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Using the link above answer the following question in 500 words:

Imagine that a newspaper has asked you to write a movie review about one of the films. In writing your review, consider whether or not the film is successful in the task it attempts: can it have an impact on combating the issues it portrays? Why or why not? Include your personal thoughts on the film, as well as on PhotoVoice as a research tool.

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Page 1

Social Class,

Inequality, &

Poverty

Peter Kaufman, State University of New York at New

Paltz Todd Schoepflin, Niagara University

Social Class, Inequality, & Poverty (Fall 2021)

Page 2

Social Class, Inequality, &

Poverty

P E T E R K A U F M A N , S T A T E U N I V E R S I T Y O F N E W Y O R K A T N E W

P A L T Z T O D D S C H O E P F L I N , N I A G A R A U N I V E R S I T Y

INTRODUCTION

SOCIAL CLASS

The social class structure of the United States

Is social class ascribed or achieved?

Social mobility

INEQUALITY

The growing gap between the poor and the rich

U.S. inequality in global context

POVERTY

What is poverty?

Characteristics of the poor

The working poor and the jobless poor

Homelessness

The importance of affordable housing

Social Class, Inequality, & Poverty (Fall 2021)

Page 3

INTRODUCTION

 Why do sociologists study social class inequality?

I was raised in a poor household. My mom is a Hispanic single mother on welfare who

lacks formal education. My father was an Italian immigrant who died of alcoholism. I grew up

with my mom’s side of the family. Among most of my family tobacco and alcohol use were

prominent. Marijuana and cocaine were also used frequently. The most successful thing I ever

witnessed anyone in my family do was join the army or graduate high school. Working was

hardly the trend in my family. My diet consisted of mostly unhealthy foods: fried meats, sauces

loaded with salt, pork fat, greasy snacks, lots of soda, and microwaveable food items. If I saw

anything green on my plate I thought, “eww disgusting” and I wouldn’t touch it. Not

surprisingly, I was overweight for much of my childhood and adolescence. And with all of the

second-hand smoke I breathed in I also developed asthma.

When I was 18, my mother kicked me out of the house and I moved in with the family of

a rich, white, friend of mine. This family had a different position in life on so many levels. They

had different interests, concerns, and ways of doing things. It all seemed so foreign to me. For

example, they were very health conscious. They had foods and products in their home that I

had never seen or heard of before. The parents even took time to exercise daily. And they

had lots of books in the home which they actually read. Although the way they lived seemed

strange to me I also knew that the lifestyle of this family allowed them to have many more

possibilities than I could ever imagine in my upbringing.

This excerpt comes from an essay written by Alejandro (Alex) Russo, a student in one of

our sociology classes.1 This brief autobiographical sketch captures many of the themes that we

discuss in this chapter. It also offers a snapshot of how social class has a significant impact on

our lives. As Alex suggests, social class influences our goals and aspirations, our potential and

possibilities, our lifestyle choices and habits, and even our health and well-being.

Despite its significance, social class often goes unacknowledged. We often don’t

recognize the effects of social class until we interact with people who have different

economic resources—much like Alex didn’t recognize the influence social class had on his life

until he moved in with his wealthy friend. In this sense, social class is invisible in plain sight. Unlike

characteristics such as race and gender, which are more obvious and easier to see and

define, we can’t always figure out someone’s social class just by looking at them. But if we are

seeing the world sociologically, indicators of social class quickly come into focus.

Some of us, like Alex, grow up in poverty while others grow up in affluent families who

may use their power and influence to ensure their children get into elite colleges (more on the

“Operation Varsity Blues” college admission scandal later).

Social Class, Inequality, & Poverty (Fall 2021)

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Some students attend rat- and cockroach-infested schools with outdated and

insufficient textbooks, while others attend schools with state-of-the-art facilities and computers

for every student.

Some adults work three jobs and over 80 hours a week just to support their families while

others enjoy paid vacations, health insurance, and employer contributions to a retirement

account.

And some of us live in cities like Flint, Michigan, while others live in cities like Bloomfield

Hills, Michigan. Although these two communities are separated by only 45 miles, the life

experiences of the people who live there are worlds apart. In Flint, the median household

income is $28,834, the unemployment rate is nearly twice the national average, 40% of

residents live in poverty, and the city is infamous for its lead-contaminated drinking water, its

abandoned and boarded-up homes, and its rising homicide rate.2 In contrast, Bloomfield Hills

is one of the richest cities in America. The median household income is $182,243, the value of

most homes is close to $1 million, and the community is known for its quiet, rural residential

properties, its exclusive country clubs, and its world-renowned educational institutions.

In this chapter we take a journey through the landscape of social class. We meet other

individuals and consider how their lives have been shaped and guided by their social class

position. Some individuals are greatly supported and enabled by their social class position

while others, like Alex, face many obstacles and constraints. Before examining how social class

contributes to some of these inequalities, we begin with a solid understanding of what exactly

we mean when we use the term social class.

SOCIAL CLASS

 How do sociologists make sense of social class?

 What is the social class structure of the United States?

 Are we assigned a social class at birth or is it something we accomplish?

 Is the American Dream alive and well or is it just a myth?

Consider these films: Pretty Woman, Boyz n the Hood, 8 Mile, Titanic, Dreamgirls, Pursuit

of Happyness, Annie, Slumdog Millionaire, The Hunger Games, Snowpiercer, The Great Gatsby,

The Wolf of Wall Street, Crazy Rich Asians, Hustlers, and Parasite. They all have one thing in

common: they revolve around social class.

Social Class, Inequality, & Poverty (Fall 2021)

Page 5

Social class is one of the central concepts in sociology. As you learned in the first

chapter, sociology emerged when scholars began investigating the economic inequality they

witnessed, particularly during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Karl Marx was an early sociologist,

and one of his central concerns was no different than what many sociologists still study today:

the growing economic gap between the haves and the have-nots.

Social class is just one form of stratification, a system that puts categories of people into

a hierarchy. All societies have stratification systems, but they vary in what categories are used

to sort people and how unequal those categories of people are. Religion, gender, wealth,

and race are common foundations for stratification, leading to unequal access to resources,

political rights, and other benefits. In other chapters, you’ll learn how the U.S. is stratified

according to race, ethnicity, and gender. In this chapter, we’re focusing on economic

stratification, and we analyze social class inequality in the U.S. as a structural problem, not as

something that results from personal failing.

A social class is generally defined as a group of individuals who share a similar

economic position based on income, wealth, education, and occupation. When referring to

social class, most people rely on a simple system consisting of the upper, middle, and lower (or

working) classes. This model is quick and convenient; however, as we will see, social class is

much more complicated than this.

Most definitions of social class are based on income, the total amount of money

someone earns each year. Income is a convenient indicator of social class, and it’s commonly

used to identify a person’s class standing.

Another common indicator of social

class is wealth—the total amount of money

that a person has or could have if she sold

off all her assets. If you take all the money in

someone’s bank and retirement accounts,

and add the value of everything they own—

cars, perhaps a home, property, anything

they have invested in the stock market, and

anything else that they could sell—the

resulting total amount is their wealth.

Although there is often a strong connection

between income and wealth (that is, people

who earn high salaries also often own a lot of

wealth), this is not always the case. You could have wealth from sources such as savings,

investments, real estate, and inheritance, even if you don’t earn a high income, or any

income at all.

Factory workers, a typical working-class job.

(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Social Class, Inequality, & Poverty (Fall 2021)

Page 6

The amount of money we make or have is not the only factor that may determine our

social class. Education and occupation are also often included in the mix. Both

characteristics—how far we went in school and what kind of job we have—are linked with

income and with each other.

The social class structure of the United States

Over 30 years ago, an undergraduate student at Harvard University walked into a

public housing project outside of Boston and began research for his senior thesis. Little did he

know that he was laying the groundwork for what was to become one of the most well-known

sociological studies of social class in the United States. Jay MacLeod’s Ain’t No Makin’ It is a

story of two groups of teenagers who lived in the housing project: The Brothers, a

predominantly Black peer group, and the Hallway Hangers, who were predominantly White.3

MacLeod followed the Brothers and the Hallway Hangers from their teenage years into

young adulthood and then into middle age. He documents their dreams, aspirations,

successes, and failures. Ain’t No Makin’ It demonstrates that social class can be a complicated

concept to understand. It’s often ignored and unacknowledged. Even though it had a

significant impact on the life choices and chances of the Brothers and Hallway Hangers, social

class was not part of their vocabulary. This is true for the majority of Americans today: Most of

us don’t speak about social class regularly. In the rare instances when we do talk about social

class or are asked to identify our own social class position, Americans almost always say we

are middle class.4

If we want to understand the important impact that social class has on our lives, we

can’t rely on the simplistic model of lower, middle, and upper classes. We need to account for

multiple factors such as income, wealth, education, and occupation. We use Dennis Gilbert’s

model of the class structure that relies primarily on income, occupation, and education.5

Although Gilbert does not factor in wealth, since it is often difficult to measure, we can see

how wealth is connected to these other three factors and how it might influence our social

class standing.

Gilbert’s model includes six social classes that are situated within three broad

categories. At the top is the first category, the privileged classes, made up of what he calls

the capitalist class and the upper-middle class.

Social Class, Inequality, & Poverty (Fall 2021)

Page 7

The capitalist class (commonly known as the

top 1%) makes money from the things they own:

businesses, real estate, stocks, and bonds.

Although the 1% may work, they usually do not

gain their tremendous wealth from their annual

salary. Instead, they are part of the super-rich

because the things they own (their wealth) bring

them a continual stream of lucrative profits.

The second group in the privileged class

category is the upper-middle class. Making up

about 14% of the population, these well-educated

individuals rely on their high incomes from jobs to catapult them into this category. Typical jobs

among this group include business managers, doctors, lawyers, accountants, and some small

business owners. Gilbert includes a sub-category at the top of the upper-middle class called

the working rich. Although relatively small in size, this group includes individuals whose annual

incomes are well into the six-figure range. One of the main features that distinguishes this

group from the capitalist class is that the working rich rely on their salaries to maintain their

class position.

The second category in Gilbert’s social-class model is called the majority classes. Here

we have about 60% of the population, evenly split between the middle class and the working

class. People in the middle class are likely to have a high school diploma and some college

experience (an increasing number even have a bachelor’s degree). They work as teachers,

nurses, master craftspeople (plumbers, electricians, carpenters), and lower-level managers.

Just below them is the working class. These individuals have probably completed high school

or a trade school; they typically work as office support (secretaries and administrative

assistants), retail sales workers, factory workers, or low-paid craftspeople.

As you consider the distinctions between the middle class and the working class, you

may be thinking of examples of people you know who don’t quite fit into this model. That’s not

surprising. As Gilbert points out, the distinction between the middle class and the working class

can be fuzzy. You may know someone who has only a high school education but works in an

occupation and earns a yearly salary that puts them in the middle class. On the other hand,

some people may have a higher level of education (such as a college degree) but work in

jobs that place them in the working class, either by choice or because they can’t find a better

job. Determining social class is not an exact science. Instead of relying on just one or two

factors such as income or education, we need to consider the interplay between these

factors.

The third and final category in Gilbert’s model is the lower classes. Making up about

one-quarter of the U. S. population, this group includes the working poor (15%) and the

Eye surgeon, an example of an

upper-middle-class job. (Source)

Social Class, Inequality, & Poverty (Fall 2021)

Page 8

underclass (10%). Both have some education, but most do not have more than a high school

diploma.

The working poor are typically employed in insecure and low-wage jobs such as

janitorial and cleaning services, manual labor, landscaping, restaurant support (fast food, wait

staff, line cooks), and other service industries. Because the jobs held by the working poor do

not generally provide much in the way of benefits (such as medical, dental, or vision care;

paid vacations; retirement accounts), the working poor are more likely than social classes

above them to face financial insecurity and instability. Many workers in these jobs also

encounter unpredictable and inflexible work schedules, putting them in stressful and

precarious situations since their income may vary from week to week.

Author Barbara Ehrenreich tried to survive

on these types of low-wage jobs in order to

understand the daily struggles of the working poor,

an experience described in her book Nickel and

Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. She

worked as a diner waitress, motel maid,

housecleaner, and Walmart salesperson and

found it nearly impossible to cover the cost of rent,

gas, and meals. Benefits that the middle and

upper classes may take for granted, such as paid

sick leave, didn’t exist at these jobs; when

Ehrenreich was sick, she had to go to work anyway

because she couldn’t afford to lose a day’s wages. As she pointed out, long days on the job,

sometimes followed by a shift at a second job just to make ends meet, leave low-wage

workers with little energy or spare time to look for better jobs or to attend college.

Going to work sick can even lead to death, as was the case for Augustín Rodriguez, a

longtime employee at a Smithfield Foods meatpacking plant in South Dakota. His death was

tied to a COVID-19 outbreak at the facility, which offered a $500 bonus to workers who didn’t

miss any shifts during the month of April, 2020, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.6

Fast-food workers on strike for higher pay.

(Source)

Social Class, Inequality, & Poverty (Fall 2021)

Page 9

Table 1: Gilbert’s Model of the Social-Class Structure in the United States7

Class, % of Households

Source of Income,

Occupation of Main

Earner

Typical Education

Typical Household

Income, 2012

Privileged Classes

Capitalists, 1% Investors, executives,

heirs

Selective college or

university, often

graduate or

professional school

$1 million

Upper middle, 14% Upper management

and professionals,

successful small

business owners,

including the working

rich

College, often

graduate or

professional study

$150,000

(working rich:

$500,000)

Majority Classes

Middle, 30% Lower-level

managers,

semiprofessionals,

nonretail sales

workers, craftsmen

At least high school,

often some college

$70,000

Working, 30% Machine operators,

low- paid craftsmen,

clerical workers, retail

sales workers

High school $40,000

Lower Classes

Working poor, 15% Most service workers,

laborers, low-paid

machine operators,

and clerical workers

At least some high

school

$25,000

Underclass, 10% Unemployed or part-

time work; many

depend on public

assistance and other

government programs

Some high school $15,000

At the bottom of Gilbert’s model is the underclass. They may be part-time workers,

unemployed, or may have inconsistent and unreliable work opportunities (such as seasonal

work that is only available for part of the year). Many rely on public assistance benefits, which

have been shrinking over the past twenty years. Although their financial insecurity forces this

group to rely on public assistance to help pay for food, shelter, and clothing, they actually

receive less in government benefits than the majority and privileged classes.8 While the lower

classes may receive limited benefits in the way of food, housing, and tax subsidies, the

Social Class, Inequality, & Poverty (Fall 2021)

Page 10

wealthier classes gain significantly more valuable benefits through government policies that

allow them to drastically lower the amount they owe in taxes. The ability to write off expenses

such as part of their mortgage interest payments (which is most valuable for those with the

most expensive homes), deposits into retirement accounts (which low-income workers are

often unable to afford), and profits from certain types of stock trading or capital gains are all

tax benefits provided to more privileged Americans.

Is social class ascribed or achieved?

As you think about the descriptions and characteristics of the various social classes, you

are probably locating yourself somewhere in Gilbert’s model. You may even realize that

you’re in a different social class than the one you thought you were in. Maybe you grew up

assuming you were in the middle class (as many people do), but according to Gilbert you fit

into a different category. As you ponder where you fall on this social class spectrum, you might

also consider how you actually ended up in that particular social class location. Did you use

your own income, education, and occupation or did you use your parents’? Did you receive

your social class through birth or is it something you accomplished through your own efforts?

These questions reflect an important

distinction discussed in the Social Structure and

the Individual chapter: the difference between

ascribed and achieved statuses. As you’ll recall,

an ascribed status is one you acquired when you

were born or that you take on involuntarily later

in life. In contrast, you gain an achieved status at

least in part through your achievements, abilities,

or efforts.

When you were born, you automatically

entered into the social class of your parents or

guardians. You did not get to choose if you were born into the capitalist class or the working

poor. But the social class ascribed to us at birth is not necessarily the social class we have

when we become adults. For example, nearly 30% of students entering four-year colleges and

more than 50% of students who enter two-year colleges are first-generation students—neither

of their parents completed college.9 Most of these students are probably in college because

they view education as a way to achieve a higher-paying job and a higher social class than

their parents.

The distinction between ascribed and achieved social class status is particularly

relevant when we try to understand social inequality. There is a long-standing assumption,

particularly in the United States, that social class is largely an achieved status. Most people

believe that your position in the social class structure depends mostly on your own individual

Children born into poverty. (Source)

Social Class, Inequality, & Poverty (Fall 2021)

Page 11

efforts: are you motivated, do you work hard, do you make smart financial decisions, and are

you willing to go the extra mile?

But the idea that our social class standing is based on our own merit is not altogether

accurate. Consider the demographics of the CEOs of the Fortune 500—a list of the 500 largest

and most profitable companies in the U.S. In 2021, this list contained only 41 women CEOs

(8.2%) and just 4 African American CEOs (0.8%). And 2021 is the first year two Black women

have been Fortune 500 CEOs at the same time.10 Given that women make up nearly 51% of

the U.S. population and African Americans comprise a little over 13%, we might ask why CEOs

of Fortune 500 companies are overwhelmingly White men. Are women and African Americans

just not working hard enough or not motivated enough to lead the biggest companies in

America? Or is something about their race and gender (both ascribed characteristics) holding

them back from making it to the top?

Table 2: SAT Scores and Family Income

Family Income

Critical Reading

Mathematics

Writing

$0-$20,000 435 462 429

$20,000-40,000 465 482 455

$40,000-60,000 487 500 474

$60,000-80,000 500 511 486

$80,000-100,000 512 524 499

$100,000-120,000 522 536 511

$120,000-140,000 526 540 515

$140,000-160,000 533 548 523

$160,000-200,000 539 555 531

More than $200,000 563 565 586

Source: College Board11

Another example might hit closer to home. You may have taken the SAT, ACT, or

another standardized test at some point. Did you know that the best way to predict a

student’s performance on these college entrance exams is to measure their family income? As

Table 2 shows, if you want to do well on the SAT, your best strategy is to be born into a wealthy

family.

One reason for this relationship between social class and educational achievement is

that parents with higher incomes have more resources to help their children succeed

academically. As Annette Lareau demonstrates in her book, Home Advantage, although

Social Class, Inequality, & Poverty (Fall 2021)

Page 12

parents from all social classes have similar aspirations for their children, those with greater

financial means can significantly boost their kids’ learning by stocking their house with lots of

books to read, sending their children to higher-quality daycares and schools, and paying for

tutors and test preparation courses, which parents with lower incomes often can’t afford.12

And as we will see in the next section, such advantages (or disadvantages) help explain why

many people reproduce their ascribed social class position.

Social mobility

“Don’t let somebody ever tell you, you can’t do

something. If you want something, go get it. Period.”

These lines are from the movie The Pursuit of

Happyness, based on the life of Chris Gardner.

Gardner went from being homeless to working in the

finance industry and later became an inspirational

speaker. In moving from a life of poverty to an

achieved social class of wealth and comfort, Chris

Gardner’s story exemplifies the rags-to-riches narrative

of the American Dream.

The American Dream is a strongly-held and

much-cherished belief in the United States. We are told

that with hard work, determination, and a “can do” spirit, it’s possible to be born into a

working poor or even an underclass family and eventually make it into the more privileged

classes. The American Dream suggests that an ascribed social class should not hold you back

from becoming who or what you want to be. As long as you work hard, have a good attitude,

and don’t give up, you can live your dreams.

When people like Chris Gardner move from an ascribed social class position to a new

achieved social class position, they have experienced social mobility. Upward mobility, which

is most often discussed in the context of the American Dream, occurs when someone moves

from a lower social class position to a higher one. This form of mobility is obviously the one most

of us would prefer.

But we can also experience downward mobility—dropping into a lower social class. A

decline in social class standing may occur due to factors such as being laid off, choosing to

pursue a less lucrative career path than your parents, making bad financial decisions, or

getting divorced (a common cause of downward mobility for women).13 It can also be

caused by issues entirely outside our control, such as entering the job market during a

recession.

The idea of the American Dream is regularly invoked by politicians, educators, religious

leaders, and media pundits. We also have shining models of the American Dream like Oprah

Chris Gardner. (Source: Wikimedia

Commons)

Social Class, Inequality, & Poverty (Fall 2021)

Page 13

Winfrey, who went from a childhood of poverty and abuse to become America’s first Black

billionaire, and Jay-Z, who lived in a housing project and sold drugs before becoming a

billionaire with impressive real estate and art collections.14 The idea that the American Dream

is alive and well is so pervasive that most people don’t even question it. Many of us just assume

that upward social mobility is the norm. “The sky’s the limit,” to b



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