has been called "America's
dirty little secret." Even though differences among people
from various social classes are part of our daily experience,
class distinctions are seldom discussed openly. Indeed,
throughout our history, class distinctions have often
been denied. In a 1924 English textbook given to new immigrants,
the author asserted, "In the Declaration of Independence
Thomas Jefferson wrote `All men are created equal.' That is an American ideal. It really
means that in America
there are no classes. The son of a farmer has the same
chance as the son of a banker."
it is true that the United
States does not have
impenetrable class barriers (as did feudal societies or
major class distinctions do exist. They are not simply
financial: values, attitudes, race, religion, education,
language, and social standing are part of the complex
web of class identity. To add to the confusion, many people
have mixed class backgrounds where each parent is from
a different class or the family experienced major changes
of fortune over time.
of these factors make class an intricate puzzle, with
distinctions hard to define. Both academics and "people-on-the-street"
have a variety of names and criteria for sorting class
groups in America.
We offer our own understanding of class groups in the
as a context for the stories that follow. Please keep
in mind it is only one of many such schemes, and that
this scale lumps into distinct categories what is actually
a complicated continuum.
Underclass people are often extremely low-income
and under- or unemployed. They often lack sufficient money
to meet even basic needs (e.g., health care, food, shelter,
protective clothing). For many, survival is dependent
on meager government transfers, hand-outs, or criminal
activity. Many have also been physically harmed by deprivation
(e.g., missing teeth, stunted growth or mental retardation
from childhood malnutrition, and disabilities due to untreated
Working-class people's income is usually dependant
on hourly wages. They produce most of the world's goods
and services, but usually have little control over their
work. Their most basic needs are usually met, but many
working people have to save up for and choose between
simple extras (e.g., new coat or a used
clothes dryer). Much of what they buy is second-hand or
purchased on costly credit terms. Working-class young
people who are able to get some post-secondary education
are limited to vocational schools, community colleges
or state colleges. Except for skilled trades and unionized
jobs, "blue" and "pink" collar jobs now rarely provide
sufficient earnings for families to buy their own homes.
Increasing numbers of the working class are also slipping
into the working poor, hovering uncomfortably between
most of the working class and the underclass poor.
Many middle-class people go to college and
go on to salaried "white collar" jobs or to become owners
of small businesses. Middle-class people are often, but
not always, paid more than their working-class counterparts
and they sometimes have greater control of their work
and better job security. Yet, the "fear of falling" is
a growing anxiety among the middle class in the new global
economy. Although many middle-class families can still
afford to buy modest homes, this is becoming increasingly
difficult--even for families with two incomes. However,
they can usually save up for extras (e.g., summer camp,
a new car).
Some upper-middle class people go to private
school as children, and most go to private colleges. Homes
are large enough so that every family member has a room,
and many families own a more modest second home. Luxuries
are attainable without long delays for saving (e.g., travel
abroad, new cars). Most have access to professional jobs,
high incomes, and career mobility, as well as considerable
control over their work. Many receive periodic money from
parents and/or a five- or six-figure inheritance later
in life, but few can live entirely without working.
Many owning-class people go to elite boarding
schools and then to Ivy League colleges. They may have
several people paid to work in their homes (e.g., housekeepers,
gardeners) and may have sufficient assets to support their
families without working if they so desire. Their children
often take lucrative positions in family enterprises.
Many receive seven- or eight-figure trust funds or inheritances.
Members of this class also receive many financial benefits
from the government--tax breaks, corporate subsidies,
and government contracts--and also have easy access to
Ruling-class people are usually from the owning
class, but they or their close family members are typically
involved in elite decision-making positions that help
determine social, economic, and political policies for
society as a whole. Most have been groomed from childhood
to take positions of great influence in business, politics,
you may not agree with all the categorizations or descriptions
above, we hope this quick portrait serves as a spring
board for further reflection and discussion. How well
do these categories fit you and the people you know?
We Gave Away A Fortune
by Ann Slepian and
© 1990-2005, More Than Money, All rights reserved