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Redefining Social Class in America

Sample paper 3 by Kristin Nxumalo - Spring 2011

There is a myth in the United States that if one works hard enough there will be no limit to what he can achieve. In fact this myth is the very foundation that many of our ideas about politics, law, education, health care and business are built on--the idea that whether we succeed or fail is ultimately up to our own ambitions and capabilities. Sociologists like to refer to this as the Horatio Alger Myth; which refers to the popular 1800's stories depicting young men making it from rags to riches based on sheer tenacity (Henslin 221). In fact, if you just turn on the news tonight you are bound to hear a story about someone making it "big" by nothing other than "hard work" and "grit". However enticing this story may be, and however much we have invested in it, the story is not true. The truth is that most societies, and ours is no exception, are built upon a social stratification system. This system helps organize society, and more importantly society's assets and resources, based on where an individual falls on the 'strata' or level in the system. In order to fully understand this system we have to understand how it functions in US society, how individuals are categorized, and what categories constitute the 'master statuses'--or predetermined, unchangeable categories that are so pervasive they influence all aspects of your location in society.

All societies have some form of stratification or societal organization. In the United States we commonly refer to this system as the 'class system'. Sociologists classify this system as 'open', meaning that there is movement either up or down, among individuals in each class. However, this movement is not free of barriers; there are hindrances to how far an individual can move on the social ladder. Social class refers to the amount of property, power and prestige that is held by a group of individuals. The divisions in the class system are directly related to the amount of property, power and prestige each group holds. In the US there are six major class determinations: the capitalist class (1% of population), upper middle class (15% population), lower middle class(34% population), working class (30% population), working poor (16% population) and the underclass (4%) (Henslin 209). With each step down the class ladder property, power and prestige decrease in the form of wealth, education, access to resources and autonomy. For example if you are in the upper middle class you probably attended a good university and received at least a bachelor's degree, you have a job with few supervisors and make enough money to afford the things considered of value in American society (a car, house and vacations) and you don't worry about affordable health care. On the contrary, if you are part of the working class you probably only graduated high school, you hold a 'remedial' position that is more likely to be routine, physical and less secure; folks on this rung may be able to afford a home sometime in their lives but are unlikely to have many other luxuries and live in constant fear of the instability of their financial positions. These disparages between the classes only become more pronounced as you compare the highest and lowest rungs on the ladder. With far more than half of the population (64%) being either lower middle and working class individuals, why aren't conditions improving for these middle classes if we have a democratic government? Sociologist C. Wright Mills believed the answer lies in what he coined as the 'power elite' (Henslin 201).
The power elite refer to the handful of people who are at the highest echelon of social class, some may even argue that the power elite are above the capitalist class. They control the overwhelming majority of the money, property and other economic resources in the United States and thus have more power and influence than any other class, regardless of their physical underrepresentation. The power elite have the most invested in keeping the class system alive; they use a lot of their influence and power to persuade politicians and corporations to look out for their best interests and investments even at the expense of the majority of the population. Additionally the power elite are a major part of the propagation of the American myth that anyone can get ahead if they work hard enough, if the general public believes in this myth then they will not only work harder in the capitalist society believing they can 'make it big'; but they will also accept their social class and the classes of others as a result of individual characteristics instead of social structure. It is the power elite that largely dictate what defines the class system.
It is a social tendency for individuals to describe their personal characteristics and attributes as positive and to describe 'others' attributes as negative; therefore if the power elite have the most influence in American society they are likely to define those characteristics that they possess as most desirable, the closer you are to having their characteristics the higher up you are likely to be on the social class scale. For example, if most of the power elite are white, middle-aged, wealthy and educated those will be the qualities that are most desired in an individual and the farther you are from those qualities the less likely you are to be a part of the power elite. It is also these characteristics that define each of the social classes; it is no secret that women hold a far less prestigious position than men in any social class and that people of color are more likely to make up a significant proportion of the lower classes and are underrepresented in positions and classes of power; and both are likely to be less educated. This also demonstrates how certain characteristics are pervasive when defining a person's social class; these characteristics are also often likely to be things that are genetic or ascribed and unlikely to be changed.
These pervasive characteristics are often referred to as a person's 'master status'. The four master statuses commonly discussed include a person's race, gender, age, and the socioeconomic status they were born into. All of these characteristics will play a systemic role in the opportunities afforded to the individual to acquire the power, prestige and property necessary to move up the social ladder. I would like to discuss another major factor that I feel can severely limit a person's opportunities and social class status, that often gets overlooked. That is pervasive mental or physical disability. Although, those with more resources (higher classes) are more capable of attending to their physical and psychological needs than those with less resources (lower class); it hardly makes a difference if someone has a degenerative or pervasive mental or physical condition. For example, Schizophrenia is a genetic disorder of the brain that effects your overall emotional and cognitive functioning; it is unlikely that if you have Schizophrenia you will ever be a part of the upper classes, and you are more likely to be a part of the underclass regardless of the availability of world class medical treatment. I would have to argue also that mental illness is the one ascribed characteristic that may be capable of taking an individual from an upper class to the lowest class. I work in mental health and know of countless individuals who at one time made up a part of the upper middle or working classes before their illness set in and are now a part of the underclass. Schizophrenia is just one example of how these conditions are a major barrier to one's abilities to move up the social ladder but others could include autism, cerebral palsy and Down syndrome. These conditions could make up a fifth master status.
Understanding social stratification and social class in America is a complex and daunting task. There are certainly more factors to be considered than what is presented here. It is important to note that there is some mobility of individuals among the social classes; but they are the exception and not the rule. There is not nearly enough upward mobility to call our society 'equal opportunity'. Our class stratification system only benefits the few people at the top. But to change it we must work through how the master statuses define our opportunities. We have to learn how to increase opportunities for those people who do not fit the ascribed 'criteria' for the upper classes. As a society we also have to stop buying into the Horatio Alger myth and begin to understand how the social construction of our society is what locks us in or moves us along social class lines; despite our best efforts.

Henslin, James. Essentials of Sociology: A down to Earth approach. Custom Publishing. Boston, Massachusetts. Copyright 2009, pages 197-221.