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What is Your Social Class─ Lower Class, Middle Class, Upper Class, or No Class?

3/1/2020 Anant Goel & Alan Kyle Goel

Observers of society in any nation would quickly note that there are large variations in wealth, material possessions, power and authority, and prestige in our society. They would also note differences in access to education, healthcare and leisure. One child in ten lives in poverty in major industrial countries, one in five in the United States. Taken together these differences in resources and outcomes are thought of as the basis of inequality. 

What is the source of this inequality?

Some say it is the result of an unequal distribution of resources, power and authority.

What are resources: money, land, assets – distinction made between wealth – monetary value of all owned and income – amount of money brought in through wages, investment, etc?

What is power: ability to be in charge and to rule!

What is authority: control, particularly in the face of resistance!

Status represents another form of inequality: social standing, esteem, respect, prestige, may involve physical ability, intelligence, beauty, occupations that are ranked in order of prestige – doctors, corporate lawyers, financial experts … to garbage collectors and janitors.

When sociologists talk of social class, they refer to a group of individuals who occupy a similar position in the economic system of production. Within that system occupation is very important because it provides financial rewards, stability and benefits like healthcare.

What’s Your Class?

Take a look…

No Class

  • Person is crass, rude, or acting outside the boundaries of the lowest socially acceptable behavior.
  • Describing someone as having no class means they dress, live or behave in a manner that is below even the lowest income people in society.
  • Because of the lack of education, their social skills are crude.
    • Criminals and Inmates in correctional facilities.

Poor Class

  • Working poor – work full-time at wages below poverty line.
  • Depend on social services.
  • Underclass.
  • Homeless and runaways.

Lower Class

  • Heavily dependent on government assistance and charity to meet basic needs.
  • Chronically unemployed, lacks the skills and experience to acquire work at any meaningful pay level.
  • Unlikely to escape poverty.

Lower Middle Class

  • Lives paycheck to paycheck but can afford necessities without charity or government assistance.
  • Likely debt problems, few savings, major catastrophe will destroy their financial situation and put them in poverty.
  • Public school, hand-me-down clothes for kids, likely rents housing. Kids will likely attend community college if anything.
  • Working Class: Craft workers, Laborers in factories, Restaurant workers, Nursing home staff, Repair shops & garages, Delivery services, Home care and Personal services.

  • Substantially more potential for upward mobility than the lower class.

Middle Class

  • Skilled labor, educated, comfortably makes more than the family consumes.
  • Skilled Working Class: Clerical-administrative, Provide support for professionals, Engage in data collection, Record-keeping, Paralegals, Bank tellers, Sales, and Blue-collar workers in skilled trades.
  • Main debt is mortgage, not much else. They thus are on the path to owning their home, not renting. Fair amount of retirement savings and a savings account safety net. Has insurance to cover potentially catastrophic events, not likely to fall below middle class again.
  • Kids probably attend public school, will be able to attend a state university.

Upper Middle Class

  • Highly skilled labor, probably highly educated, works in leadership position, or another high-paying field.
  • Highly Skilled Working Class: Represent scientific and technical knowledge – engineers, accountants, lawyers, architects, university faculty, managers and directors of public and private organizations.
  • Have both high incomes and high social prestige.
  • Well-educated.
  • Lives in a low-crime community with a nice house. They have substantial investments and are at little risk of problems in retirement. While the middle class bought insurance to preserve lifestyle, the upper middle class buys insurance to protect assets.
  • Kids may attend private schools, and will probably attend private universities, likely the same ones their parents attended.
  • Though they make a substantial income working and live luxuriously, they are nevertheless dependent on their work for their standard of living.

Upper Class ─ Elite

  • Represent institutional leadership, heads of multinational corporations, foundations, universities.
  • Capitalist elite – owners of lands, stocks and bonds and other assets – wealth derived from what they own.
  • Forbes magazine publishes a list of the 400 wealthiest families in America.  Of all the wealth represented on the Forbes list, more than half is inherited. Newly acquired wealth, nouveau riche, have vast amounts of money but not often accepted into “old money” circles.
  • The primary feature of the upper class is passive income. Unlike all previous classes, the upper class has sufficient assets to live a middle class or upper middle class lifestyle through income they don't work to acquire. This can include rent income from real estate, dividends on stocks, interest on loans, a business they own but don't manage, returns from patents or copyright they own, etc. They may work, but they don't need to.
  • Above all else the upper class is free. They can travel where they like, do what they like, and live how they like without lacking the money or time to do so.
  • Kids almost definitely attend private schools and the most elite private universities. These are mostly status symbols, opportunities to build character, and connections, as opposed to the pragmatic professional choices they are among the middle and upper middle classes.

Social class─ defined as a combination of income, education, wealth and occupation─ influences our destiny in a society that likes to think of itself as a land of unbounded opportunity.

Why Class Matters in America

There was a time when Americans thought they understood class. The upper crust vacationed in Europe and worshiped an Episcopal God. The middle class drove Ford Fairlanes, settled the San Fernando Valley and enlisted as company men. The working class belonged to the AFL- CIO, voted Democratic and did not take cruises to the Caribbean.

Today, the country has gone a long way toward an appearance of classlessness. Americans of all sorts are awash in luxuries that would have dazzled their grandparents. Social diversity has erased many of the old markers. It has become harder to read people's status in the clothes they wear, the cars they drive, the votes they cast, the god they worship, the color of their skin. The contours of class have blurred; some say they have disappeared.

We Americans have long thought of ourselves as unburdened by class distinctions. We have no hereditary aristocracy or landed gentry, and even the poorest among us feel that they can become rich through education, hard work, or sheer gumption. And yet social class remains a powerful force in American life.

Over the past three decades, it has come to play a greater, not lesser, role in important ways. At a time when education matters more than ever, success in school remains linked tightly to class. At a time when the country is increasingly integrated racially, the rich are isolating themselves more and more. At a time of extraordinary advances in medicine, class differences in health and lifespan are wide and appear to be widening.

Mobility is the promise that lies at the heart of the American dream…

There are poor and rich in the United States, of course, the argument goes; but as long as one can become the other, as long as there is something close to equality of opportunity, the differences between them do not add up to class barriers.

The trends are broad and seemingly contradictory: the blurring of the landscape of class and the simultaneous hardening of certain class lines; the rise in standards of living while most people remain moored in their relative places.

Even as mobility seems to have stagnated, the ranks of the elite are opening. Today, anyone may have a shot at becoming a United States Supreme Court justice or a CEO of a major corporation, and there are more and more self-made billionaires. Only 37 members of last year's Forbes 400, a list of the richest Americans, inherited their wealth, down from almost 200 in the mid-1980.

So it appears that while it is easier for a few high achievers to scale the summits of wealth, for many others it has become harder to move up from one economic class to another. Americans are arguably more likely than they were 30 years ago, to end up in the class into which they were born.

A paradox lies at the heart of this new American meritocracy.  Merit has replaced the old system of inherited privilege, in which parents to the manner they were born handed down the manor to their children.

But merit, it turns out, is at least partly class-based. Parents with money, education and connections cultivate in their children the habits that the meritocracy rewards. When their children then succeed, their success is seen as earned.

The scramble to scoop up a house in the best school district, channel a child into the right pre-school program or land the best medical specialist are all part of a quiet contest among social groups that the affluent and educated are winning in a rout.

In the USA, meritocracy does play a role. There is strong evidence of credentialism...having the proper credentials plus suitable training and work experience should automatically allow you to rise up the social class ladder─ especially if you have a strong independent initiative. Unfortunately, however, nepotism still plays a large role in getting jobs and in the social class system in general here in the USA. I'm talking about the "who you know" factor. You always hear that around's all about "who you know." How can somebody purely get a position based on who you know alone? This is why the American capitalist system is so screwed up, and also why people with only high school diplomas are in very well-paying jobs.

"The old system of hereditary barriers and clubby barriers has pretty much vanished," said Eric Wanner, president of the Russell Sage Foundation. In place of the old system, have arisen "new ways of transmitting advantage that are beginning to assert themselves."

For anyone concerned about the future of the American dream, Class Matters is truly essential reading.

"Class Matters is a beautifully reported, deeply disturbing, portrait of a society bent out of shape by harsh inequalities. Read it and see how you fit into the problem or―better yet―the solution!" 

Must watch…

Why Some Countries Are Poor and Others Rich

How to Make a Country Rich

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