Class in the contemporary United States

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The contemporary United States has no legally-recognized social classes. Elites exist, but there is no universally recognized hierarchy of people. The absence of officially-recognized classes may reflect the desire of this society to become a market-oriented meritocracy, a reflection of belief in the "American dream" as well as traditional values of hard work, entrepreneurship, and individualism. It may also reflect the lack of a colonial peerage, the abolition of slavery and involuntary servitude, and the extension of universal suffrage.

In practice, however, there are de facto social classes in the United States; this phenemonon is sometimes called "emergent elitism". Most likely, these social classes result from massive disparities in access to wealth, income, social access, and influence, as well as the tendency for people to associate with people of comparable social capital and financial means. Class is usually correlated strictly to ownership of productive, financial, cultural, social and human capital. For this reason, social class is often called socioeconomic status because of this inextricable connection. The connection is bidirectional, that is:

Capital begets class, because people with unusual amounts of capital are often sought by others and can make transactions on terms that are favorable to them. Unlike in some European societies where "upper class" is tied to nobility, capital can usually buy access to some, but not all, of the "upper class" elites. Generational social mobility is also pronounced; the children and grandchildren of "self-made" wealthy people may have additional social access that the initial generators of wealth did not, due to the stigma some associate with nouveau riche status.
Class begets capital, because individuals with social capital can often access other forms of capital more easily than others.

Class is reinforced by class traits, or characteristics of speech and behavior that signify a person's class. "Class ascendants", or social climbers, frequently attempt to emulate class traits of people in higher social classes. See snob for further discussion of this phenomenon.


Five-class model

Exact class lines are difficult, if not impossible, for outsiders to draw, and there is no agreement on precisely where they lie. Some argue that class is more of a continuum than a phenomenon of discrete categories. For many individuals, social class is more a matter of self-identification in terms of how the person views his or her relationship to society, particularly along the most fuzzy borders, like that between "middle class" and "upper-middle class". Sociological models depict society as having as few as two or as many as nine social classes, with the admission of "fuzziness" at the interfaces of classes. Most Americans, when asked, describe themselves as some variant of "middle class". Many sociologists, and popular sociology, use a five-class model, which includes:

  • An upper class consisting of multiple elites. Membership in one elite may or may not connote membership in another. Extreme wealth, a notable name or accomplishment, or celebrity will usually bring an individual into this class, although most enjoy membership as a legacy of inherited wealth or familial prominence. The American upper class sustains itself, and secures continued advantage, through social connections and networking rather than hard work. However, there is debate as to what portion of the upper class attains position through social means and what portion earns it through work. Since there is almost no downward mobility for the upper class, work is not necessary for a person to maintain upper-class status, but many do work hard, in business or for charitable causes, of their own volition (see: noblesse oblige). Therefore the stereotype of upper-class people as lazy is not categorically true. The lack of downward mobility for the "entrenched" elites does not imply that class barriers are bidirectionally rigid: upward mobility into the upper-class is rare but possible (though usually contingent upon the approval of other upper-class individuals, such as donors to political campaigns or providers of media access.) For example, Bill Clinton and Andrew Carnegie are examples of Americans who started out in poverty, yet rose to upper-class status. Bill Gates, now the richest man alive, was born into an upper-middle class background.
  • A middle class divided into three subcategories:
    • A largely professional upper-middle class. Individuals within this class rarely have the elite social privileges lavished upon the upper-class, but normally have access to high-quality education. Individuals within this class typically make between $75,000 and $200,000 per year, though individuals with smaller incomes but valuable cultural capital (such as graduate and professional students) are sometimes included, as would be a well-to-do "stay-at-home" homemaker who declines occupational work by choice. Since class has as much to do with occupational prestige and lifestyle as with salary, highly-compensated blue collar workers are usually not considered "upper-middle class".
    • A "middle-middle" class that, some evidence indicates, is decreasing in number. Corporate downsizing and the loss of manufacturing jobs has eliminated many of the skilled unionized jobs that provide membership within this class. As a result, many individuals within this group have drifted either into more skilled work, in the professional sectors (upper-middle class) or have fallen downward into the service sectors (lower-middle class). The state of the economy at a given time depends which trend is more prevalent; during strong economies, laid-off people are more likely to be better- than worse-off in subsequent jobs. During weak economies, the opposite is true.
    • A lower-middle class, or "working poor". These individuals usually have very limited personal capital, and their occupational and educational skills are normally restricted to one type of work. Largely working in semi-skilled or unskilled service jobs, individuals within this social class often face varying hours, unpleasant occupational environments, and impersonal supervisors. Without higher education, they have very little social mobility— about 1/3 as much as those in Scandinavian social democracies like Sweden. By global standards, some of these individuals might be considered materially privileged, but they suffer from the same subjective ailments (low self-esteem, stress and high depression rates) experienced by the poor of other societies. The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, by Barry Schwartz, might explain this: material plenty has only a small effect of subjective happiness, while perceived low status leads frequently to a higher likelihood of depression, anxiety, poor self-image, and bad health. (However, these ailments affect some individuals in every social class, and therefore in many cases cannot be attributed to sociological causes.)
  • A lower class of often impoverished and desperate individuals. Crime and hunger are daily threats for them, and illiteracy, homelessness (most U.S. job applications require that the applicant provide a home address) and, in some cases, previous criminal records ensure that their chances of securing work remain low.

Class delineations are sometimes considered artificial—formal class membership does not exist, and people rarely think of themselves, in any meaningful way, as members of a specific class. Furthermore, a person's social class may change throughout his or her life. Social classes, therefore, are more often used in aggregate sociological depictions than they are applied to individual people. While people may maintain ties to specific families, social or ethnic groups, and institutions, it is rare for a person to have meaningful ties to a social class.

When asked to identify themselves with a social class, 90 to 95 percent identify as some shade of "middle class". Whether or not this is sociologically accurate is a matter of debate, since there are a number of models of America's class structure, each with a different definition of "middle class".

Middle class divisions

Some dispute the divisions within the middle class as specifically class distinctions so much as lifestyle disparaties resultant from the large range of income levels classified as "middle class". It's true that "upper-middle" and "lower-middle" class individuals live dramatically different economic lives, but class requires a specific type of sociological barrier. Class barriers are usually considered almost impossible to cross, except by attaining the favor of people within higher classes, or losing the favor of those within one's social class. The barrier between the lower and lower-middle classes, as well as that between the upper-middle and upper classes, is generally considered more rigid than any barrier separating the middle classes.

Class in terms of relation to the labor market

The lower class is often considered under-invested; they have human potential, but little personal capital. Poor family and educational environments exacerbate these problems, placing these individuals at emotional and academic disadvantages from which some never recover. These individuals frequently work in part-time or secondary labor, and face extreme difficulty in attaining the sort of stable, well-paying job that is necessary for a functioning economic life.

The middle classes are sometimes considered to be under-valued, since their compensation is usually tied to market value of their labor. This market value is determined by Bertrand competition among workers more often than the productive value of their labor (which is a rarely-met upper bound of compensation). If a strictly profit-maximizing firm can hire these people for compensation below their productive value, it will.

Self-employed or otherwise independent middle-class individuals— such as small business owners and independent consultants — are not under-valued in this traditional sense. However, frequently they lack the social privileges (such as publicity, access to influential people) available to wealthier competitors— upper-class individuals and large firms. These access privileges are not distributed according to merit; if it were, middle-class individuals would definitely have more of them. It is in this way that this group of people is often considered under-valued.

Most individuals within the upper classes are over-valued, at least in strict mathematical terms when one compares their productive worth to their compensation. Often by more than an order of magnitude their salaries and compensation exceed what would be the market-value of their work were their privileged occupational positions opened to middle-class individuals, many of whom, by all accounts, would be competent to manage them. Through social connections and "sweetheart" deals these individuals often secure positions of considerable compensation and influence that are rarely open to the general public, and benefit from salaries that some consider excessive. Socially, they may have public access comparable to that of celebrities.

Class and political leaning

The traditional assumption of political theorists has been that upper-class individuals will tend to be more conservative while lower-class individuals are more liberal. In the early 21st century, there is evidence that this correlation has reversed: upper-class individuals may be more likely to be liberal or leftist in their politics. This is probably not true, since the conservative Republican Party (United States) contains a larger majority of upper-class individuals than the liberal Democratic Party (United States). There are possible several reasons for this reversal:

  • Wealthier people may be more cosmopolitan, and therefore exposed to more liberal, urban environments.
  • Wealthier people tend to be more able to afford formal education, which correlates with liberal-to-left politics. Some allege that this is due to systemic bias within academia: repeated polls of university professors show that, even in traditionally "conservative" disciplines like economics, members of "left" parties ( Democrats, Greens, etc.) outnumber members of "right" parties by anywhere between 3:1 and 25:1, depending on the discipline.
  • Upper-middle class people have developed leftist tendencies out of a fear of "middle-class squeeze".

"Middle-class squeeze": does it exist?

Some observers of American society have raised the issue of "middle-class squeeze", or downward mobility within the middle class, possibly into lower-class status. While this "squeeze" is a relatively new phrase, the issue is not unique to 21st century America— similar anxieties are discussed in Barbara Ehrenreich's Fear of Falling. "Middle-class squeeze" is, at least, a real anxiety among middle- and upper-middle class Americans, particularly in the so-called generation X. To what extent it is a reality remains unclear. The progress of any society at any time is always multi-faceted and complex— in some ways, conditions will be improving, and in others, they will be worsening.

Cost of living

"Middle-class squeeze" refers a multitude of issues related to facing the middle-class, some fear, will constrict the middle-class, even knocking people out of the upper-middle and middle classes. Most prominent among these issues are cost-of-living issues (including healthcare and housing costs), unemployment, especially among the young, and quality-of-life issues ( work hours, mandated vacation).

The salary of the median American has increased during the 2000s, but healthcare, housing, and education costs have, by all measures, outpaced these salary increases. Low inflation as defined by the consumer price index has been offset by cultural inflation resulting from recent growth in technology. For example, Internet access, which few people had in 1983 (the base year of the CPI) now has the status of a virtual necessity for middle-class life: students need Internet access to complete schoolwork. However, it is difficult to determine when cultural inflation is a real structural problem, and when it is merely psychological (in that people feel poorer on account of others' comparative material success.) For example, the necessity of automobile ownership in most of non-urban America has made the actual cost of living greater in the past century, and this is what one might consider "real" cultural inflation. On the other hand, the proliferation of new recreational electronic goods (game consoles, stereos, etc.) does not constitute the same sort of cultural inflation since these are not necessary goods. Rather, this is an aspect of the undebated "rising tide" in technology and technological access over the most recent decades.


Primary and secondary education, for twelve years, are free in the United States, funded locally via property taxes. In the United States, the free state-run schools are known as public schools (the term is not used to describe private academies, as in other English-speaking countries.) These vary widely in quality: many public schools are excellent and exceed even the elite private academies in educational performance; others are terrible and fail even to teach basic literacy and numeracy. In some locations (for example, New Orleans) the public schools are considered so poor in quality that most middle-class residents send their children to private or religious schools. In other areas, public schools are of such high quality that few people even attend private schools. Because the public schools are funded by local property taxes, public schools tend to be better in wealthy suburban areas, but poor urban schools sometimes excel under excellent leadership. The quality of a person's primary and secondary schooling has a major influence on future economic fortune, since a strong secondary program will also increase the likelihood of admission to a high-quality university.

"Higher education", or tertiary education, is required for almost all middle-class professions, especially as technological advances has made even most traditionally "mechanical" (such as automotive repair) or clerical trades require advanced knowledge. Tertiary education is rarely free, but the costs vary widely: tuition at elite private colleges often exceeds $120,000 for a four-year program. On the other hand, the University of California schools are almost free for state residents, and many rival the elite private schools in reputation and quality. Also, scholarships offered by universities and government do exist, and low-interest loans are available. Still, the average cost of education, by all accounts, is skyrocketing. In addition, in terms of class-access, most academic degrees are considered to have devalued by about four years since the mid-20th century; this makes education, for the purpose of maintaining or acquiring social class, ennormously more expensive.

"Squeeze" as a crisis

Some political theorists who accept the existence of "middle-class squeeze" believe that it represents a societal crisis. Correlating socioeconomic status with the political spectrum, they equate middle-class social status with political moderation. This correlation has a valid logical basis— middle-class individuals have some capital and, thus, stake in a stable society, but also have aspirations that would prevent them from being resistant to change. According to this theory, the disappearance of a middle class would lead to a "collapse of the center" that would result in societal schism, class warfare, or even violent revolution.

Furthermore, many middle-class people in the United States have high aspirations with regard to education, personal growth, financial success and accomplishment. (See: American dream.) Ambitious middle-class individuals are also, sometimes, the initators and leaders of rebellions, revolting against society when their ambitions are frustrated by a constricting society. Some theorists, who accept believe that widespread frustration of middle-class ambitions may lead to massive societal upheaval in the United States, though the probability of a violent revolution is generally considered extremely low; a peaceful conflict is more likely. Furthermore, the individuals most likely to precipitate such a "conflict" tend to hold negative views of corporations, but neutral to positive views of government, especially at the grassroots level. More likely scenarios involve a "subtle conflict" wherein educated middle-class individuals, as well as wealthy leftists, infiltrate government and the NGO sector, then enact policies that place quality of life, equality, sustainability, and human and civil rights at higher priorities than property rights, resulting in dramatic changes in society. Some believe that this is already happening in Canada and the European Union nations.

Class ascendancy

Class ascendancy is a central theme in American literature and culture, though not unique to the United States. The "American dream" is an ideal of continued material progress across a human life and generations. This may entail a "rising tide" improvement of the general standard of living throughout the nation, and may also entail class ascendancy.

Because of its complete absence of officialized class distinctions, most Americans believe that anyone can reach the upper echelons of society. A large proportion of Americans expect to be wealthy in the future; if, however, American society maintains its current shape, mathematical fact has it that a vast majority of them will be disappointed.

American desires for class ascendancy reflect aspirations exactly opposite to the purported reality of middle-class squeeze. This is another reason why some political and social theorists predict massive societal upheaval in the 2000s or 2010s. In what some consider paradoxical, though, the political culture of the United States remains predominantly conservative— despite Democratic hopes for high liberal voter turnout, President Bush was re-elected by a small margin.

Fussell's system

Paul Fussell lists nine classes in America:

  • Top out-of-sight: the super-rich, heirs to huge fortunes
  • Upper Class: rich celebrities and people who can afford full-time domestic staff
  • Upper-Middle Class: self-made well-educated professionals
  • Middle Class: office workers
  • High Prole: skilled blue-collar workers
  • Mid Prole: workers in factories and the service industry
  • Low Prole: manual laborers
  • Destitute: the homeless
  • Bottom out-of-sight: those incarcerated in prisons and institutions

For Fussell, class is more about culture and lifestyle than income bracket. For instance, people in his "High Prole" class may sometimes make more money than others in his "Middle Class", but they will spend it quite differently.



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