Unformatted text preview: 9/6/2020 The Class Structure in the U.S. | Boundless Sociology Boundless Sociology
Strati cation, Inequality, and Social Class in the U.S. The Class Structure in the U.S. 1/21 9/6/2020 The Class Structure in the U.S. | Boundless Sociology Class Structure in the U.S.
American society is strati ed into social classes based on wealth,
income, educational attainment, occupation, and social networks. LEARNING OBJECTIVES Discuss America’s class structure and its relation to the
concept of the “American Dream” KEY TAKEAWAYS Key Points There are competing models for thinking about social
classes in the U.S. — most Americans recognize a threetier structure that includes the upper, middle, and lower
classes, but variations delineate an upper-middle class
and a working class.
High income earners likely are substantially educated,
have high- status occupations, and maintain powerful
According to the “American Dream,” American society is
meritocratic and class is achievement-based. In other
words, one’s membership in a particular social class is
based on educational and career accomplishments.
Key Terms 2/21 9/6/2020 The Class Structure in the U.S. | Boundless Sociology social network: The web of a person’s social, family, and business contacts, who provide material and social
resources and opportunities.
The American Dream: The belief that with hard work, courage, and determination, anyone can prosper and
Corporate Elite: A class of high-salaried stockholders, such as corporate CEOs, who do not necessarily have
inherited privilege but have achieved high status
through their careers. Most social scientists in the U.S. agree that society is strati ed into social
classes. Social classes are hierarchical groupings of individuals that are
usually based on wealth, educational attainment, occupation, income, or
membership in a subculture or social network. Social class in the United
States is a controversial issue, having many competing de nitions,
models, and even disagreements over its very existence. Many
Americans recognize a simple three-tier model that includes the upper
class, the middle class, and the lower or working class. Some social
scientists have proposed more complex models that may include as
many as a dozen class levels. Meanwhile, some scholars deny the very
existence of discrete social classes in American society. In spite of
debate, most social scientists do agree that in the U.S. people are
hierarchically ranked in a social class structure. Models of U.S. Social Classes
A team of sociologists recently posited that there are six social classes in
America. In this model, the upper class (3% of the population ) is divided
into upper-upper class (1% of the U.S. population, earning hundreds of
millions to billions per year) and the lower-upper class (2%, earning
millions per year). The middle class (40%) is divided into upper-middle
class (14%, earning $76,000 or more per year) and the lower-middle
class (26%, earning $46,000 to $75,000 per year). The working class
(30%) earns $19,000 to $45,000 per year. The lower class (27%) is
divided into working poor (13%, earning $9000 to 18,000 per year) and
underclass (14%, earning under $9000 per year). This model has gained 3/21 9/6/2020 The Class Structure in the U.S. | Boundless Sociology traction as a tool for thinking about social classes in America, but it does
not fully account for variations in status based on non-economic factors,
such as education and occupational prestige. This critique is somewhat
mitigated by the fact that income is often closely aligned with other
indicators of status; for example, those with high incomes likely have
substantial education, high status occupations, and powerful social
A commonly used model for
thinking about social classes in
the U.S. attributes the following
general characteristics to each
tier: the upper class has vast
accumulated wealth and
signi cant control over
corporations and political
institutions, and their privilege is
usually inherited; the corporate
elite consists of high-salaried
stockholders, such as corporate
CEOs, who did not necessarily
inherit privilege but have
achieved high status through
their careers; the upper-middle United States Social Classes: While
social scientists o er competing
models of class structure, most
agree that society is strati ed by
occupation, income, and educational
attainment. class consists of highly educated
salaried professionals whose
occupations are held in high esteem, such as lawyers, engineers, and
professors; the middle class (the most vaguely de ned and largest social
class) is generally thought to include people in mid-level managerial
positions or relatively low status professional positions, such as high
school teachers and small business owners; the working class generally
refers to those without college degrees who do low level service work,
such as working as a sales clerk or housekeeper, and includes most
people whose incomes fall below the poverty line. In the above outline of
social class, status clearly depends not only on income, but also
occupational prestige and educational attainment. Debates over the Existence and Signi cance of U.S. Social
Classes 4/21 9/6/2020 The Class Structure in the U.S. | Boundless Sociology According to the “American Dream,” American society is meritocratic and
class is achievement-based. In other words, membership in a particular
social class is based on educational and career accomplishments. Many
sociologists dispute the existence of such class mobility and point to the
ways in which social class is inherited. For example, a son or daughter of
a wealthy individual may carry a higher status and di erent cultural
connotations than a member of the nouveau riche (“new money”).
Likewise, being born into a particular social class may confer advantages
or disadvantages that increase the likelihood that an adult will remain in
the social class into which they were born.
Social theorists who dispute the existence of social classes in the U.S.
tend to argue that society is strati ed along a continuous gradation,
rather than into delineated categories. In other words, there is inequality
in America, with some people attaining higher status and higher
standards of living than others. But there is no clear place to draw a line
separating one status group from the next. Whether one ascribes to the
view that classes are discrete groups or levels along a continuum, it is
important to remember that all social classes in the United States, except
the upper class, consist of tens of millions of people. Thus social classes
form social groups so large that they feature considerable internal
diversity and any statement regarding a given social class’ culture should
be seen as a broad generalization. The Upper Class
The American upper class is the highest socioeconomic bracket in the
social hierarchy and is de ned by its members’ great wealth and power. LEARNING OBJECTIVES Discuss the most important characteristics of the upper class in
the U.S. 5/21 9/6/2020 The Class Structure in the U.S. | Boundless Sociology KEY TAKEAWAYS Key Points Members of the upper class accumulate wealth through
investments and capital gains, rather than through annual salaries.
Households with net worths of $1 million or more may
be identi ed as members of the upper-most socioeconomic demographic, depending on the class model
Sociologist Leonard Beeghley asserts that all households with a net worth of $1 million or more are considered “rich. ” He divides the rich into two sub- groups:
the rich and the super-rich.
Key Terms investment: The expenditure of capital in expectation of deriving income or pro t from its use.
capital gain: An increase in the value of a capital asset, such as stock or real estate. The American upper class refers to the “top layer,” or highest
socioeconomic bracket, of society in the United States. This social class
is most commonly described as those with great wealth and power, and
may also be referred to as the capitalist class, or simply as “the rich. ”
People in this class commonly have immense in uence in the nation’s
political and economic institutions as well as in the media.
Many politicians, heirs to fortunes, top business executives such as
CEOs, successful venture capitalists, and celebrities are considered
members of the upper class. Some prominent and high-rung
professionals may also be included if they attain great in uence and
wealth. The main distinguishing feature of this class is their source of
income. While the vast majority of people and households derive their 6/21 9/6/2020 The Class Structure in the U.S. | Boundless Sociology income from salaries, those in the upper class derive their income
primarily from investments and capital gains.
Households with a net worth of $1 million or more may be identi ed as
members of the upper-most socioeconomic demographic, depending on
the class model used. While most contemporary sociologists estimate
that only 1% of households are members of the upper class, sociologist
Leonard Beeghley asserts that all households with a net worth of $1
million or more are considered “rich. ” He divides the rich into two subgroups: the rich and the super-rich. The rich constitute roughly 5% of U.S.
households and their wealth is largely in the form of home equity. Other
contemporary sociologists, such as Dennis Gilbert, argue that this group
is not part of the upper class but rather part of the upper middle class, as
its standard of living is largely derived from occupation-generated
income and its a uence falls far short of that attained by the top
percentile. The super-rich, according to Beeghley, are those able to live
o their wealth without depending on occupation-derived income. This
demographic constitutes roughly 0.9% of American households.
Beeghley’s de nition of the super-rich is congruent with the de nition of
upper class employed by most other sociologists. The top.01% of the
population, with an annual income of $9.5 million or more, received 5%
of the income of the United States in 2007. These 15,000 families have
been characterized as the “richest of the rich. ” The Upper Middle Class
The upper-middle class refers to people within the middle class that
have high educational attainment, high salaries, and high status jobs. LEARNING OBJECTIVES Identify the central characteristics of the upper-middle class in
the U.S. 7/21 9/6/2020 The Class Structure in the U.S. | Boundless Sociology KEY TAKEAWAYS Key Points Members of the upper-middle class have substantially
less wealth and prestige than the upper class, but a
higher standard of living than the lower-middle class or
The U.S. upper-middle class consists mostly of whitecollar professionals who have a high degree of autonomy in their work. The most common professions of the
upper-middle class tend to center on conceptualizing,
consulting, and instruction.
In addition to having autonomy in their work, above-average incomes, and advanced educations, the upper
middle class also tends to be powerful; members are inuential in setting trends and shaping public opinion.
Key Terms educational attainment: Educational attainment is a term commonly used by statisticians to refer to the highest degree of education an individual has completed.
salaried professionals: White-collar employees whose work is largely self-directed and is compensated with an
annual salary, rather than an hourly wage. Sociologists use the term “upper-middle class” to refer to the social
group consisting of higher-status members of the middle class. This is in
contrast to the term “lower-middle class,” which is used for the group at
the opposite end of the middle class stratum, and to the broader term
“middle class. ” There is considerable debate as to how to de ne the
upper-middle class. According to the rubric laid out by sociologist Max
Weber, the upper-middle class consists of well-educated professionals
with graduate degrees and comfortable incomes. 8/21 9/6/2020 The Class Structure in the U.S. | Boundless Sociology In 1951, sociologist C. Wright Mills conducted one of rst major studies of
the middle class in America. According to his de nition, the middle class
consists of an upper-middle class, made up of professionals
distinguished by exceptionally high educational attainment and high
economic security; and a lower-middle class, consisting of semiprofessionals. While the groups overlap, di erences between those at
the center of both groups are considerable.
Among modern sociologists, the American upper-middle class is de ned
using income, education, and occupation as primary indicators. There is
some debate over what exactly the term “upper-middle class” means,
but in academic models, the term generally applies to highly educated,
salaried professionals whose work is largely self-directed. The U.S.
upper-middle class consists mostly of white-collar professionals who
have a high degree of autonomy in their work. The most common
professions of the upper-middle class tend to center on conceptualizing,
consulting, and instruction. They include such occupations as lawyer,
physician, dentist, engineer, professor, architect, civil service executive,
and civilian contractor. Many members of the upper-middle class have
graduate degrees, such as law, business, or medical degrees, which are
often required for professional occupations. Educational attainment is a
distinguishing feature of the upper-middle class. Additionally, household
incomes in the upper-middle class commonly exceed $100,000, with
some smaller one-income earners earning incomes in the high 5- gure
In addition to autonomy in their work, above-average incomes, and
advanced educations, the upper middle class also tends to be powerful;
members are in uential in setting trends and shaping public opinion.
Moreover, members of the upper-middle class are generally more
economically secure than their lower-middle class counterparts. Holding
advanced degrees and high status in corporations and institutions tends
to insulate the upper-middle class from economic downturns. Members
of this class are likely to be in the top income quintile, or the top 20% of
the economic hierarchy. 9/21 9/6/2020 The Class Structure in the U.S. | Boundless Sociology University Campus: Advanced education is one of the most distinguishing
features of the upper-middle class. The Lower Middle Class
The lower-middle class are those with some education and comfortable
salaries, but with socioeconomic statuses below the upper-middle class. LEARNING OBJECTIVES Discuss the di erences between the lower and upper-middle
class KEY TAKEAWAYS Key Points 10/21 9/6/2020 The Class Structure in the U.S. | Boundless Sociology The lower-middle class, also sometimes simply referred
to as “middle class,” includes roughly one third of U.S.
households, and is thought to be growing.
Individuals in the lower-middle class tend to hold low
status professional or white collar jobs, such as school
teacher, nurse, or paralegal.
The lower-middle class is among the largest social
classes, rivaled only by the working class, and it is
thought to be growing.
Key Terms college education: Education beyond secondary school, usually culminating in a bachelor’s degree and
serving as a necessary credential for middle class
White Collar: Describes a person who performs profes- sional, managerial, or administrative work for a salary.
professional: A person whose occupation is highly skilled, salaried, and requires high educational
attainment. In developed nations across the world, the lower-middle class is a subdivision of the middle class that refers to households and individuals who
are somewhat educated and usually stably employed, but who have not
attained the education, occupational prestige, or income of the uppermiddle class.
In American society, the middle class is often divided into the lowermiddle class and upper-middle class. The lower-middle class (also
sometimes simply referred to as the middle class) consists of roughly
one third of households—it is roughly twice as large as the upper-middle
and upper classes. Lower-middle class individuals commonly have some
college education or a bachelor’s degree and earn a comfortable living.
The lower-middle class is among the largest social classes, rivaled only
by the working class, and it is thought to be growing. 11/21 9/6/2020 The Class Structure in the U.S. | Boundless Sociology Individuals in the lower-middle class tend to hold low status professional
or white collar jobs, such as school teacher, nurse, or paralegal. These
types of occupations usually require some education but generally do
not require a graduate degree. Lower-middle class occupations usually
provide comfortable salaries, but put individuals beneath the top third of
incomes. Elementary School Teacher: Primary school teachers are generally
considered lower-middle class. They usually hold college degrees, but often
do not hold graduate degrees; they make comfortable incomes, but have
low accumulated wealth; their work is largely self-directed, but is not high
status. According to some class models the lower middle class is located
roughly between the 52nd and 84th percentile of society. In terms of
personal income distribution in 2005, that would mean gross annual
personal incomes from about $32,500 to $60,000. Since 42% of all
households had two income earners, with the majority of those in the top
40% of gross income, household income gures would be signi cantly
higher, ranging from roughly $50,000 to $100,000 annually. In terms of
educational attainment, 27% of persons had a bachelor’s degree or
higher. If the upper middle and upper class combined are to constitute 12/21 9/6/2020 The Class Structure in the U.S. | Boundless Sociology 16% of the population, it becomes clear that some of those in the lower
middle class boast college degrees or some college education. The Working Class
The working class consists of individuals and households with low
educational attainment, low status occupations, and below average
incomes. LEARNING OBJECTIVES Explain how di erences in class culture may a ect workingclass students who enter the post-secondary education system KEY TAKEAWAYS Key Points Members of the working class usually have a high
school diploma or some college education, and may
work in low-skilled occupations like retail sales or manual labor.
Due to di erences between middle and working-class
cultures, working-class college students may face “culture shock” upon entering the post-secondary education system, with its “middle class” culture.
Working classes are mainly found in industrialized
economies and in the urban areas of non-industrialized
Key Terms working class: The social class of those who perform physical or low-skilled work for a living, as opposed to 13/21 9/6/2020 The Class Structure in the U.S. | Boundless Sociology the professional or middle class, the upper class, or the
upper middle class.
Blue Collar: Describes working-class occupations, espe- cially those involving manual labor.
manual labor: Any work done by hand; usually implying it is unskilled or physically demanding. Working class is a term used in the social sciences and in ordinary
conversation to describe those employed in lower tier jobs (as measured
by skill, education, and income), often extending to those who are
unemployed or otherwise earning below-average incomes. Working
classes are mainly found in industrialized economies and in the urban
areas of non-industrialized economies.
In the United States, the parameters of the working class remain vaguely
de ned and are contentious. Since many members of the working class,
as de ned by academic models, are often identi ed in the vernacular as
being middle class, there is considerable ambiguity over the term’s
meaning. In the...
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