Part 2

Social Class in America

Jamie Johnson, heir to the fortune of pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson, wanted to do a documentary on what it was like to be born rich. He was a bit surprised at the reactions he received when he asked some of his friends if they would participate in the film. Most of them said “no.” One of his friends, who had agreed to be in the film, later sued him in an attempt to get out of it. Even Jamie’s father told him that talking about money in public was not a good idea. But Jamie did the documentary anyway. In the documentary, he pointed out that among the super rich wealth is a taboo topic that no one wants to talk about. At least, it is for those who haven’t had to work that hard to get it.

Why is wealth such a taboo topic among the super rich? Most Americans idolize the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Paris Hilton and other celebrities grace the covers of magazines and television shows which glamorize the lifestyle of wealthy celebrities. Americans seem to be almost obsessed with fortune and fame. However, as Jamie Johnson pointed out in his documentary, we know very little about the lifestyles of the super rich.

Perhaps one reason why wealth is a taboo topic among the super rich is because our society rests on the idea that we are a meritocracy. The underlying assumption is that if you work hard enough, you will achieve wealth. However, the truth is that a large percentage of wealth is inherited. Every year, Forbes lists the wealthiest individuals in the United States. At the top of the list is Bill Gates with a net worth of $53 billion. Bill Gates is a self made billionaire. However, of the top 25 wealthiest persons in America, 14 inherited their wealth.

So what exactly is social class and what impact does it have on our experiences in society? Karl Marx believed that a person’s social class depended on their relationship to the means of production. In other words, if you owned the factories and businesses, you were in the capitalist class; and if you were a worker in the factories, you were in the working class. Marxists have pointed out that workers are taught a false consciousness which is an ideology or belief system that justifies inequality. Members of the working class, for instance, believe that all individuals in society have the same opportunities to succeed. If someone is in poverty, it is because they are lazy and unmotivated or because they spend their money unwisely. Many suggest that workers exhibit a false consciousness by identifying more with the capitalist class than with members of their own rank. According to Marx, workers need to unite and develop a class consciousness. This involves the feeling of unity with one’s class and the belief that inequality is unjust.

Although the class system in America is more open and flexible, there are certain structures in place that keep someone from moving outside of their rank. Members of the upper class are constantly finding ways to exclude themselves from the rest of the population. From the time they are born, they attend private schools and clubs. They attend debutante balls and have their names on the Social Register, an important publication that records the wealthiest families in America. Because of these structures, it is very difficult to marry someone outside of your class. As many of Jamie Johnson’s friends pointed out, you are met with social disapproval from family and friends if you bring someone home whose family is not “known” within their circle.

There is also a cultural element to social class. Most of know that behaviors such as speech, etiquette, dress, and tastefulness all indicate a person’s position in society. Max Weber pointed out that economic factors were not the sole indicator of a person’s social class. He used a multidimensional analysis of class which includes power,prestige, and income. Weber pointed out that the type of prestige associated with a person’s occupation was likely to influence their place within the class hierarchy. Some individuals may work in an occupation that pays low but has a high degree of prestige. Today, many sociologists consider a person’s socioeconomic status or SES to be an important variable. The indicators for SES include educationoccupation, and income. The chart below shows the different social classes and many of the characteristics described include these indicators:

The Upper-Uppers 

  • Inherited Wealth or “Old Money”
  • Membership based on Ascription
  • Separate themselves from rest of society
  • Devote time to charity rather than work
The Lower-Uppers 

  • Working rich
  • “New Money”
  • Sometimes are excluded from membership in certain clubs.
  • Display wealth more extravagantly
The Upper-Middles: 

  • High Occupational Prestige
  • Education is very important (Advanced Degrees)
  • Involvement in local politics
  • Doctors, lawyers, business owners, corporate executives
The Average Middles: 

  • Less occupational prestige
  • Usually college educated
  • Kids attend state colleges
  • Low to mid-level white collar jobs (teachers, salespersons, managers, secretaries, banks clerks, etc.)
  • Live in suburbia
The Working Class: 

  • Little education
  • Jobs involve routine tasks
  • Skilled trades
  • Construction workers, carpenters, factory workers, janitors, domestic workers, waitresses, dishwashers, etc.
  • One-third of children go to college
The Lower Class: 

  • Lack of full-time income
  • Welfare recipients
  • Chronically unemployed
  • Limited schooling
  • Children feel impact of label
  • Referred to as “Underclass”
  • Over 30 million Americans
  • Women, minorities and children disproportionately affected

Social class is a topic that few of us discuss. In fact, the term classism is rarely used as a means of describing discrimination based on social class. Yet, children (and adults as well) face the stigma of being labeled inferior because of it.

WATCH >> HBO: Born Rich