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Chapter 7: Social Stratification

7.3 Social Class in the United States

There is a surprising amount of disagreement among sociologists on the number of social classes in the United States and even on how to measure social class membership. We first look at the measurement issue and then discuss the number and types of classes sociologists have delineated.

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Think Like a Sociologist

image showing 5 different triangular and haystack shapes to indicate different ways the social class may exist

NagNandoor – CC BY-SA 4.0 – Wikimedia Commons

Based on what you know about the U.S. social class system, and the distribution of the U.S. population into social classes, which of the shapes above do you think best depicts how wealth is distributed in the U.S.? Why?

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Measuring Social Class

We can measure social class either objectively or subjectively. If we choose the objective method, we classify people according to one or more criteria, such as their occupation, education, and/or income. The researcher is the one who decides which social class people are in based on where they stand in regard to these variables. If we choose the subjective method, we ask people what class they think they are in. For example, the General Social Survey asks, “If you were asked to use one of four names for your social class, which would you say you belong in: the lower class, the working class, the middle class, or the upper class?” Figure 7.3 “Subjective Social Class Membership” depicts responses to this question. The trouble with such a subjective measure is that some people say they are in a social class that differs from what objective criteria might indicate they are in. This problem leads most sociologists to favor objective measures of social class when they study stratification in American society.

Figure 7. 3 Subjective Social Class MembershipPie chart showing Subjective Social Class Membership, with 3.6% upper class, 43.7% middle class, 43.7% working class and 9% lower class.

Source: Data from General Social Survey, 2018.

Yet even here there is disagreement between functionalist theorists and conflict theorists on which objective measures to use. Functionalists rely on measures of (SES), such as education, income, and occupation, to determine someone’s social class. Sometimes one of these three variables is used by itself to measure social class, and sometimes two or all three of the variables are combined to measure social class. When occupation is used, sociologists often rely on standard measures of occupational prestige. Since the late 1940s, national surveys have asked Americans to rate the prestige of dozens of occupations (as you did in section 7.1), and their ratings are averaged together to yield prestige scores for the occupations (Hodge, Siegel, & Rossi, 1964). Over the years these scores have been relatively stable. Here are some average prestige scores for various occupations (ranging on a scale of 0 to 97, with higher scores representing greater prestige): physician, 86; college professor, 74; elementary school teacher, 64; letter carrier, 47; garbage collector, 28; and janitor, 22.

Despite SES’s usefulness, conflict sociologists prefer different, though still objective, measures of social class that consider ownership of the means of production and other dynamics of the workplace. These measures are closer to what Marx meant by the concept of class throughout his work, and they consider the many types of occupations and workplace structures that he could not have envisioned when he was writing during the 19th century.

For example, corporations have many upper-level managers who do not own the means of production but still determine the activities of workers under them. They thus do not fit neatly into either of Marx’s two major classes, the bourgeoisie or the proletariat. Recognizing these problems, conflict sociologists delineate social class on the basis of several factors, including the ownership of the means of production, the degree of autonomy workers enjoy in their jobs, and whether they supervise other workers or are supervised themselves (Wright, 2000).

The American Class Structure

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Using Your Sociological Imagination

Most Americans identify as belonging to the middle class. Go to the website below and input your data to determine your social class status.

Are You in the American Middle Class?

Do you agree with the results? Why or why not?

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As should be evident, it is not easy to determine how many social classes exist in the United States. Over the decades, sociologists have outlined as many as six or seven social classes, but for the sake of clarity, we will limit ourselves to the four social classes included in Figure 7.3 “Subjective Social Class Membership”: the upper class, the middle class, the working class, and the lower class. Although subcategories exist within some of these broad categories, they still capture the most important differences in the American class structure (Gilbert, 2011). The annual income categories listed for each class are admittedly somewhat arbitrary but are based on the percentage of households above or below a specific income level.

Overall, in 2020 the median household income level was $67,521 (Shrider, et.al., 2021). The percentage of U.S. households found at different income levels are outlined below in Figure 7.4 “Distribution of U.S. Household Income, 2020.”

Figure 7.4 Distribution of U.S. Household Income, 2020 Bar chart showing Distribution of U.S. Household Income, 2020, with 9.4% under $15,000, 8.7% between $15,000-24,999, 8.1% between $25,000-34,999, 11.6% between $35,000-49,999, 16.5% between $50,000-74,999, 12.2% between $75,000-99,999, 15.3% between $100,000-149,999, 8% between $150,000-199,999 and 10.3% $200,000 and over

Source: Data from Shrider, Emily A., Melissa Kollar, Frances Chen, and Jessica Semega. U.S. Census Bureau Current Population Reports, P6O-273. Income and Poverty in the United States: 2020. U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC. Data retrieved from https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/publications/2021/demo/p60-273.pdf

The Upper class

Depending on how it is defined, the consists of about 10.3% of the U.S. population and includes households with annual incomes of more than $200,000 (Shrider, et.al., 2021). Some scholars would raise the ante further by limiting the upper class to households with incomes of at least $760,000 or so, which in turn reduces this class to about 1% of the population, with an average wealth (income, stocks and bonds, and real estate) of several million dollars (Mishel & Kandra 2020). However it is defined, the upper class has much wealth, power, and influence (Kerbo, 2009).

image of mansion

The upper class in the United States possesses much wealth, power, and influence. Their high status enables them to live in communities of stately homes, typically secluded away from communities that house members of lower social classes. Steven Martin – Highland Park Mansion – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

The upper class is often divided into two separate categories, the upper-upper class and the lower-upper class. Members of the upper-upper class have “old money” that has been in their families for generations. They belong to exclusive clubs and live in exclusive neighborhoods; have their names in the social register; send their children to expensive private schools; serve on the boards of museums, corporations and major charities; and exert much influence on the political process and other areas of life from behind the scenes. Members of the lower-upper class have “new” money acquired through hard work, lucky investments and/or athletic prowess. In many ways, their lives are similar to those of their old-money counterparts, but they do not enjoy the same prestige that old money brings. Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon who in 2021 had a net worth of over $170 billion and is the richest person in the world currently, would be considered a member of the lower-upper class because his money is too “new.” Because he does not have a long-standing pedigree, upper-upper class members might even be tempted to disparage his immense wealth, at least in private.

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Using Your Sociological Imagination

Imagine that you were born a member of the upper-upper class, meaning your parents are very wealthy and you benefit from this status.  How would your life be different from what it is now (be specific)?

In addition to the difference in income, how would your orientation to life, your attitudes, values, goals, and what you expect out of life be different?

For some great examples related to the above questions, listen to this Hidden Brain podcast about people who work for the ultra rich. They share stories about what life is like when you are filthy rich:  Hidden Brain Podcast: “What’s it like to be Rich?”

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The Middle Class

Many of us like to think of ourselves in the , as Figure 7.3 “Subjective Social Class Membership” showed, and many of us are. The middle class includes 52% of all households whose annual incomes range from $50,000 to $199,999. As this very broad range suggests, the middle class includes people with many different levels of education and income and many different types of jobs. It is thus helpful to distinguish the upper-middle class from the lower-middle class on the upper and lower ends of this income bracket, respectively. The upper-middle class has household incomes from about $100,000 to $199,000, amounting to 23.3% of all households. People in the upper-middle class typically have college and, very often, graduate or professional degrees; live in the suburbs or in fairly expensive urban areas; and are bankers, doctors, lawyers, engineers, corporate managers, and financial advisers, among other occupations.

image of middle-class suburban home

The upper-middle class in the United States consists of about 23.3% of all households, with incomes ranging from $100,000 to $199,000. Housing is typically stable, spacious and well-maintained. Alturas Homes Pexels

The lower-middle class has household incomes from roughly $50,000 to $99,999, amounting to 28.7% of all families. People in this income bracket typically work in white-collar jobs as nurses, teachers, and the like. Many have college degrees, usually from the less prestigious colleges, but many also have 2-year degrees or only a high school degree. They live somewhat comfortable lives but can hardly afford to go on expensive vacations or buy expensive cars and can send their children to expensive colleges only if they receive significant financial aid.

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Chapter Throwback

You learned about social location in Chapter 1, and perhaps thought about the different groups a person belongs to as independent of one another. Of course, that is not true. The parts of our social location intertwine, so a person experiences life as a member of their social class + their race or ethnicity + their gender, and so on. For instance, the following clip explores being both middle class and African American.

Consider your own social class as well as other aspects of your social location, such as gender, race, ethnicity, religion, etc. How do these other aspects of your social location intertwine with your social class status?

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The Working Class

households have annual incomes between about $25,000 and $49,999 and constitute 19.7% of all U.S. households. They generally work in blue-collar jobs such as factory work, construction, restaurant service, and less skilled clerical positions. People in the working class typically do not have 4-year college degrees, and some do not have high school degrees. Although most are not living in official poverty, their financial situation is very uncomfortable. A single large medical bill or expensive car repair would be almost impossible to pay without going into considerable debt.

Additionally, working class families are far less likely than their wealthier counterparts to own their own homes or to send their children to college. Many of them live at risk for unemployment as their companies downsize by laying off workers even in good times. They are especially vulnerable to job loss in trying economic times, as was demonstrated when hundreds of thousands lost their jobs during the 2008-2009 Great Recession and once again with economic upheavals caused by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020-2021.

The Lower Class

image of mobile homes

Many poor individuals lack high school degrees and are unemployed or employed only part time. Housing can be unstable and dilapidated. Chris Hunkeler – Trailer Homes – CC BY-SA 2.0

The have household incomes under $25,000 and constitute 18.1% of all U.S. households. Many in the lower class lack high school degrees, and many are unemployed or employed only part time in semi-skilled or unskilled jobs. When they do work, they work as janitors, house cleaners, migrant laborers, and shoe shiners. They tend to rent apartments rather than own their own homes, lack medical insurance, and have inadequate diets. We will discuss the lower class further when we focus later in this chapter on inequality and poverty in the United States.

Using Your Sociological Imagination

Can you imagine the difficulties of being in the lower class? Click on the link below to participate in an online simulation which challenges you to successfully make it to the end of the month on low wages.

Play Spent

What are some of the obstacles that members of the working and lower social classes encounter in trying to make ends meet?

Was there anything that surprised you about the decisions that you made when playing this simulation?

Discuss one social policy you might propose to help address the challenges faced by members of the working and lower social classes.

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Social Mobility

Regardless of how we measure and define social class, one question that often arises is what are our chances of moving up or down within the American class structure? As we saw earlier, the degree of vertical social mobility is a key distinguishing feature of systems of stratification. Class systems such as in the United States are thought to be open, meaning that social mobility is allowed, in comparison to closed systems of stratification which prohibit social mobility. It is important, then, to determine how much social mobility exists in the United States.

Here we need to distinguish between two types of individual vertical social mobility. refers to mobility from one generation to the next within the same family. If children from poor parents end up in high-paying jobs, the children have experienced upward intergenerational mobility. Conversely, if children of doctors end up working as janitors, these children have experienced downward intergenerational mobility. refers to mobility within a person’s own lifetime. If you start out as an administrative assistant in a large corporation and end up as an upper-level manager, you have experienced upward intragenerational mobility. But if you start out from business school as an upper-level manager and get laid off 10 years later because of corporate downsizing, you have experienced downward intragenerational mobility.

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Think Like a Sociologist

image of characters from the Beverly Hillbillies TV series

Actors Buddy Ebsen and Irene Ryan portrayed “Granny” and Jed Clampett of The Beverly Hillbillies, two bumpkins who got rich but never changed their hillbilly lifestyle. CBS Television – Public domain – Wikimedia Commons

A common theme in Hollywood is to examine the consequences of changing social class. From the poor Clampett Family on The Beverly Hillbillies, who struck oil and became wealthy, to the Rose Family on Schitt’s Creek, who lost their fortune and became destitute, the plots of these programs usually revolved around errors the family made trying to live in their new circumstances.

As you realize, social class is about more than wealth; it is also the values, beliefs and norms practiced by members of the social class, too. While portrayed for humor on the television shows, not knowing the hidden rules of a social class can make changing social class awkward. This clip from People Like Us, a documentary film examining social class in the U.S., is of a woman learning some of the behaviors of the upper class, in the hope of joining it.

Consider what it would be like to experience upward or downward social mobility from the class position you currently occupy.

What would be some of the challenges you would face?

What cultural changes would you experience?

Want to learn more? Check out the article and podcast linked below.

The Unique Tensions of Couples Who Marry Across Classes

I Have Class Anxiety

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A third type of mobility, , happens when societal changes enable a whole group of people to move up or down the social class ladder. Structural mobility is attributable to changes in society as a whole, not individual changes. In the first half of the twentieth century, for example, industrialization expanded the U.S. economy, raising the standard of living and leading to upward structural mobility. In today’s work economy, the outsourcing of jobs overseas, and the Great Recession and COVID-19 pandemic have all contributed to economic upheaval and periods of high unemployment rates. Many people have experienced economic setbacks, creating waves of downward structural mobility (Conerly, et. al., 2021).

Sociologists have conducted a good deal of research on social mobility, much of it involving the movement of males up or down the occupational prestige ladder compared to their fathers, with the earliest studies beginning in the 1960s (Blau & Duncan, 1967; Featherman & Hauser, 1978). For better or worse, the focus on males occurred because the initial research took place when many women were still excluded from the formal labor force and also because women back then were ignored in many studies in the social and biological sciences. The early research found that about half of sons end up in higher-prestige jobs than their fathers, but the difference between the sons’ jobs and their fathers’ was relatively small, meaning that social mobility is typically incremental. This is in spite of the fact that the stories we tell about social mobility present social mobility occurring in giant leaps, from rags to riches. In reality, a child of a janitor may end up managing a hardware store but is very unlikely to end up as a corporate executive. To reach that lofty position, it helps greatly to have parents in jobs much more prestigious than a janitor’s. Contemporary research also finds much less mobility among some racial-ethnic minorities. When comparing African Americans and Latinx people with their white counterparts having the same education and family backgrounds, research finds less social mobility, suggesting an important negative impact of racial and ethnic discrimination.

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Think Like a Sociologist

Consider what you have learned about the U.S. social class structure and social mobility thus far.

Are the inequalities and limited social mobility experienced in the U.S. desirable or undesirable? Why?

If you answered that inequality and limited mobility are undesirable, what political policies or other solution(s) would you offer to achieve greater equality and/or social mobility?

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A key vehicle for upward mobility is formal education. Regardless of the socioeconomic status of our parents, we are much more likely to end up in a high-paying job if we attain a college degree or, increasingly, a graduate or professional degree.

image of graduates

A college education is a key step toward achieving upward social mobility. However, the payoff of education is often higher for men than for women and for whites than for people of color. McelspethPixabay

Figure 7.5 “Education and Median Weekly Earnings of All Worker, 25 Years and Older, 2020” vividly shows the difference that education makes for American’s incomes. Notice, however, that for every level of education, men’s incomes are greater than women’s incomes. Indeed, as the level of education increases, the proportion of women’s earnings compared to those of men shrinks. Women with no high school diploma earn 77.9% of what men with an equivalent education earn, while women with a bachelor’s degree or more earn 75.9% of what men earn, thus suggesting that the payoff of education is higher for men than for women. The reasons for this gender difference are complex and will be discussed further in this text in the review of gender and gender inequality. To the extent vertical social mobility exists in the United States, then, it is higher for men than for women as well as being higher for whites than for people of color.

Figure 7.5 Education and Median Weekly Earnings of All Workers, 25 Years and Older, 2020

Bar chart showing Figure 7.5 Education and Median Weekly Earnings of All Workers, 25 Years and Older, 2020. Earnings increase with each degree, with those with no high school diploma earning on average $619 and those with college degrees or higher earning $1421. At each educational level, men outearn women.

Source: Data from “Highlights of Women’s Earnings in 2020 : BLS Rep​​orts.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, September 2021. Retrieved from: https://www.bls.gov/opub/reports/womens-earnings/2020/home.htm

Certainly the United States has upward social mobility, even when we take into account gender and racial discrimination. Whether we conclude the United States has a lot of vertical mobility or just a little is the key question, and the answer to this question depends on how the data are interpreted. People can and do move up the socioeconomic ladder, but their movement is fairly limited. Hardly anyone starts at the bottom of the ladder and ends up at the top.

One way of understanding the issue of U.S. social mobility is to see how much parents’ education affects the education their children attain (education being strongly correlated with social class status). Research comparing first-generation students, whose parents did not attend college, with students whose parents have bachelor’s degrees shows differential outcomes based on parent educational level. In high school, students whose parent(s) have a bachelor’s degree are more likely to participate in an academically focused curriculum and are more likely to earn Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate credits (Cataldi, Bennett and Chen, 2018). Participation in academically rigorous courses in high school helps to prepare students for success in college. Table 7.3 “Parents’ Education and their Children’s Educational Outcomes” demonstrates the compounding factors associated with parental educational attainment.

Table 7.3 Parents’ Education and their Children’s Educational Outcomes

First Generation Students

Parent(s) Earned a Bachelor’s Degree

% who participated in academically focused high school curriculum

16%

37%

% who earned AP/IB Credits

18%

44%

% who enrolled in college

72%

93%

% who, after 3 years of college, left college without earning a degree

33%

14%

% who graduated from college in 4 years

45%

67%

Source: Cataldi, Emily Forrest, et al. “First-Generation Students: College Access, Persistence, and Postbachelor’s Outcomes.” National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) Home Page, a Part of the U.S. Department of Education, 8 Feb. 2018, nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2018421.

Early educational experiences, financial struggles and less social support from parents who have limited to no experience navigating the college system, result in first generation students attending college and graduating with bachelor’s degrees at lower levels. As demonstrated above, almost 20% fewer first generation students enroll in college, they leave college without a degree at more than twice the rate of their peers and 22% fewer graduate within four years of their initial college enrollment. Thus, our chances of going to college and completing a degree depends heavily on our parents’ education (and presumably their income and other aspects of our family backgrounds). While the American Dream does exist, it is much more likely to remain only a dream unless we come from advantaged backgrounds. In fact, there is less vertical mobility in the United States than in other Western democracies. As a recent analysis summarized the evidence, “There is considerably more mobility in most of the other developed economies of Europe and Scandinavia than in the United States” (Mishel, Bernstein, & Shierholz, 2009, p. 108).

Test Yourself

 



Section 7.3 References

Benderev, C., M. Penman, R. Klahr, T. Boyle and S. Vedantam.  (2016, October 25). What’s it like to be rich? Ask the people who manage billionaires’ money. NPR. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2016/10/25/499213698/whats-it-like-to-be-rich-ask-the-people-who-manage-billionaires-money.

Bennett, J., R. Fry and R. Kochhar.  (2021, August 3). Are you in the American middle class? Find out with our income calculator.  Pew Research Center. Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/07/23/are-you-in-the-american-middle-class/.

Blau, P. M. and O. D. Duncan. (1967). The American occupational structure. New York, NY: Wiley. 

Cataldi, E. F., C. Bennett, X. Chen and RIT International.  (2018).  First-Generation students:  College Access, Persistence, and Post-bachelor’s Outcomes (Stats in Brief NCES 2018-421).  Washington, DC:  National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education.  Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid= 2018421.

cnam2000. (2021, March 16). Bourgeois Blues – America’s Black Middle Class – People Like Us, Episode #4. YouTube. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0v_sVCNYbdM&list=RDCMUCjkRvhR897lK4lnt-VgnOgg&index=12.

Featherman, D. L. and R. M. Hauser. (1978). Opportunity and change. New York, NY: Academic Press. 

Gilbert, D. (2011). The American class structure in an age of growing inequality (8th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press. 

Hodge, R. W., P. Siegel and P. Rossi. (1964). Occupational prestige in the United States, 1925–63. American Journal of Sociology, 70, 286–302. 

How to marry the rich – People Like Us, Episode #3. YouTube. (2009, March 30). Retrieved from https://youtu.be/yvibi2Cph-E.

I have class anxiety – This is Uncomfortable from Marketplace. Marketplace. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.marketplace.org/shows/this-is-uncomfortable-reema-khrais/i-have-class-anxiety/.

Kerbo, H. R. (2009). Social stratification and inequality. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill. 

Mishel, L., J. Bernstein and H. Shierholz. (2009). The state of working America 2008/2009. Ithaca, NY: ILR Press [An imprint of Cornell University Press].

Mishel, L. and J. Kandra. (2021, May 27). Preliminary Data Show CEO Pay Jumped Nearly 16% in 2020, While Average Worker Compensation Rose 1.8%. Working Economics Blog (Economic Policy Institute). Retrieved from https://www.epi.org/blog/preliminary-data-show-ceo-pay-jumped-nearly-16-in-2020-while-average-worker-compensation-rose-1-8/#:~:text=and%20Jori%20Kandra-,Preliminary%20data%20show%20CEO%20pay%20jumped%20nearly%2016%25%20in%202020,financial%20impact%20of%20the%20pandemic. 

Shrider, E. A., M. Kollar, F. Chen and J. Semega.  (2021, September 21). U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Reports, P60-273, Income and Poverty in the United States: 2020. U.S. Government Publishing Office, Washington, DC. Retrieved from https://www.census.gov/library/publications/2021/demo/p60-273.html.

Spent. SPENT. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://playspent.org/.

Wingfield, A. H. (2016, April 5). The unique tensions of couples who marry across classes. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/04/tension-couples-marry-across-classes/476742/.

Wright, E. O. (2000). Class counts: Comparative studies in class analysis. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

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