Social Class And Inequality
Social class is one of the more interesting concepts in sociology, in part because it is dependent upon circumstances. Social class has to do with standard of living, income, educational access, health care, and a number of other measurable factors, but, since these factors vary from country to country, and even from region to region within a single country, social class is a variable concept. Society generally thinks in terms of three social classes: upper class, middle class, and lower class. However, this three-class view of social class is somewhat limited. The upper class contains high-income people, but also includes those people in the wealthiest 1% and there is a tremendous difference in power between those groups. Likewise, the middle class includes both the lower middle class and the truly middle class, but the lower middle class, which is sometimes referred to as the working class or even the working poor, despite the fact the experiences of people in these groups are very different.
One of the most interesting things about social class is that it is not as much about the wealth that people have, but actually about the power that they can exert as a result of that wealth. This power transforms wealth into a hierarchy, so that a lower class person is defined, by the outward society, not only as a person with fewer financial resources, but also a person who is of lower personal merit. In many ways this view is dismissively reductive of human beings, but, in other ways the view simply acknowledges that reality of the power linked to wealth. The wealthier people are, the greater their access to medical care, education, and social networks. All of this means that wealthier people not only have a greater portion of wealth, but also that they have a greater portion of the opportunity to earn additional wealth. This paper will focus on social class and how social class relates to the inequality that pervades modern American society
Defining Social Class
Social class can be approached in both relational and gradational/distributal ways. The gradational approach to social class focuses on the wealth and income and defines social class solely by the amount of wealth people possess. This gradational approach is very familiar to Americans, who are used to thinking about poverty as having an income below a certain set amount and who have been conditioned to think of the upper-class as people earning $250,000 or more per year, if only because that figure was mentioned frequently in the past election. However, others believe that social class is not only about wealth, but also about other important factors including cultural and political status. Inherent in both definitions of social class is the idea that the higher the social class, the greater the power associated with the class, and, therefore, the higher the status of the class. While this may not always mean a direct correlation between wealth and power, overall the suggestion is that greater wealth will lead to greater power.
However, it can be dangerous to assume that wealth is sufficient to define social class. In fact, one of the reasons that social class largely resists definition is because it is about both wealth and status. Certain occupations are considered lower status, so that even relatively high incomes among people in these groups do not elevate them into a higher social class in most of their interactions with others. For example, people in the service professions are generally considered to be lower status than the people whom they are serving, even though many members of the service profession earn substantial incomes. Likewise, members of groups that have been traditionally marginalized, such as racial minorities, may be assumed by others to be members of the lower socioeconomic class, even if they have tremendous wealth, which can lead to them having some of the lower-status experiences that are associated with being a member of the lower class.
Because there are different ways to define social class, it is actually possible for people with the exact same economic and cultural conditions to view themselves as members of different social classes. This transforms the nature of social class because it makes it clear that economic conditions are not, in and of themselves, determinative of outcome. According to Erik Olin Wright, there are actually three different mechanisms that can help explain the differential impact of economic class on social circumstances. These three mechanisms are: class-based individual attributes and conditions; class-based opportunity hoarding; and class-based domination and exploitation (Wright, 2008, p.336). Taken together, these three different mechanisms attempt to explain what social class means. Under the individual attributes approach, the real importance of social class is in how it impacts the individual’s personality development (Wright, 2008, p. 337). Under the opportunity hoarding approach, the role of social class in society is not to differentiate between the haves and the have-nots, but to ensure that the haves retain control over sources of power in society Wright, 2008, p.340). Finally, the mechanisms of domination and exploitation suggests that social class is a complicated relationship between those who are exploited and those who are exploiting them (Wright, 2008, p.341).
Origins of Unequal Distribution of Resources
This paper focuses on social class in America and examines those things that have contributed to an unequal distribution of resources within the United States. However, it is critical to realize that resources were distributed unequally when the first European settlers first came to the Americas. People brought their various social classes and class distinctions with them when they came to the colonies from Europe. What early America did was explode the rigid European approach to social class, which was, in many ways, almost a caste-like system where social classes were defined by one’s circumstances at birth, and there was very little social mobility. Once in America, particularly after the American Revolution, there was a tremendous amount of social mobility, because the ability to acquire wealth was significant from the late 18th century through most of the 19th century. However, it is critical to realize that this social mobility was limited to white males. The two most significant minorities in an emerging America were Native Americans and African-Americans. The growing prosperity of white males and the roots of the American middle class depended upon the exploitation of both of these groups in order to gain greater levels of prosperity; the taking of Native American lands allowed white males to become land-rich, while the use of forced African-American labor allowed them to profit off of that land. Moreover, because women had no property rights for most of American history, their economic rights had little to do with the shaping of America’s concept of social class.
What the above statements make clear is that it is not simply America’s economic system that has contributed to the establishment of social classes in America. In fact, according to Joseph Stiglitz, “even though market forces help shape the degree of inequality, government policies shape those market forces. Much of the inequality that exists today is the result of government policy, both what the government does and what it does not do. Government has the power to move money from the top to the bottom and the middle, or vice versa” (Stiglitz, 2012, p.28). Therefore, when looking at historic rules and laws, allowing the widespread dispossession of Native American lands to benefit white settlers was a way that the law helped shift wealth from one group to another. Likewise, allowing the development of a race-based system of slavery was a way of shifting wealth from one group to another. The shifting of this wealth helped develop a status-based class system, which led to both Native Americans and African-Americans being considered lower-status than white Americans, even after the legal wrongs were no longer being perpetuated.
This leads one to the conclusion that the law has a significant impact on social class and on maintaining rigid class distinctions in the United States. However, it is important to realize that this does not have to be the case. “There are alternative legal frameworks. Each has consequences for efficiency and distribution. The wrong kind of rule of law can help preserve and extend inequities” (Stiglitz, 2012, p.188). The obvious corollary is that the right kind of rule of law can help end and limit inequities. American history provides an example of these laws expanding and then contracting legal inequities.
How Do Individuals in Different Social Groups Experience Inequality
What is fascinating is that inequality is experienced differently by different people. One of the interesting factors about social class is that it is experienced subjectively by members of the class, so that there may not even be a real awareness of the difficulties that result from being a member of an economically disadvantaged class. Instead, members of even the lower socio-economic class seem invested in the idea of the American dream and the idea of upward mobility. Sometimes the romanticized ideal of America as a land of universal opportunity is more critical for ideation than a person’s actual life circumstances. For example, in discussing his childhood in “Southie” a poor neighborhood in Boston, Patrick MacDonald talks about the willful ignorance of the people in the neighborhood when he was a child. “They were all here now, all of my neighbors and friends who had died young from violence, drugs, and from the other deadly things we’d been taught didn’t happen in Southie” (MacDonald, 1999, p.2). In other words, the reality of the poverty that defined the lives of the people in his neighborhood was less important than their concept of what it meant to live there.
However, while MacDonald makes it clear that the people in Southie considered themselves blessed to live there, he also makes it clear that they dealt with some very real struggles and that these struggles impacted how they viewed the world. They understood that they were disadvantaged compared to other whites. Therefore, like many groups of disadvantaged people, they looked for another group, one with even lower status, to call lesser than them. “We didn’t want to own the problems that took the lives of my brothers and of so many others like them: poverty, crime, drugs — those were black things that happened in the ghettos of Roxbury. Southie was Boston’s proud Irish neighborhood” (MacDonald, 1999, p.2). In other words, the economic disadvantage experienced by MacDonald and his peers in Southie helped shape and inform racist thoughts and beliefs. What this suggests is that there are not three, or even four, social classes. Instead, there are six (or eight social classes) white and non-white versions of each group, because, the reality is that even upper class minorities are subject to a level of discrimination that makes their experience different than that of whites in the same economic position.
Race is not the only attribute that can change the impact of socioeconomic class on a person; women experience financial inequality differently than men. It is commonly accepted that women are more likely to be poor than men are, and this is true. Women are more likely to be single parents than men and to suffer negative financial consequences as the result of divorces. However, it is also interesting to note that women in the lower social classes are more likely to be never married, when marriage is actually on of the traditional ways that women have used to help change or insure their social status (McCall, 2008, p.297). In fact, the myth that women who are high-earners or who come from successful financial backgrounds have more difficulty finding mates is a myth; not only are they able to find mates among wealthier men, but also among men who earn less. This suggests that the idea of using marriage as a means of changing social status is not limited to women, but something that members of either gender will do.
What is interesting is that, as social class can be difficult to define, it can also be subject to change. If one considers an area undergoing gentrification, one can see the ways that changes in socioeconomic status may result in different changes depending upon the individual experiencing those changes. Newman and Chen examined Clinton Hill, a poor neighborhood that was undergoing gentrification, in order to see how gentrification would impact the traditional residents of that neighborhood. What they found was that the results of gentrification were not consistent across their subjects. “Indeed, the changing conditions of Clinton Hill are written upon the neighborhood’s children, stamped upon their psyches like a genetic code waiting to express itselfâ€¦the influences at work here are not nature, of course, but nurture: the effect of the urban environment upon the children who grow up there, the behavioral patterns imprinted upon their pliable minds at an early age” (Newman & Chen, 2007, p.42).
Finally, people who straddle the line between the lower class and the middle class may experience social inequality more strongly than members of other groups. Not only do they understand the ability to increase income, which leads to some type of wealth accumulation, but they also understand the risks of falling back into the lower class. Perhaps the largest personal impact that these economic differences have on people is the lack of a safety net. “These wealth differences are crucial: savings are the safety net that that catches you when you falter, but Missing Class families have no such bulwark. As a result, they experience an odd fusion of optimism and insecurity: the former from their upward mobility, the latter from the nagging concern that it could all disappear if just one thing goes wrong” (Newman & Chen, 2007, p.6). This social class seems to experience the most desperation because they are constantly aware of the dangers that they face if they slide back into the lower class.
Consequences of Social Inequality on Individuals and Societies
The mythology of America focuses on the idea of the basic equality of all human beings. Therefore, at its most basic level, the impact of social inequality on individuals is to send the message that members of the lower class are lesser than members in higher socioeconomic classes. There is a belief that members of the lower class are lazy, stupid, and deserve to be poor. All one needs to do in order to understand societal attitudes towards the poor is to turn on a local news report and see how the reporters treat the poor. For example, when poor people who live in disadvantaged neighborhoods are victimized by criminals, they are often portrayed as being somewhat responsible for their victimization (Suarez, 2008, p.364).
The distaste for, and condescension toward, the poor in a lot of conventional news reporting can sometimes be jaw droopingly obvious (pg 364). An example of this given in the reading was when a reporter describes a person who is killed
This seems to justify the mistreatment of them as a group. In fact, “one of the darkest sides to the market economy that came to light was the large and growing inequality that has left the American social fabric, and the country’s economic sustainability, fraying at the edges; the rich were getting richer, while the rest were facing hardships that seemed inconsistent with the American dream” (Stiglitz, 2012, p.2).
This impact is not limited to the financial conditions surrounding the member of the lower classes. Instead, they can impact them on all different levels. This means that it is qualitatively and quantitatively different to be a poor American than to be a rich American. “At our best, we are a country where the rule of law prevails, where an individual is innocent until proven guilty, and where all people stand equal before the law. These values also are central to our understanding of America’s place in the world. We have championed them to other countries. Yet what the pledge really means is seldom taken up” (Stiglitz, 2012, p.187). This can become very relevant when one considers access to justice. For civil legal matters, the reality is that American law is sufficiently complex that a lay person may not be able to comprehend it, and failure to comply with overly-technical legal requirements that do not impact outcome can result not only in a ruling against a party, but also in sanctions and penalties. Those who cannot afford legal representation are at a disadvantage in those scenarios. Even more importantly, the poor face tremendous disadvantages in the criminal justice system. Because of the relationship between social class and race, what this means is that a black person caught committing an offense is more likely to be charged with the crime, convicted of the crime, and to receive a higher sentence than a white person.
One of the other ways that social class impacts the individual is that social class helps determine one’s access to health care. Under many circumstances, the poor simply lack access to basic health care because it is prohibitively expensive. On a practical level, this may ensure that the poor avoid having a regular family doctor, but instead use the Emergency Room as a primary care physician. This leads to gaps in the medical record. These gaps are significant because a lack of history can lead doctors to make less-than-optimal charging decisions.
Economic and Public Policies that Effectively Deal with Social Inequality
Even after all of the research about this issue, the writer cannot pinpoint an economic or public policy that seems as if it would deal with social inequity. There are a number of policies that seem as if they would help mitigate the impact of social inequality, but they may be run in such a manner that confusion is simply inevitable or that does not encourage innovation. Therefore, it is difficult to believe that there are any policies that will be the cure for poverty.
While I do not believe that there is a single policy that will cure poverty, I do believe that there are some policies that can help reduce poverty, or at least help reduce the impact of poverty on those who experience it. For example, the healthcare law that is popularly referred to as Obamacare hopes to mitigate the impact of being a member of the lower middle class by ensuring that all people will have increased access to doctors. Because many of the healthcare law’s provisions have not yet been tested, it is impossible to know whether this will actually meaningfully impact poverty. However, the history of failure for systems that are supposed to reduce or eliminate poverty, such as welfare, suggest that there are not any economic programs that the government can institute that will effectively deal with the economic components of social inequality.
Moreover, social inequality is only partially dependent upon socioeconomic status; social class also depends on other factors. For example, there is a well-documented correlation between being African-American and being a member of the lower class. Programs like affirmative action, which are aimed at correcting historical social injustices, have led to an increase in access to resources by members of the lowest social groups, but they have not led to equality.
In many ways, social class can be difficult to define. This is because it is frequently relational. In addition, each individual experiences social class in a unique and personal manner, so that social class might literally mean different things to different people. However, that social class can evade definition does not imply that social class is somehow just an arbitrary division.
MacDonald, P. (1999). All Souls: A Family Story from Southie. Boston: Beacon Press.
McCall, L. (2008). What does class inequality among women look like? A comparison with men and families, 1970-2000. In a. Lareau & D. Conley (Eds.), Social Class: How Does it Work? (pp.293-325). New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Newman, K. & Chen, V.T. (2007). The Missing Class: Portraits of the Near Poor in America.
Boston: Beacon Press.
Stiglitz, J. (2012). The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers our
Future. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Suarez, R. (2008). Holding up a mirror to a classless society. In a. Lareau & D. Conley (Eds.),
Social Class: How Does it Work? (pp.361-365). New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Wright, E.O. (2008). Logics of class analysis. In a. Lareau & D. Conley (Eds.),
Social Class: How Does it Work? (pp.329-349). New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
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