Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Components of Social Class in the USA

The common thinking about the American class system is that there are no rules in America and anything is possible. "Only in America" is a common myth. The reality is that there are "rules" to the class system, but few Americans see it (then again, few have a sociological imagination!).

Here are the components of the U.S. social class system that create the distribution of wealth similar to the rules of the coin flipping metaphor:

The highest earning Americans have continued to earn more and more over the last 50 years, while the lower earners have earned closer to about the same. The more money you have, the more you can earn.
What do you think the average household income in the United States is?

Click here to see an answer. Note the percentile for each income bracket and note the median.

Note the actual median household income: _______.

Now look for your community's average income.  Click on the American Factfinder and search by zipcode. Then click on "Income" and look next to median family income.

 What percentile is your community in?  What percentile is your family in?  Is this surprising?

Here is a link to Marketplace where you can input your income and compare it to social class data in the US.

Also, This graph displays the inequality by occupation.

Checkout this post from Slate about income inequality. You can scroll down a bit and enter your zipcode and see where it stands by comparison.

Wealth in tricky to understand.  It is everything that a household owns, such as the home, vacation home, cars, 401K, savings, stocks, jewelry, etc...But, you must subtract what the household owes.  So, if my house is $200,000 but I owe $160,000 then my wealth is only $40,000 on the house.   One way to examine wealth is through quintiles (20% increments).  if you lined all the households up in the U.S. by wealth, what percentage would the top 20% own? And then the next 20% and so on...

How much of the wealth in the U.S. do you think each quintile has:

Bottom 20%:______   2nd 20%_______  3rd 20%________  4th 20%_______ 5th 20%_______Top

How much do you think each quintile should have?

Bottom 20%:______   2nd 20%________ 3rd 20%________  4th 20%_______ 5th 20%_______Top

After you have finished answering the questions above, watch this video:

What is the reality?

 The disparity of wealth is greater than that of income (see the pie graph below).  From the Huffington Post, In 2010, "The median household net worth -- the level at which half the households have more and half have less -- was $77,300
How does your family or community compare to the average American?

Average American:  50% own 2 cars,  50% have a 401K, 66% own 1 home, 6% own a second home

This post and video from sociological images shows wealth inequality in the US. 

In the US, here are the percentages of adults over the age of 23 who have attained each degree in 2012:
High school graduate87.65%
Some college57.28%
Associate's and/or Bachelor's degree40.58%
Bachelor's degree30.94%
Master's degree8.05%
Doctorate or professional degree3.07%
For more on education and social class, this Wikipedia entry is thorough.

This link shows that on average, the higher a family's income, the higher the ACT score

And this link shows the higher one's educational level, the more he or she earns.

Here is a post from sociological images that has a lot of info showing the connection between your degree and your income. This graph shows that the less education that parents have, the less education their children obtain.

The price of a home depends on a lot more than the physical structure of the home.
The average home price in the United States in 2012 was $175K.  The average price in BG was $346,000.  And in LG it was $765,000.  Click here to see some houses for sale in Lake County, IL in 2014.  Which do you think are the most expensive?  Which are the least? When you see the actual prices, why do you think that is?

Here you can find data by zipcode about the average home price ( as well as income and other data).

This report from NPR's Planet Money details how where you grow up can affect your income later in life.  And here is a video and stats from CNN Money that show how where you grow up limits or benefits you.

Prestige and power
 People view different occupations with different levels of prestige.  This prestige can translate to real power such as being appointed to boards or committees.  It can also simply give you credibility or respect in social situations.  Here is a chart of prestige ratings.

Power, according to Max Weber, is the ability to impose one's will on others.  Here is an example of powerful leaders coming together to focus their power.

The powerful people are able to keep themselves out of jail, influence politicians and enact laws that are favorable to themselves.  Here is one example from The Daily Show comparing teachers and Wall Street Investors.  Can you guess who has the power?

Here is a link to a Washington Post article explaining that wealthy Americans use their power to create favorable government policies.

And this article from the NY Times shows that an executive at United Airlines accused of corruption charges was forced to resign. Imagine if a teacher was accused of corruption and was forced to resign. That would be it - out of a job and no compensation. But,

United filed a report with the Securities and Exchange Commission on Tuesday indicating that Mr. Smisek would receive nearly $4.9 million in a separation payment, and 60,000 shares of stock, valued at over $3 million.

Creating a Social Class Ladder in the U.S.
All of these combine to form a rough picture of social class. Here is one representation of how all of those components might work together:

Look over your information for income, wealth, education, location and prestige.  Are they mostly above, average or below? Then try to think where that person falls on this ladder?  Why would you place them there?  Share this your group.

Was it difficult to share with the group?  Why or why not?

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?

Here are other resources for examining the components of social class that comprise the "rules" about what is possible in the USA in terms of class:

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.


  1. I don't think that people would be shocked to know that the wealthier kids, on average, do better on the ACT then kids in the lower class. Those wealthier kids have resources available to them that not many other kids do.

    1. Also, remember that SATs and ACTs were designed FOR the wealthier kids to get into Ivy league schools. Now everyone has to take it, just because College Board somehow manipulated most schools to need it.

    2. That's the point - the ACT favors kids with wealth.