# The Class Structure in the U.S.

## Class Structure in the U.S.

American society is stratified 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 three-tier 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 social networks.
• 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

• 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 achieve success.
• 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 stratified 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 definitions, 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.

## 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.

### 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 working class.
• 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.
• 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 influential 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 define 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.

In 1951, sociologist C. Wright Mills conducted one of first major studies of the middle class in America. According to his definition, 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 semi-professionals. While the groups overlap, differences between those at the center of both groups are considerable.

## 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 differences in class culture may affect working-class 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 differences 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 economies.

#### Key Terms

• working class: The social class of those who perform physical or low-skilled work for a living, as opposed to the professional or middle class, the upper class, or the upper middle class.
• Blue Collar: Describes working-class occupations, especially 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 defined and are contentious. Since many members of the working class, as defined by academic models, are often identified in the vernacular as being middle class, there is considerable ambiguity over the term's meaning. In the class models devised by sociologists, the working class comprises between 30 percent and 35 percent of the population, roughly the same percentage as the lower middle class. Those in the working class are commonly employed in low-skilled occupations, including clerical and retail positions and blue collar or manual labor occupations. Low-level, white-collar employees are sometimes included in this class, such as secretaries and call center employees.

Education, for example, can pose an especially intransigent barrier in the United States. Members of the working class commonly have only a high school diploma, although some may have minimal college courses to their credit as well. Due to differences 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. Research showing that working-class students are taught to value obedience over leadership and creativity can partially account for the difficulties that many working-class individuals face upon entering colleges and universities.

Battle Strike: Class War: Workers battle with the police during the Minneapolis Teamsters Strike of 1934.

## The Lower Class

The lower class consists of those at the bottom of the socioeconomic hierarchy who have low education, low income, and low status jobs.

### Learning Objectives

Differentiate between the terms "lower class," "working poor," and "underclass"

### Key Takeaways

#### Key Points

• Low educational attainment and disabilities are two of the main reasons individuals can either struggle to find work or fall into the lower class.
• Generally, the term lower class describes individuals working easily-filled employment positions. These positions typically have little prestige or economic compensation, and do not require workers to have a high school education.
• Lower class households are at the greatest risk of falling below the poverty line if a job holder suddenly becomes unemployed.

#### Key Terms

• Poverty line: This is the threshold of poverty used by the U.S. Census Bureau to define the minimum income one must earn to meet basic material needs.
• public assistance: the various forms of material aid provided by the government to those who are in need
• underclass: the poorest class of people in a given society
• manual labor: Any work done by hand; usually implying it is unskilled or physically demanding.

### Defining the Lower Class

The lower class in the United States refers to individuals who are at, or near, the lower end of the socioeconomic hierarchy. As with all social classes in the United States, the lower class is loosely defined, and its boundaries and definitions are subject to debate. When used by social scientists, the lower class is typically defined as service employees, low-level manual laborers, and the unemployed. Those who are employed in lower class occupations are often colloquially referred to as the working poor. Those who do not participate in the labor force, and who rely on public assistance, such as food stamps and welfare checks, as their main source of income, are commonly identified as members of the underclass, or, colloquially, the poor. Generally, lower class individuals work easily-filled employment positions that have little prestige or economic compensation. These individuals often lack a high school education.

### Unemployment and the Poverty Line

A number of things can cause an individual to become unemployed. Two of the most common causes are low educational attainment and disabilities, the latter of which includes both physical and mental ailments that preclude educational or occupational success. The poverty line is defined as the income level at which an individual becomes eligible for public assistance. While only about 12% of households fall below the poverty threshold at one point in time, the total percentage of households that will, at some point during the course of a single year, fall below the poverty line, is much higher. Many such households waver above and below the line throughout a single year. Lower class households are at the greatest risk of falling below this poverty line, particularly if a job holder becomes unemployed. For all of these reasons, lower class households are the most economically vulnerable in the United States.

Gilbert Model: This is a model of the socio-economic stratification of American society, as outlined by Dennis Gilbert.

## Income Distribution

The United States has a high level of income inequality, with a wide gap between the top and bottom brackets of earners.

### Learning Objectives

Explain the development of income distribution in the US since the 1970's and what is meant by the "Great Divergence"

### Key Takeaways

#### Key Points

• Since the 1970s, inequality has increased dramatically in the United States.
• Different groups get different compensation for the same work. The discrepancy in wages between males and females is called the " gender wage gap," and the discrepancy between whites and minorities is called the "racial wage gap".
• While earnings from capital and investment are still a significant cause of inequality, income is increasingly segregated by occupation as well. Of earners, 60% in the top 0.1% are executives, managers, supervisors, and financial professionals.

#### Key Terms

• Race Wage Gap: The difference in earnings between racial or ethnic groups.
• Gender Wage Gap: The difference between male and female earnings expressed as a percentage of male earnings.
• great divergence: Refers to the growth of economic inequality in America since the 1970s.

Income Distribution by Education: This graph illustrates the unequal distribution of income between groups with different levels of educational attainment. Education is an indicator of class position, meaning that unequal distribution of income by education points to inequality between the classes.

Unequal distribution of income between genders, races, and the population, in general, in the United States has been the frequent subject of study by scholars and institutions. Inequality between male and female workers, called the "gender wage gap," has decreased considerably over the last several decades. During the same time, inequality between black and white Americans, sometimes called the "race wage gap," has stagnated, not improving but not getting worse. Nevertheless, data from a number of sources indicate that overall income inequality in the United States has grown significantly since the late 1970s, widening the gap between the country's rich and poor.

A number of studies by the U.S. Department of Commerce, Congressional Budget Office (CBO), and Internal Revenue Service (IRS) have found that the distribution of income in the United States has become increasingly unequal since the 1970s. Economist Paul Krugman and journalist Timothy Noah have referred to this trend as the "Great Divergence." Since the 1970s, income inequality has grown almost continuously, with the exceptions being during the economic recessions in 1990-91, 2001, and 2007. The Great Divergence differs in some ways from the pre-Depression era inequality observed in the early 1900s (the last period of great inequality). Before 1937, a larger share of top earners' income came from capital (interest, dividends, income from rent, capital gains). Post-1970, a higher proportion of the income of high-income taxpayers comes predominantly from employment compensation–60% of earners in the top 0.1% are executives, managers, supervisors, and financial professionals, and the five most common professions among the top 1% of earners are managers, physicians, administrators, lawyers, and financial specialists. Still, much of the richest Americans' accumulated wealth is in the form of stocks and real estate.