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Social Class & Poverty in the US


Social Class in America can be hardto talk about. And not just because you may find itawkward to discuss who’s poor and who’s rich,or who has more power and who has less. As sociologists, the difficulty for us is in pinningdown exactly what we mean by social class. There isn’t just one definition of it, andthe definition you use will depend on whatsociety you’re interested in. If we go by Marx’s definition, we have two classes:the bourgeoisie, who own the means of production,and the proletariat, who do the labor. But this might be too simplistic for our world. If you own a small store, and you work there,which category do you belong in? Your day-to-day life probably looks more likethat of a retail employee than that of a CEO. But Marx would put you in the bourgeoisie,because you own a business and hire workers.

So let’s try another definition, one that’s morein the tradition of our old friend Max Weber. His theories were more about what kinds ofopportunities a person’s class gives them. The owner of a big company has different opportunitiesthan the owner of a small shop. But they’ll both have different resources availableto them than someone who manages an office,or somebody who works at a factory. So in this case, a social class can be definedas a group that’s fairly similar in terms of income,education, power, and prestige in society. And we can use this definition to betterunderstand the social classes that makeup society in the United States, and it can help us to answer some of thequestions they raise. Like, is there more than one kind of upperclass? How can the middle class fit everyone whothinks they belong in it? And what does poverty in America reallylook like? [Theme Music] Broadly speaking, American society can besplit into five social classes: upper class, upper middle class, averagemiddle class, working class, and lower class The upper class consists essentially of thecapitalists in Marx’s system.

This is the top of the income and wealthdistribution – those who earn at least $250,000/yearand control much of the country’s wealth. And as we learned last week – money talks. This group tends to wield a lot of politicaland social power. But within the upper class, there are subclasses that distinguish, by and large, betweenold money and new money. The upper-upper class includes those who derivetheir wealth from inheritance rather than work. People in this class may have jobs, but usuallythey take on more honorary positions such as boardmembers or heading up philanthropic organizations. But there’s also a large part of the upperclass whose wealth came from work. Most of those we think of as wealthy – theBill Gates, Oprah Winfreys, and Kanye West’sof the world – fall into this group. After upper class comes the middle class. Remember awhile back when we talkedabout how almost every American thinks thatthey’re middle class? That’s way too many people to fit into the middle,which is why sociologists split the mid-range ofthe income distribution into three groups. Upper middle class families typically haveincomes between $115,000 and $250,000 per yearand make up about 15% of income earners. About 2/3 of the adults here have collegedegrees – and many have post-graduate degrees. It’s almost a given that their kids willattend college when they grow up. Adults in this sector tend to have jobs thatare considered prestigious – doctors, lawyers,engineers, and the like.

 Their families typically own homes in goodschool districts, and are able to afford luxuries,like travel and multiple vehicles. And it may not surprise you to learn that they’rewealthy, at least compared to most Americans. This group is likely to have wealth from theirhome, strong 401Ks, and financial investments. Now, families in the so-called average middleclass make between $50,000 and $115,000 andmake up about 35% of income earners. Keep in mind, the median family income inthe US is $70,700. So families in this group still tend to own their ownhomes, but the mortgages might be more cumbersome. And they have some wealth, usually tied up in theirhome or a modest retirement savings account. About half of this group is college-educated,though they’re more likely to have attendedpublic universities than private schools. And average middle class jobs are typicallyso-called white collar jobs – think office workers,teachers, middle-managers. In contrast, most blue-collar workers, orthose whose work is primarily based in manuallabor, fall into the lower-middle class. About 30 percent of Americans are in thiscategory, with incomes ranging from about25 to 50 thousand dollars a year.

Lower middle class families are less likelyto own their own homes and typically holdlittle to no wealth. The most defining feature of this social classis the type of jobs that are associated with it – namely, manual labor, which is why it’soften referred to as the working class. Factory work, construction, manufacturing,maintenance work – all of these jobs generallyfall under working class occupations. And while some working class jobs requiretechnical skills, they don’t usually require acollege education. It’s important to note that working class jobs aremore sensitive to how the economy is doing, becausethese jobs tend to be built around making stuff. When a recession hits, factories need fewerworkers to meet demands. Or the plant’s owners might decide thatit’s cheaper to use machines rather thanworkers to produce their goods. And just as vulnerable to economic downturns,if not more so, is the lower class.

 Lower class Americans are blue-collar workersat the bottom of the income distribution. They make less than $25,000 a year and tend to work hourly jobs that are part-time, with unpredictable schedules and no benefits, like health insurance or pensions. About 20% of Americans, or the bottom quintile,fall into this group. The majority of these families don’t owntheir own homes and are more likely to live inneighborhoods with higher rates of poverty, lower quality school districts,and higher crime rates. In contrast to an upper-middle class family,whose children are likely to go to college, only 9% of children born in the bottom incomequartile complete a four-year college degree. And the lower class also includes manyAmericans who are living in poverty. The US government sets an incomebenchmark called the federal poverty level, a threshold that’s used, in part, to determinewho’s eligible for public assistance programs,like food stamps or help with health care. As of 2017, the federal poverty level fora family of four is $24,600. And 13.5% of Americans live in householdsbelow that. The government arrives at this figure by estimatingthe minimum annual pre-tax income that’s needed topay food, shelter, transportation, and clothing costsfor a given household size. Of course, what’s poor in the United Stateswon’t be the same as in another country – the US federal poverty line is a measureof relative poverty, based on a standard ofliving in the US. Relative poverty is used to describe a lackof resources compared to others who have more. But absolute poverty is a lack of resourcesthat threatens your ability to survive. The federal poverty level gives us an indicatorfor which Americans have the fewest resourcesand lets us examine trends in groups that are themost economically vulnerable.

For example, groups that can’t work, likechildren, the severely disabled, and the frail elderly,are particularly vulnerable to poverty. But many working Americans are vulnerable topoverty, too – 12% of working-age adults in povertywork full-time, and another 29% work part time. These are the working poor. You can see how it’s quite possible to work fulltime and still live in poverty, when you do the math. The federal minimum wage inthe United States is $7.25 per hour. A 40 hour work week for 50 weeks a yearwould net an income of $14,500, which is wellbelow the poverty line for a family of four. It’s hard enough to pull yourself out of poverty on alow-wage income, which is partly why more than halfof families in poverty are headed by single mothers. Higher rates of poverty among women,known as the feminization of poverty, is related to the increasing number ofwomen who are raising children on theirown, and who work low-wage jobs. But in addition to gender, you can also canlook at poverty by race. Contrary to popular belief, most poorAmericans are not Black; in fact, two-thirdsof the poor in the US are white. Black Americans are, however, more likelyto be poor than white Americans: 24.1% of Black Americans, who make upabout 13% of the total American population,were living in poverty in 2015.

Compare that to 11.6% of white Americans,who make up about 77% of the total population. Now, the causes of poverty are many. And it’s not easy to understand why somegroups are more vulnerable than others. America likes to think of itself as a nation thatvalues self-reliance, where anyone can succeed. And this view is partly why some argue thatpoverty is the result of an individual’s ownfailings, or of certain cultural attitudes. One of the most famous proponents of thisidea was Daniel Patrick Moynihan – former US senator, ambassador to theUnited Nations, and, by trade, a sociologist. A report he wrote while Secretary of Laborin the Kennedy administration, known as theMoynihan report, blamed high rates of poverty among AfricanAmericans not on a lack of economic opportunity, but on cultural factors in the Black community,like high rates of birth outside of marriage. By contrast, American sociologist William JuliusWilson – who you might remember from episode 7 –has provided a counter to this idea. Wilson has documented how Black Americansare much more likely to face institutional barriers to achieving economic success, and are more likely to live in areas wherejobs are scarce.

He argues that in order to understand poverty, wehave to look at wider economic and social structures,as well as the history and culture of racism in the U.S. Next week, we’ll talk more about how social classstructures affects how Americans live their lives. But for now, you learned about the fivedifferent social classes in the United States: the upper class, the upper middle class,the average middle class, the working class,and the lower class. And we discussed what poverty lookslike in the United States. Crash Course Sociology is filmed in the Dr.Cheryl C. Kinney Studio in Missoula, MT, and it'smade with the help of all these nice people. Our Animation Team is Thought Cafe and CrashCourse is made with Adobe Creative Cloud. If you'd like to keep Crash Course free foreveryone, forever, you can support the seriesat Patreon, a crowdfunding platform that allowsyou to support the content you love. Speaking of Patreon, we'd like to thank all of ourpatrons in general, and we'd like to specifically thankour Headmaster of Learning Ben Holden-Crowther. Thank you so much for your support. 

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