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US Classes

US Classes

Author: Paul Hannan

Differentiate between classes in U.S. society. 

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Source: Intro Music by Mark Hannan; Public Domain

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[MUSIC PLAYING] Welcome to this episode of Sociology-- Studies of Society. Today's lesson is on US classes. As always, don't be afraid to pause, stop for win, or even fast forward to make sure you get the most out of this tutorial.

So today, we're going to be looking at US classes. Now there's another tutorial out there about the class structure, this one is going to be specifically breaking down classes in the United States of America.

So I'm going to start here by us looking at this chart here. I made this graph using data from the 2009 US Census on income distribution. And what it's showing us is how much money people make in the United States of America.

As I go through looking at class here, we're going to end up talking a lot about income. And as you'll see as we go through the major classes in America, income isn't everything, but it is an important component to what makes up a class. So let's look at this graph and break it down for a second, make sure you understand it before we move on.

On the bottom, we have the amount of money being made and on the left, we have the percentage of people within that population. This graph shows you a pretty equal distribution of wealth. You can see that yeah, there are some groups of people that make a little bit more money than other people. But, in general, there's not a huge pocket of people making one specific amount of money.

Now, this graph basically uses the same data, but it tells a totally different story. This graph really highlights how wealthy people make so much more than non-wealthy people. So it highlights an unequal distribution of wealth in America.

What this graph is really showing us is that yes, a lot of us generally make around the same amount of money, but people at the really, really high end of wealth make considerably more money than everyone else in society. This is often referred to as the ultra rich or the 1%.

But in general in America, our class system is divided into three major classes. We have the lower class, the middle class, and the upper class. Different sociologists are going to define what exactly makes someone as upper class versus middle class versus lower class a little bit differently.

So let's go through the classes. First, we're going to look at is the upper class. Now the upper class are the wealthy people in society. You can think of about one in 20 people belonging to the upper class. And the upper class-- as we saw in that graph that had the breakdown a percentile-- we have those ultra, ultra rich who make millions of dollars every year and people who are definitely well-off that are also still considered upper class. But even within this class, there's a wide distribution of how much money people make.

Often, those people at the really high end of this social class, they actually don't work for their money, per se. Their money earns money for them. They earn wealth through wealth.

Maybe they're getting royalties from books they've sold. Or they own property, and they're collecting rent on people that live in those properties. Or they're getting income through stocks. A lot of people earn wealth through these kind of investments, but the really high end of the upper class, that's how they earn the majority of their wealth.

Now stepping away from wealth, there are some other things that being upper class means. You can consider people in the upper class generally having a very high status and high power. They're well-off, and they're highly educated. Again, this isn't true for everyone in the upper class, but generally speaking, people that are in the upper class have all those traits going for them.

Now the middle class is really the bulk of American society. You can think about three out of five people belong to the middle class, so that's about 60% of the population. And here you're going to see a very wide range of cultural traits within the middle class. I think the upper class is the widest range of economical differences between those ultra, ultra rich and the rest of the wealthy people. Well, the middle class has some really interesting cultural differences amongst middle class people.

So this is the middle class. They're going to fall basically in the middle between the lower class and the upper class. Financially, they have the less than the wealthy, but more than the poor. They also generally have some social and cultural power, but it's really going to vary by the individual.

A great example of someone in the middle class who might have a lot of social and cultural power, but not as much economical power-- think about professors. Professors are widely regarded in society as being good. People trust what they say. People look up to them. They have a lot of cultural power. But economically, they don't really make that much money. That's some of that variability within the middle class.

Now before we move on to working class, I just want to talk briefly about the rise and fall of the middle class. America is really a society built on the middle class. When America has been doing well, America's had a really thriving middle class. You can see that most poignantly after World War II. The middle class takes off and is successful, and all society benefits.

Now you might have heard in the news, some talk of the fall of the middle class. That it's becoming harder to stay in the middle class, and that the ultra rich are pulling away from society. So more people are falling into the lower income brackets. I think there is some truth to that, but there's also a really interesting way the middle class is changing.

I think you're seeing more people with really high social and cultural power. So people like those professors, people who are highly educated, creative people who don't financially make that much money. You're seeing people that's spent a long time in college, and they get multiple post-secondary degrees, and they work really hard at that, and then they leave school a lot of debt. And so they never really are financially that successful. Again, there;s that varying social and cultural power.

A part of the middle class and the lower class is the working class. Different parts of the world are going to define the working class differently. I actually have a friend who's from England, and whenever he's talking about the working class, he's actually talking about the lower class.

Generally, though, here in America when we're talking with the working class, we're talking about people with low status jobs. And these people with low status jobs, they can be in the middle class or the lower class. They're defined as much by the status of their job as the amount of money they make. A good example of that would be a plumber.

I think most of us consider a plumber to be a working class job, but plumbers actually make a pretty good living. In fact, being a good plumber, I believe, you can make more than being a good young teacher in this modern society.

But we'd never call a teacher working class. No, a teacher's a white collar job. Working class, again, it's really tied into the status of that job.

Lastly, we're going to look at the lower class. This is about a third of the US population. And here, you're seeing the bottom end of the socioeconomic scale. You're seeing people with less economical power, less social power, less cultural power.

Again, it's not to say that they don't have power, and you have some exceptions to that. Independent farmers are generally poor. They have low economical power. But culturally, we look up to farmers, and we think positively farmers.

Also, you could think about hip-hop music or just music, in general. A lot of musicians maybe fall into this lower class when you're looking at them financially, but they have a lot of social and cultural power. And they can really affect change within the society.

In general, when we're looking at the lower class, we're looking at less educational levels. Again, it's not to say that there aren't people who are highly educated in the lower class or people that aren't well-off that aren't uneducated. But generally speaking, the lower class has a lower level of education than the other classes.

Now the term I want to throw at you for the lower class is the working poor. The working poor are people that work really hard, but they can never seem to get ahead, and so they remain poor. Sociologists love to look at the working poor because in some ways, they contradict the American dream.

America says that if you work hard, and you put in your time, and you do all the right things, you follow the law, you're going to be successful. And you're going to get to have all these great rewards like a house you own, cars-- all these things that we say you can get if you just buy into the system. Well, the working poor work really, really hard, but they just can't get out of the cycle of poverty. They remain poor.

And when you look at the breakdown of the lower class, I would say the majority of poor are working poor. There aren't very many people who are poor who don't work at all. And, in fact, most people who are poor and don't work at all, they're dealing with some sort of other issue, some psychological issue.

Maybe they're a vet who came back and has post-traumatic stress syndrome or they have schizophrenia. There's some other issues generally going on that is contributing to them to not really working. The majority of the lower class is working, and they're working hard, but they can't get out of being poor.

So today's takeaway message-- we looked at the three major classes in the United States of America. We looked at the upper class, the middle class, and the lower class. Upper class being at the top, middle in the middle, lower at the bottom.

We also had a little distinction there with the working class, and that falls somewhere between the middle and low classes. And that's people with a low status job, generally blue collar. And we also looked at the working poor, and these are people who continue to work, but can't seem to get ahead so they remain poor.

Well, that's it for this lesson. Good work, and hopefully you'll be seeing me on your screen again soon. Peace.

Terms to Know
Lower Class

Members make less than $30,000 a year.

Middle Class

Members make between $30,000-$200,000 a year; contains 3/5 of Americans.

Upper Class

Members make more than $200,000 a year.

Working Class

Members from both the lower class and the upper class who make up to $50,000 a year and have little or no savings or investments.

Working Poor

People who work hard but cannot seem to get ahead, they live paycheck to paycheck and struggle to make ends meet.