More Than Money
Issue #17
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Cross-Class Relationships

Table of Contents

“A Portrait of Class Groups in the United States”

Class 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."

While it is true that the United States does not have impenetrable class barriers (as did feudal societies or colonial India) 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.

All 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 United States 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 Poor: 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 diseases).

Working class: 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.

Middle class: 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).

Upper-middle class: 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.

Owning class: 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 political power.

Ruling class: 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, and/or culture.

While 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?

--Adapted from We Gave Away A Fortune by Ann Slepian and Christopher Mogil.

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