Social Class Ladder in the US

Social Class Ladder in the US
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As students enter, please try to create a model of the median American based on what we have been learning:

1. What does the median American look like in terms of:

A) Income

B) Wealth

C) Location

D) Education

2. Can you explain how a few of these components connect to one another? In other words, for example, how does ones income lead to education to prestige to wealth?

3. How does your family or an average person living in your town compare to the median American?

Putting the Dimensions of Class Together

All of the elements that we have been exploring combine to form a rough picture of social class. There is not a universally accepted model for social class but income, wealth, education, location, prestige/power all can arguably play a part in determining class.

Using your knowledge of what the median American looks like, let’s evaluate social class in America. Think about these guiding questions as we go along today:

  • What are the different classes in the US?
  • Is there a middle class and if so, what is it?
Gilbert’s Model
Sociologists have used different models of social class to explain how social class disaggregates in the United States. The table below is based on Hamilton College professor Dennis Gilbert’s 1992 model of social class.

4. Which class do you think your family is, based on Gilbert’s model?

Extra: If you want to explore more about where someone fits on the class ladder, you can explore an interactive graphic that shows where a person places on various aspects of class. This interactive graphic is based on a series that the NY Times did about a social class called Class Matters.

5. What do you think about Gilbert’s model? Any questions?

Williams’ Model
Another model for the class structure is from Dr. Joan Williams who wrote the book White Working Class; Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America.

Dr. Williams’ book came out of an article she wrote about the 2016 election posted here in Harvard Business Review.

(Extra) For more about her work, see these:

Watch the following TED Talk by Dr. Williams. It is about 15min long, but it is insightful. If you want to watch additional videos or a shorter one:

Here is a 2 minute explanation by the author on Youtube.

Here is a 4 minute interview with the author on Fox News.

6. How does Williams’ model differ from Gilberts’?

7. What do you think of Dr. Williams’s model of social class? Do you think she does a good job of explaining why enough of middle American voters went from supporting Obama to supporting Trump?

Her article and her model of social class focus on these groups:

The “poor” class

  • the bottom 30%
  • making less than 40K
  • median income of $22K

The “working” class

  • the middle 55%
  • approx. $41K – $131K
  • median of $75K
  • Jobs may involve physical work, taking orders or implementing the work from managers
  • thrives on morals and telling the truth even if the truth is offensive
  • sees role as parent as a provider of essentials like safety, morals and wellness
  • work as a means to an identity; I work so that I can…watch baseball, go fishing, etc…
  • values ​​self-employment/owning own business
  • See college as expensive and risky
  • See professional/managerial jobs as distant and leaving family behind

The “professional-managerial elite” or “PME”

  • the top 14% on earners and at least one college degree in household
  • earns more than $131K per year
  • median of $173,000
  • jobs involve advanced degrees such as MBA, JD, MD, and other doctorates
  • work is making decisions and overseeing them for the company or business, but less about implementing the decisions
  • values ​​outward appearance and fitting their role
  • sees role as parent to provide opportunity to their kids
  • identity is often based on work or title

Other Resources:

Here is a link to the Stanford Center on Poverty where you can view slides about inequality in the USA.

Here is a link to 15 statistics about inequality in America.

Here is a an article from the Washington Post explaining the difficulty of defining the middle class.

After you have thought about your own personal example, classify the four people in this Esquire article and analyze what class they are and why? Try to use components other than income. How is each person shaped by their social class?

What is fueling rural America’s outrage toward the federal government? Why did rural Americans vote overwhelmingly for Donald Trump? And, beyond the economic and demographic decline, is there a more nuanced explanation for the growing rural-urban divide? Drawing on more than a decade of research and hundreds of interviews, Robert Wuthnow brings us into America’s small towns, farms, and rural communities to paint a rich portrait of the moral order — the interactions, loyalties, obligations, and identities—underpinning this critical segment of the nation. Wuthnow demonstrates that to truly understand rural Americans’ anger, their culture must be explored more fully. Wuthnow argues that rural America’s fury stems less from specific economic concerns than from the perception that Washington is distant from and yet threatening to the social fabric of small towns. Rural dwellers are especially troubled by Washington’s seeming lack of empathy for such small-town norms as personal responsibility, frugality, cooperation, and common sense. Wuthnow also shows that while these communities may not be as discriminatory as critics claim, racism and misogyny remain embedded in rural patterns of life.

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