, D. (2003). Counterfactual models of neighborhood effects: The effect of
neighborhood poverty on dropping out and teenage pregnancy. American Journal of
Sociology. 109 (3).
Iceland, J. (2006). Poverty in America: A handbook. 2nd ed. University of California Press.
Jencks, C. & Mayer, S. (1990). The social consequences of growing up in a poor
neighborhood: Inner-City poverty in the United States. L. E. Lynn and M. G. H.
McGeary, eds. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

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Terms & Concepts

Absolute Poverty: The life threatening inability to obtain resources.


Achievement Gap: The achievement gap can be described as the class,
racial, socioeconomic, and academic disparities that exist between the rich
and the poor.
Affluenza: A psychological condition defined by feelings of inadequacy
and insecurity about attaining the American Dream. Affluenza affects
members of the upper class most commonly by causing them to , despite
their wealth, experience feelings of dissatisfaction and anxiety about their
social status.
Alienation: Feeling of isolation and powerlessness, attributed to workers
by Marx.
Assimilation: The process by which people from one culture blend into
another, effectively letting go of their old cultural values and norms to
adopt new ones.
Blue-Collar Workers: Workers within the working class who labor at jobs
that are primarily physical or manual in nature, but also in the service
sector.
Bourgeoisie: Karl Marx identified two primary class locations in capitalist
society the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The bourgeoisie, also referred
to as capitalists, own the means of production and employ wage-laborers.
Marx argued that the bourgeoisie exploit the surplus labor of the proletariat.
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Capitalism: An economic system based on the premise of free enterprise


and the accumulation of profit.
Capitalist Class: People who own and operate businesses in order to make
a profit.
Class Conflict: The struggle between groups of people for the resources
of society.
Class Consciousness: In this context, class consciousness refers to the
degree to which members of an identifiable social group are aware of
their societal role and act upon that role. In a strictly Marxist sense, class
consciousness can be contrasted with false consciousness, which refers
to societal messages that do not conform to rational self-interest from a
workers perspective. Current class-based social roles tend to be fairly
clear in Germany, whereas in the U.S., they are less easily defined. Alternate modes of class consciousness that can be applied to contemporary
U.S. social roles include occupational interests and universal interests
such as environmentalism (Gerteils, 1998).
Class Structure: Class analyses typically address many different aspects
of class class structure, class formation, class consciousness, and class
struggle. According to Wright, however, understanding class structure is
a necessary first step in this analysis. Marxists, in particular, define classes
as common positions within a hierarchy or structure. It is the positions
themselves which are the unit of analysis, not the individuals who occupy
such positions.
Class: Social class is a position in a hierarchy usually endowed with
material, social, symbolic, and ideological resources.
Conflict Theory: The Marxist notion that inequality is a function of the
disjuncture between elites who own the means of production (or large corporations) and the workers, who are often exploited by elites to preserve
the status quo and keep wages low and income inequality increasing.
Control: Within the social relations of production, Wright argues, there
are three specific types of control: control over money, control over the
physical means of production, and control over labor. It is precisely
because these three types of control function independently of one another
that is, one class position might be characterized by control over labor but
not money that contradictory class locations arise.
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Cultural Capital: Cultural capital can denote tangible acquisitions (such


as wealth and possessions) or intangible properties (such as prestige) from
which a sense of self-worth, self-identification, or society is derived.
Digital Divide: Disparities across social classes, racial groups and gender
in the distribution of information technology skills and resources.
Downward Mobility: Movement into lower social strata.
Economic Capital: Economic capital, a more straightforward notion than
cultural capital, denotes self-worth or self-identification, or social status
based on wealth.
Exploitation: The concept of exploitation is central to Marxs, as well as
Wrights, analysis of class structure. An exploitive relationship occurs
when one group has inherently contradictory interests with respect to
another; that is, when ones groups well-being is obtained at the expense
of another group. The bourgeoisies wealth, for example, depends on their
exploitation of the labor of the proletariat.
Exurbs: The region beyond the suburbs of a city.
Family: The U.S. Census Bureau defines family differently depending on
the analysis, but is usually understood to be two or more persons living
together in the same household related by blood, marriage or adoption.
Feminist Movement: Here the Feminist Movement refers to what is often
called the second wave feminism; a movement that began in the late
Sixties and took off in the early Seventies. The movement focused on equal
pay and equal opportunity for women.
Feminization of Poverty: This term refers to the growing number of women,
specifically woman who are head of households that live in poverty.
Functionalism: The theoretical perspective that views social institutions as
the means through which individuals fulfill their social needs. Each part
of a society has its own specific function which contributes to the overall
operation of society. In this view, certain people are very rich and others
are very poor because the roles they play as a result of their economic positions serve the overall functionality of society.
Gini Index: The U.S. Census Bureau Gini index incorporates detailed
data into a formula to produce a single number which summarizes the
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dispersion of the income shares across the whole income distribution. It


ranges from zero, which indicates perfect equality to one, which indicates
perfect inequality.
Household: A household consists of all people who occupy a housing
unit regardless of relationship. A household may consist of a person living
alone or multiple unrelated individuals or families living together. Households may include family; married couple; female household, no husband;
male household, no wife; non-family households; female householder or
male householder. The married-couple families generally fare best economically.
Income Inequality: The variation in income distribution between the
upper, middle, and lower classes.
Income: Income is the inflow of money for a given period. Income is
usually measured before taxes, and besides earned income, may include
government payments such as Social Security benefits, welfare or veterans
payments and workers compensation. Also included are returns on investments and pensions, excluding capital gains or health insurance supplements paid by employers.
Intergenerational Mobility: Comparison between the mobility of an individual and that of his/her parent or parents.
Intragenerational Mobility: Overall change in an individuals perspective
that affects his/her pursuit of social mobility.
Job Sprawl: Higher percentages of a metropolitan areas employment
located outside a five-mile ring of city center.
Lateral Mobility: Status adjustment that occurs on a horizontal basis
rather than vertically.
Leisure Time: Author Tim Clydesdale (2005) distinguished between free
time as having been lifted from school or camp schedules to describe unstructured time in a structured day and is commonly used by modern
youth. By leisure time, he means the hours where one can choose freely
between activity or inactivity (p. 11).
Lifestyle: Michael E. Sobel defines lifestyle as a distinctive, hence recognizable, mode of living (p. 120). Max Weber defined lifestyle as patterns
Defining Class

187

of social interaction, leisure, consumption, dress, language, and son on,


associated with a social group in particular, a prestige class, or in, in
Webers terminology, a status group (Gilbert, p. 245).
Manufacturing Industry: Economic sector that produces physical goods
for market sales.
Mass Imprisonment: Mass imprisonment is a term that refers to the statistical explosion of African American men put in prison since the 1970s.
Despite crime statistics being relatively flat in the last forty years the percentage of African American men imprisoned had grown dramatically.
Meritocracy: The concept that a society rewards people with greater social
status on the basis of their achievements; in other words, they merit a
change in their social status.
Multinational Corporation: Business that conducts operations and in
other countries in addition to its home nation.
Net Worth: A measurement of wealth which includes a balance of assets
against debts.
New Rich: Those members of the upper class who were not born into
wealth, but instead acquired it during their lifetimes.
Occupational Prestige: The measure of variation in occupational status as
a function of public opinion, which is argued to be linked explicitly to differentials in pay, prestige, and wealth.
Old Money: Those members of the upper class that have attained their
fortunes through inheritance and often sustain their lifestyle with income
generated from investment revenue.
Outsourcing: Business practice that entails moving operations to other
countries to save costs and staffing expenses.
Overconformity: In this context, both nonconformity and overconformity can either be viewed positively or negatively. For example, positively
viewed nonconformity, or deviance admiration, denotes nonconformity
that is admired. An example is a criminal who receives icon status despite
the absence of any redeeming quality to his or her criminal activity. Heavy
drinkers and non-drinkers might similarly - and ironically - be viewed as
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not conforming to normal standards of moderation and thereby exhibit


negative deviance. Mother Theresa or war heroes, by contrast, can be
ascribed positively evaluated overconformity or positive deviance: they
sacrifice personal comfort and thereby bolster group loyalty (Heckert &
Heckert, 2004).
Petty Bourgeoisie: Petty bourgeoisie occupy a position in the hierarchy
between the bourgeoisie and proletariat. They are often self-employed
individuals who produce their own goods, rather than relying on other
wage-laborers. They are one of the key positions around which contradictory class locations emerge, according to Wright.
Pink Collar Workers: Women who work in traditionally female jobs
such as service work.
Plutocracy: The term plutocracy refers to government by elites in service
to the economic interests of elites at the expense of popular sovereignty.
Some critics argue that the US government is a de facto plutocracy.
Poverty Line (Threshold): The federal poverty measure; for 2006, for
a four-person family unit with two children, the poverty threshold is
$20,444; for one individual under age 65 it is $10,488; for an individual 65
or over it is $9,669.
Power Elite: Those who are among the wealthiest, most powerful, and
prestigious in society.
Power Structure Research: Power structure research attempts to systematically examine the process through which political power is exercised.
This vein of scholarship is associated with C.W. Mills controversial book,
The Power Elite (1956). Mills identified three monopolies that function
in an anti-democratic manner: corporations that demand high levels of
conformity; a military caste system that isolated recruits from local communities; and a government in which a large number of public servants
serve without having stood for election.
Power: The ability a person has to get others to do things without using
force.
Prestige: The notion that ones placement in society and economic incentives are tied to social constructions regarding the importance of ones occupational status.
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Proletariat: Karl Marx identified two primary class locations in capitalist


society the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The proletariat, also referred
to as the working class, has no ownership or control over the means of production; as a result, they must sell their labor in order to live.
Relational Class Structure: Marxist definitions of class are relational in
nature, rather than gradational. Gradational definitions conceptualize
class in quantitative terms in terms of differences in the amount of income
accumulated, for example. In relational definitions, on the other hand,
classes are defined in terms of qualitative differences - according to functions performed in work, for example. In addition, relational definitions
of class emphasize change over stasis; that is, according to Marxists, relational class structures provide the basis collective action and class struggle.
Relative Poverty: The ability to provide the basic needs for life, but the inability to afford what others in the same socioeconomic status can.
Scitovskys Reversal Paradox: Claims that spending on activities that
produce a sense of variety or beauty result in more happiness than comfort-related consumption.
Service Industry: Business sector that provides consultative, high-technology, financial advising, or other, un-manufactured products.
Silent Generation: A term coined in a 1951 Time Magazine article. Unlike
their parents generation who protested labor practices and their childrens
generation who protested Civil Rights and the Vietnam War, the Silent
Generation said little about politics and kept their focus on getting and
education and working hard.
Social Hierarchy: Social hierarchy can be described as the interplay of
education and class which play a significant role in ones social position.
Social Mobility: Mobility is the opportunity for individuals and families
to move from one social stratum to another, particularly from the social
class in which they started.
Social Position: Social position describes a persons place in the social
hierarchy and plays a significant role in determining ones employability,
employment, and income.

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Social Stratification: The hierarchical classification of society based on


social and economic variables, most commonly divided into upper, lower
and middle classes, which may be further subdivided. Contemporary sociologists and the U.S. Census Bureau are reluctant to stratify the classes
given the complexity and diversity of society and its family and household
units.
Socialization: The learning process that prepares new members of society
for social life.
Socioeconomic Status (SES): The measure of an individuals or familys
economic and social position relative to others, based on income, education, and job.
Spatial Mismatching: Where employment opportunities for low-income
people are located far away from the areas where they live.
Status Consistency: The degree of constancy in a persons social status.
Status System: A system which stratifies individuals based on their socioeconomic conditions.
Stratification: Stratification can be described as the structural hierarchy
on which education, class, and other class and social hierarchies are constructed.
Structural Inequality: The notion that socio-structural factors such as
policy failures relating to social service programs and housing as well as
a dearth of decent paying jobs and adequate job training are the predominate causes of social and economic inequality.
Structural Mobility: Social movement in which the environments changes
facilitate upward mobility for an individual or his/her society.
Stylistic Unity: Coherent lifestyle forms as defined by Michael E. Sobel
(p. 120).
Synergistic Effect of Race and Gender: The sociological notion that race
and gender together have a greater impact on individual life chances than
either characteristic does alone.

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The Easterlin Paradox: The Easterlin Paradox, also known as the Prosperity Paradox, describes the apparent failure of levels of self-reported
happiness to match rising levels of real earnings. The paradox resides in
the fact that, though the more affluent tend to indicate a greater level of
happiness than the less affluent, overall levels of happiness have largely
remained static as economic productivity has increased
Tokenism: A policy or practice of limited inclusion of certain people into
a group in order to give the appearance that they are inclusive when they
are actually exclusive.
Tracking: Tracking can be described as the separation of students into
hierarchical learning groups based on perceived or measured ability
(Biafora & Ansalone, 2008, p. 588).
Transfer Programs: Income not earned from wages may be termed
transfer income from government (federal and state) programs and
social service agencies, such as Social Security, Veteran Administration
benefits and public assistance.
Underclass: People who tend to be jobless most of the time, and have a low
level of education.
Upward Mobility: Movement into better jobs and higher social strata.
Vertical Mobility: Movement up or down social strata due to job or other
life/environment changes.
Wage Gap: A term that signifies differences in pay based on race and
gender for like work.
War on Poverty: Name given to President Lyndon Johnsons Great Society
programs. These programs looked to extend Civil Rights, equal opportunity, education, and a economic safety net for Americas poorest citizens.
Wealth: Cumulative value of assets owned by a family or individual. Statisticians measure wealth at a point in time. It includes real estate (home
ownership) or business ownership, investments in stocks and bonds,
interest earned, etc.
Working Poor: Workers who maintain regular work and still are not able
to earn enough to escape poverty.
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Contributors

Michael P. Auerbach holds a bachelors degree from Wittenberg University and a masters degree from Boston College. He has extensive private
and public sector experience in a wide range of arenas: political science,
comparative cultural studies, business and economic development, tax
policy, international development, defense, public administration, and
tourism.
Jeremy Baker holds a masters degree in sociology from Ohio State University. While at Ohio State, he focused his research on social movements
and workers rights while teaching classes on globalization, social change,
and sociological deviance.
PD Casteel has his Masters degree in Sociology and is a Ph.D. Candidate
at the University of Texas at Dallas. He works as a business executive and
writer in the Dallas area.
Jennifer Christian is currently A.B.D. in the Department of Sociology at
Indiana University, Bloomington. She completed her B.A. at CSU San
Marcos in Experimental Psychology and Sociology with a minor in Criminal
Justice and Criminology. Recently she earned her Masters degree from
Indiana University and completed her qualifying examinations in Political
Sociology. Today, her areas of expertise are in political sociology, media,
movements, social policy, public opinion and criminology. She is currently

Defining Class

193

completing her dissertation, tentatively titled Understanding the Intersection of Public Opinion, Media, and Elite Discourse on Policy Change.
Barbara Hornick-Lockard is Emeritus Library Director of Corning Community College, Corning, New York. She holds an M.L.S. from the University of Pittsburgh and an M.B.A. from Syracuse University. Her subject
background is eclectic, but a common denominator in her career as a professional librarian is work with undergraduate students for whom she developed information literacy programs. She held professional positions
at the libraries of the University of Pittsburgh (Johnstown and Bradford
campuses), the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and at Corning.
She has also taught composition and was the recipient of several writing
awards when she was a student.
Alexandra Howson Ph.D. taught Sociology for over a decade at several
universities in the UK. She has published books and peer reviewed articles
on the sociology of the body, gender and health and is now an independent
researcher, writer and editor based in the Seattle area.
Jeff Klassen holds a masters degree in English from the University of
Western Ontario. He is currently pursuing a law degree.
Jennifer Kretchmar earned her Doctorate in Educational Psychology from
the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She currently works as a
Research Associate in undergraduate admissions.
Sharon Link is an educator, presenter, and mother of a child with autism.
She has worked extensively in public education and has researched education and its relationship to autism disorders and other disabilities for the
last ten years. Dr. Link currently is the Executive Director for Autism Disorders Leadership Center, a non-profit research center and is co-founder of
Asperger Interventions & Support, Inc. a professional development center.
Both organizations are education and research centers seeking to improve
education by creating a system of diversity and inclusion in Americas
schools.
Ilanna Mandel is a writer and editor with over seventeen years of experience, specifically in the health and education sectors. Her work has been
utilized by corporations, non-profit organizations and academic institu194

Sociology Reference Guide

tions. She is a published author with one book and numerous articles to
her credit. She received her MA in Education from UC Berkeley where she
focused on Sociology and Education.
Geraldine Wagner holds a graduate degree from Syracuse Universitys
Maxwell School of Citizenship. She teaches Sociology at Mohawk Valley
Community College in upstate New York and Professional Writing at
State University of NY, College of Environmental Science and Forestry.
She has authored numerous writings including journalism articles, OP-ED
columns, manuals, and two works of non-fiction: No Problem: The Story
of Fr. Ray McVey and Unity Acres, A Catholic Worker House, published
in 1998 and Thirteen Months To Go: The Creation of the Empire State
Building, published in 2003. She divides her time between upstate New
York, Bar Harbor, Maine and coastal North Carolina.

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Index

Bourgeoisie, 9, 105, 109, 110, 112, 114,


115, 133, 173

Class Conflict, 9, 133, 173


Class Consciousness, 96, 99, 100, 109
Classism, 145, 148
Class Locations, 109, 110
Class Structure, 13, 19, 40, 109, 110,
111, 112, 113, 116, 134
Class System, 5, 120, 131, 133, 177, 178
College, 4, 7, 10, 14, 15, 76, 102, 103,
122, 155, 174, 179, 181
Conflict Theory, 68, 163
Consumerism, 86
Consumption, 86, 91
Control, 113
Crime, 167
Cross-National Income Inequality, 12
Cultural Capital, 85, 88, 90, 91, 100, 104

Capital, 85
Capitalism, 51, 69, 75, 116, 163
Capitalist Class, 114, 117
Capitalists, 9, 110, 112, 115, 133, 173
Caste System, 5
Census Bureau, The, 15, 42, 43, 44, 45, 48
Child-Bearing, 181
Circulation Mobility, 19

Demographic Shifts, 103


Digital Divide, The, 56
Downward Mobility, 6, 96

Absolute Poverty, 176


Affluenza, 64
African Americans, 151, 153, 154, 157,
176, 178
Aggregate Income, 44
American Dream, The, 16, 64, 120, 134,
177
Anomie, 64
Asians, 154
Autonomy, 115

196

E
Easterlins Paradox, 65
Economic Capital, 100
Education, 51, 121, 180
Sociology Reference Guide

Elderly, 13, 178


Equal Opportunity, 182
Ethnographic Studies, 67
Exploitation, 6, 9, 111, 114, 133, 173

F
Family Income Mobility, 12
Family Unit, 142
Feminization of Poverty, 155
Functionalism, 68
Future Class System, The, 15

G
Gender, 79, 165, 178
Geographic Positioning, 21
Gerstner, Louis, 27, 34
Gini Index, 44
Globalization, 40
Great Depression, The, 13, 20, 134

H
Health, 88, 91, 124, 167
Health Inequality, 13
High-Status Culture, 87
Household, 43, 44, 45, 79, 89, 96, 155,
156, 178

I
IBM, 27, 34
Immigrants, 136, 137
Incarceration, 13
Income Inequality, 12, 41, 44, 46, 76,
102, 103, 109, 161, 162, 163, 166, 167
Inequality, 12, 13, 161, 162, 164, 166,
177, 178
Inheritance, 177
Intelligence, 166
Intergenerational Mobility, 22
Intragenerational Mobility, 25

J
Job Prospects, 19
Defining Class

L
Lateral Mobility, 24
Latinos, 152, 178
Leisure Time, 84
Life Expectancy, 124, 156, 167
Lifestyle, 84, 87, 88
Living Wage, 181

M
Manufacturing Industry, 32
Marxian Perspective, The, 9
Mass Imprisonment, 153
Measures of Class, 75
Measuring Income, 43
Measuring Wealth, 77
Meritocracy, 7, 8, 42, 69, 123, 132, 164,
172
Middle Class, 96, 98
Mills, C. W., 69, 70
Multinational Corporation, 34

N
Net Worth, 63, 78
New Rich, 63

O
Occupational Prestige, 76, 78
Old Boys Network, 177
Old Money, 63, 67
Outsourcing, 29, 33
Overconformity, 98

P
Parental Involvement, 53
Petty Bourgeoisie, 110, 113, 114
Philanthropy, 66
Pink Collar Work, 14
Plutocracy, 69
Post-Industrial Era, The, 28
Post-Soviet Russia, 30
Poverty, 130, 140
197

Poverty Line, 42, 120, 130, 134, 139,


141, 143, 150, 152, 153, 155, 175, 176,
178
Power, 75
Power Elite, 70
Power Structure Research, 69, 71
Prestige, 76
Proletariat, 9, 110, 112, 113, 114, 115,
133, 173
Public Policy, 157

R
Race, 79, 121, 152, 164, 178
Radicalism, 100
Reagan, Ronald, 18, 24, 156
Relative Poverty, 133, 176, 180

S
School Readiness, 53
Secure Retirement, 123
Service Industry, 11, 29, 32, 33, 34, 121,
131, 175, 179
Silent Generation, 151, 155, 156
Slavery, 5
Social-Conflict Perspective, The, 132
Social Hierarchy, 50
Socialization, 51
Social Memberships, 87
Social Mobility, 18, 19, 27, 33, 59, 120, 124
Social Position, 50, 86
Social Security, 45, 102, 123, 124, 150,
155, 175
Social Strata, 15, 16, 18, 19, 20, 21, 30,
84, 86, 91, 119
Social Stratification, 30, 75, 105, 125,
161, 162, 164
Socioeconomic Status, 53
Status Consistency, 7
Stratification, 5, 7, 8, 50, 75, 161, 174, 179
Stratification Perspectives, 8

198

Conflict Perspective, The, 9, 132, 172


Davis-Moore Thesis, 9
Functionalist Perspective, The, 8,
132, 172
Symbolic Interactionist Perspective,
10, 174
Weberian Perspective, The, 9
Structural-Functionalist Perspective,
The, 132
Structural Mobility, 19, 24
Stylistic Unity, 85, 86

T
Taxes, 40, 45
Technology, 40
Tracking, 41, 55, 56, 58
Transfer Programs, 41

U
Underclass, 40, 129, 134, 135
Unemployment Rates, 13, 153
Upper Class, 62, 67
Upward Mobility, 5, 6, 28, 31, 80, 96,
120, 142, 143, 166, 178
Urban Schools, 54

V
Vertical Mobility, 15

W
Wage Gap, 80, 155
War on Poverty, 151, 156, 157
Wealth, 7, 10, 69, 74, 76, 77, 80, 133,
173, 177
Weber, Max, 9, 109, 133, 134, 173
Whites, 153, 154, 155
Working Class, 11, 39, 119, 121
Working Poor, 40, 120, 171, 176
Wright, Erik Olin, 109

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