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Social Class and Social Stratification

Stratification and Social Mobility

Types of Social Mobility

Social mobility is the movement of individuals or groups up or down the class ladder.

Social mobility is the movement of individuals and groups up and down within overall social structure and social hierarchy as a result of changes in wealth, income, job, or occupation. This includes upward mobility, moving to a higher social group from a lower social group, and downward mobility, moving to a lower social group from a higher social group.

One type of social mobility is intergenerational mobility, when one generation in a family moves to a different social position from another generation in the same family. For example, the children of the wave of immigrants who came to the United States from Southern and Western Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries went on to become better off economically than their parents. It took three generations for most families to enter the middle class—through the children of the second generation.

Intragenerational mobility is movement of individuals up or down the socioeconomic ladder over the course of their lives. For example, many people who start life in the middle class go on to work in middle-income jobs. In some fields, some of these middle-class, middle-income people can work their way up to top positions that give them very high incomes and greater social power. These people move from being middle class to being upper class over the course of their working life.

Structural mobility refers to how broad, macroeconomic trends affect movement on the class ladder. Upward structural mobility occurs when better-paying jobs become more widely available while lower-paying jobs decrease. After World War II the U.S. economy rapidly expanded because of industrialization and demand for consumer goods, and this resulted in an increase in the standard of living and upward structural mobility for most groups. In the first part of the 21st century, recessions and the outsourcing of jobs in an increasingly global economy led to downward structural mobility. Many Americans, especially those in the working class, have found their standard of living negatively impacted by globalization.

Mobility Myths

Mobility myths, cultural narratives about the possibility of upward mobility, do not recognize the presence of structural inequalities that serve as obstacles to social mobility in a society.

Social mobility is considered a hallmark of democratic, capitalist societies. Both democracy and capitalism are assumed to support meritocracy, a system that allows and encourages individuals to occupy social, professional, and political position based on intelligence, ability, and effort. However, structural inequalities such as racial and gender discrimination and the concentration of wealth and power among a small and insular elite can make social mobility extremely difficult for many groups. Sociologists study mobility myths, or widely accepted ideas about social mobility that contrast with the realistic possibilities for upward mobility in a society.

The American dream refers to the idea that the social and political systems of the United States provide all individuals with opportunities to become very successful or wealthy based on hard work and talent. Sociologists examine the concept of the American dream in American society and examine data in order to analyze how relevant or realistic this notion is. A belief that the United States is a country of unlimited opportunity for all people is rooted in America's colonial past and its patterns of expansion. The term American dream came into usage in the 1800s to refer to people who headed west to make their fortunes and to the new wave of European immigrants coming to the United States at that time. By the early 20th century the American dream was synonymous with the idea of upward social mobility. It continues to be a central thread in the American narrative, with many Americans and others believing that while there may be large disparities in income between the upper class and other classes in America, there is much more equality of economic opportunity in the United States than in any other country.

Sociologists look at data that reflect how and when social mobility truly occurs. For example, data show that in the late 19th century there was much greater social mobility in America than in Great Britain. On the other hand, sociologists note that most social mobility was experienced by white people, particularly white men. Furthermore, social mobility in the United States slowed down and stalled over the course of the 20th century but increased in Europe. As a result, social mobility is lower in the United States than in most of Europe. In the United States, the vast majority of people born into the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder never move into the middle class. Some of those born into the lowest rung move up slightly but still remain poor. Americans who are born into the middle class have slightly better chances of moving up into the highest economic level, but for the most part they remain middle class. Belief in the American dream, however, remains strong across most social groups in the United States. Sociologists investigate why that belief persists, what the American dream means to different people, and what data suggest about changes in social mobility over time.

Social Mobility and Inequality

Race, gender, marriage, and divorce affect individuals' ability to move up or down the class ladder.

In modern societies, people move up and down the class ladder based, first and foremost, on income. In the United States, upward income mobility is more common than downward income mobility. However, since the 1970s the distribution of income in the United States has become more and more unequal. Economic inequality is related to other factors, such as gender and race. For example, a 2017 report showed that median earnings of black American workers are about 75 percent of the median earnings of white Americans. Median black families own $1,700 in wealth, while median white families own $116,000 in wealth. Structural inequalities in the labor force over generations, rooted in racism and discrimination, created these gaps. Income inequality tied to race has increased in the United States despite advances in civil rights. Deindustrialization and globalization have led to fewer jobs in areas such as manufacturing—occupations that in the past provided a path to upward mobility for many individuals, including many people of color. Changes in the structure of the U.S. economy have impacted people of color disproportionately. It is important to note that the racial wealth gap began with slavery and continued with unequal access to education. This occurred through racial segregation of public schools, which was legal until 1954. Post–World War II policies such as the G.I. Bill of Rights, legislation that provided funding for veterans to attend college, were frequently extended to white Americans but not to people of color. The racial wealth gap is also tied to discriminatory laws around real estate ownership and real estate loans. Redlining, the practice of prohibiting people of color from buying or renting homes in certain areas, was widespread throughout the 20th century. This practice served to create ghettos, or neighborhoods with few resources that separated people of color from economic, educational, and other opportunities. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 helped to limit this practice to some extent. However, at the same time that people of color were denied many opportunities, white Americans benefited from government-backed home loans. Over time, the value of these homes rose significantly, allowing these families to amass wealth and pass it on to their children. This contributed to a trend of upward mobility, which began in the postwar era, across generations of white families.

Marital status also affects mobility. While the gender gap in earnings has shrunk since the mid-20th century, on average women still earn less than men over their lifetime. Women's median annual earnings are also less than men's. This means that single women are less prosperous than single men or married women (who gain wealth through marriage). With divorce, both members of a couple lose earnings and often experience downward mobility, but women are more likely than their ex-husbands to experience financial hardship and downward mobility after a divorce.