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Social Class in the United States
There is considerable controversy regarding social class in the United States, and it
remains a vaguely defined intellectual
concept with many theories. To this day
economists and sociologists have not
devised exact guidelines for classes in the
United States. With no set class
boundaries, the interpretation of class
and social status is largely left up to the
individual.
While many Americans believe in a
three-class model that includes the "rich",
the middle class, and the "poor", in
reality American society is much more
economically and culturally diverse. The
differences in wealth, income, education
and occupation are indeed so great that
one could justify the application of a
social class model including dozens of
classes. To date, there remains no exact
answer pertaining to the number of social
classes.[2][3] A common approach to the economic and cultural diversity of those in
between the extremes of wealth—those in the vernacular statistical middle class—
has been to divide the middle class.
Sociologists Dennis Gilbert, William Thompson and Joseph Hickey as well as James
Henslin have proposed class systems with six distinct social classes. These class
models feature an upper or capitalist class consisting of the rich and powerful, an
upper middle class consisting of highly educated and well-paid professionals, a
lower middle class consisting of semi-professionals, a working class constituted by
low-rung white collar as well as blue collar workers and a lower class which is
according to Gilbert is divided between the working poor and underclass
“
It should be stressed... that a position does not bring power and prestige
because it draws a high income. Rather, it draws a high income because it is
functionally important and the available personnel are for one reason or
another scarce. It is therefore superficial and erroneous to regard high
income as the cause of a man's power and prestige, just as it is erroneous
to think that a man's fever is the cause of his disease... The economic
source of power and prestige is not income primarily, but the ownership of
capital goods (including patents, good will, and professional reputation).
Such ownership should be distinguished from the possession of consumers'
goods, which is an index rather than a cause of social standing. —Kingsley
Davis and Wilbert E. Moore, Principles of Stratification.
”
As mentioned above, income is one of the most prominent features of social class,
it is not one of its causes. In other words, income does not determine the status of
an individual or household but rather reflects upon that status. Income and prestige
are the incentives provided by society in order to fill needed positions with the most
qualified and motivated personnel possible.[7] These definitions equate class with
income, permitting people to move from class to class as their income changes.
Commonly used terminology
Class components and terminology commonly found in contemporary American
society.
The following are commonly used terms by social scientists and critics. It is again
important to remember that each term bears the roots of several different
ideologies which may conflict with each other. Overall, the use and definition of
these terms often greatly varies with each speaker, due to their tastes or
ideologies. Therefore the clarification of terminology is only possible as a gross
generalization of what is most commonly used by research institutes as well as
social critics.
Upper class
This term is applied to a wide array of elites that exist in the United States. The
term commonly includes all "blue bloods" (multi-generational wealth combined with
leadership of high society) such as the Astor or Roosevelt families. There is
disagreement over whether or not the "nouveau riche" should be included as
members of the upper class or whether or not this term should exclusively be used
for established families. Twentieth century sociologist W. Lloyd Warner divided the
upper class into two sections: the upper-upper class and lower-upper class. The
former includes established upper-class families while the latter includes all those
with great wealth. As there is no defined lower threshold for the upper class it is
difficult, if not outright impossible, to determine the exact number or percentage of
American households that could be identified as being members of the upperclass(es).
Income and wealth statistics may serve as a helpful guideline as they can be
measured in a more objective manner. In 2005, approximately one and half percent
(1.5%) of households in the United States had incomes exceeding $250,000 with
the top 5% having incomes exceeding $157,000.[13] Furthermore only 2.6% of
household held assets (excluding home equity) of more than one-million dollars.
One could therefore fall under the assumption that less than five percent of
American society are members of rich households.
Members of the upper class control and own significant portions of the corporate
America and may exercise indirect power through the investment of capital. In
recent years the salaries and, especially, the potential wealth through stock
options, has greatly increased for the corporate elite. Inherited wealth leading to
idleness is held in low regard and people who have it usually have prestigious
occupations.[21]
Yet another important feature of the upper class is that of inherited privilege. While
most Americans, including those in the upper-middle class need to actively
maintain their status, upper class persons do not need to work in order to maintain
their status. Status tends to be passed on from generation to generation without
each generation having to re-certify its status.[15] Overall, the upper class is the
financially best compensated and one of the most influential socio-economic classes
in American society.
Corporate elite
The high salaries and, especially, the potential wealth through stock options, has
supported the term corporate elite. Top executives, including Chief Executive
Officers, are among the financially best compensated occupations in the United
States. The median annual earnings for a CEO in the United States were
$140,350[22] (exceeding the income of more than 90% of US households). The Wall
Street Journal reports the median compensation for CEOs of 350 major
corporations was $6,000,000 in 2005 with most of the money coming from stock
options.[23] In New York City in 2005, the median income (including bonuses) of a
corporate "Chief Operating Officer" (the #2 job) was $377,000.[24] The total
compensation for a "Top IT Officer" in charge of information technology in New York
City was $218,000.[25] Thus even below the CEO level of top corporations, financial
compensation will usually be sufficient to propel a households with a mere one
income earner in the top 1%. In 2005 only 1.5% of American households had
incomes above $250,000 with many reaching this level only through having two
income earners.[13][8][26]
“
Top executives are among the highest paid workers in the U.S. economy.
However, salary levels vary substantially depending on the level of
managerial responsibility; length of service; and type, size, and location of
the firm. For example, a top manager in a very large corporation can earn
significantly more than a counterpart in a small firm.
Median annual earnings of general and operations managers in May 2004
were $77,420. The middle 50 percent earned between $52,420 and
$118,310. Because the specific responsibilities of general and operations
managers vary significantly within industries, earnings also tend to vary
considerably... [the] Median annual earnings of chief executives in May 2004
were $140,350; chief executives in some industries earned considerably
more... the median income of chief executive officers in the nonprofit sector
was $88,006 in 2005, but some of the highest paid made more than
$700,000. —US
”
Many politically powerful people make money before coming to office, but in
general the political power elite have official incomes in the $150,000 to $185,000
range; members of Congress are paid $165,000, and are effectively required to
have a residence in their district as well as one in Washington.
Middle class
The middle class is perhaps the mostly vaguely defined of all the social classes.[3]
The term can be used either to describe a relative elite of professionals and
managers (also called the upper middle class) or it can be used to describe all those
in-between the extremes of wealth, disregarding considerable differences in
income, culture, educational attainment, influence, and occupation. As with all the
social classes in the US there are no definite answers as to what is and what is not
middle class. Sociologists such as Dennis Gilbert, James Henslin, William Thompson
and Joseph Hickey have brought forth class models in which the middle class is
divided into two sections that combined constitute 47% to 49% of the population.
The upper middle or professional class constitutes the upper end of the middle class
on consists of highly educated, well-paid, professionals with considerable work
autonomy. The lower end of the middle class, called either lower middle class or
just middle class consists of semi-professionals, craftsmen and salesmen who often
have just some college education and are more closely supervised.[2][4][5]
Upper middle
This class consists of highly educated salaried professionals whose work is largely
self-directed. Many have graduate degrees with educational attainment serving as
the main distinguishing feature of this class. Household incomes commonly may
exceed $100,000, with some smaller one-income earners household having
incomes in the high 5-figure range.[4] [2] Members of this class commonly hold
advanced academic degrees and are often in involved with professional
organizations such as the ASA, APA, or ACTFL. Due to the nature of professional
and managerial occupations, the upper middle class tends to have great influence
over the course of society.[2] Many of those occupations which are essential to the
forming of public opinion such Journalists, authors, commentators, professors,
scientist and advertisers are largely upper middle class. The very well educated, are
seen as trend setters with movements such as anti-smoking movements, profitness movement, organic food movement, environmentalism being largely
indigenous to this particular socio-economic grouping. Education serves as perhaps
the most important value and also the most dominant entry barrier of the upper
middle class.
Sociologists such as Dennis Gilbert, Willam Thompson and Joseph Hickey estimate
the upper middle class to constitute roughly 15% of the population. The main
hallmark and most distinguishing feature of this class is its high educational
attainment. Using the 15% figure one may conclude that the American upper
middle class consist of professionals making more than $62,500 who commonly
reside in households with a six figure income.
Lower middle class
The lower middle class is, as the name implies, generally defined as those less
privileged than the middle class. People in this class commonly work in supporting
occupations and seldom hold advanced academic degrees. There is also
considerable debate of whether or not this class is truly part of the middle class and
whether or not its members should be identified as being working class or even
poor instead of middle class.[32]
Sociologists Dennis Gilbert, William Thompson and Joseph Hickey, however, only
divide the middle class into two groups. In their class modes the middle class only
consists of an upper and lower middle class. The upper middle class, as described
above, constitutes roughly 15% of the population with highly educated white collar
professionals who commonly make $62,500 or more and reside in households with
a six figure income. Semi-professionals with Bachelor's degrees and some college
degrees constitute the lower middle class. Their class models show the lower middle
class positioned slightly above the middle of the socio-economic strata. Those in
blue and pink collar as well as clerical occupations are referred to as working class
in these class models.[4][30]
Working class
The working class in the United States is as vaguely defined as the middle class
with whom it overlaps according to some definitions. While some might argue that
the working class is synonymous with the lower middle class, it may also be argued
that the working class constitutes the majority of the American population (aka: the
Silent majority).[15][33] A distinctive feature of this class may include that fact that
workers from this class merely take orders and are neither compensated for their
ideas nor are they involved in the decision making process of the organization for
which they work.[15] Yet another more dated definition is that the working class
commonly consists of blue-collar workers, while non-professional white collar
workers are lower middle class. The guideline stating that working class workers
are not paid to think, but rather carry out tasks persists however, through many
different ideologies regarding this class. Much like the lower middle class (which
may be the same class according to some theories) the working class has little
economic security and is extremely susceptible to fluctuations in the economy.
Currently out-sourcing and cost-cutting related lay-offs are much more a pressing
issues for persons of this class, than in the higher classes.[7]
It should also be noted, that the modern working class works less than the upper
middle class or the top 5%. While 81% of persons in the top quintile worked more
than fifty hours a week, only two-thirds of those in the second quintile worked more
than fifty hours a week.
Lower class
The term lower class is commonly applied to those at the bottom of the social
hierarchy. Definitions of this term vary greatly. While Lloyd Warner found the vast
majority of the American population to be in either the upper-lower class or lowerlower class in 1949, many modern-day experts such as Michael Zweig, an
economist for NYU-Stony Brook, argue that the working class constitutes the
majority of the population.[33] Dennis Gilbert places 13% of households among the
"working poor" with 12% being in the "underclass." Thompson & Hickey place
roughly 17% to 20% of households in the lower classes. The lower classes
constituting roughly a fifth to a quarter of American society consists mainly of lowrung retail and service workers as well as the frequently unemployed and those not
able to work. Overall, 13% of the population fall below the poverty threshold.
Hunger and food insecurity were present in the mundane lives of 3.9% of American
households, while roughly twenty-five million Americans (ca. 9%) participated in
the food stamp program.
Further readings
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Leonard Beeghley; The Structure of Social Stratification in the United States
Pearson, 2004
Dennis Gilbert; The American Class Structure Wadsworth, 2002
Rhonda Levine; Social Class and Stratification Rowman & Littlefield, 1998
Michael Zweig; What's Class Got To Do With It? Cornell University Press,
2003
Christopher Beach; Class, Language, and American Film Comedy Cambridge
University Press, 2002
Harold J. Bershady ed; Social Class and Democratic Leadership: Essays in
Honor of E. Digby Baltzell 1989
Daniel Bertaux, and Paul Thompson; Pathways to Social Class: A Qualitative
Approach to Social Mobility Clarendon Press, 1997
Barbara Ehrenreich. Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America
(2002), author disguises herself as working class
David B. Grusky (Editor) Social Stratification: Class, Race, and Gender in
Sociological Perspective (2000)