The class system in America puts those with the most wealth, power, and prestige at the top of the hierarchy and those with the least at the bottom. This article discusses stratification and class in the United States. It defines what stratification is, looks at the major sociological theories regarding stratification, and describes the major stratification systems of slavery, caste, and class, with a focus on the class system in America. It goes on to discuss inequality and poverty; the causes of poverty, such as job sprawl and spatial mismatching; the feminization of poverty; and some possible solutions to the problems caused by inequality in the United States.
Keywords Absolute Poverty; Alienation; Capitalist Class; Class Conflict; Exurbs; Income; Job Deskilling; Job Sprawl; Meritocracy; Middle Class; Pink Collar Workers; Poverty Threshold; Prestige; Power; Relative Poverty; Socioeconomic Status (SES); Spatial Mismatching; Status Consistency; Underclass; Wealth; Working Class; Working Poor
The Class System
In the late 1970s, the United States experienced an economic downturn and the beginnings of post-industrialization, whereby many manufacturing jobs began leaving America for low-income countries and for workers willing to accept much lower wages than US workers. These changes caused economic inequality to increase dramatically, and Americans began to wonder whether there was a way to reverse the trend for themselves and their own families. Was education the answer to turning the income tide? College became a huge industry, with more and more people seeking not the traditional liberal arts education but rather college programs that would translate into job skills. What about the people who lagged behind them in education and could not catch up, or those who could not afford to enter the world of computers and high technology? Would they be able to compete with those segments of the population that managed to stem the low economic tide? If not, what will happen to them in this land of the rich, where poverty exists but is often hidden behind mass-market clothing, easy credit, and cheap consumer items (Neckerman, 2004)?
In order to begin examining these issues and more, some background in the sociology of stratification is needed.
What Is Stratification?
The United States is divided into social groups, or classes, with the divisions based on the wealth, prestige, and power of members of each group. Because these groupings are hierarchical, with the top categories receiving more of the opportunities available in America, the country is said to have a system of stratification. This hierarchical system puts those with the most wealth, power, and prestige at the top of the hierarchy and those with the least at the bottom.
The Major Stratification Systems: Slavery, Caste,
There are three basic historical social systems in use in the world:
• The caste system, and
• The class system.
Each of these systems is subject to erosion as technology and industrialization become central to a country's economy. In the southern United States, until the late nineteenth century, slavery was an important part of the plantation-based agrarian economic system. But advances in technology allowed the plantation system that required human toil to be replaced by agribusinesses utilizing machinery that could do the work of hundreds of people.
Some might argue that in the United States, there is more of a caste system than a class system, because there is less upward mobility for some social groups than people might think. Indeed, the class system is a stratification system based on birth, like the caste system, as well as on achievement (Macionis 2007).
Slavery and the caste system are both closed systems of stratification. Both should begin to erode with the advent of industrialization. India is an example of a country where the caste system is slowly dissolving as education and employment become more universal. Slavery involves the ownership of some people by other people. Slaves are considered property; they have little or no control over their own lives or, often, over the lives of their offspring. Historically, there have been only five Western slave societies: ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, the United States, the Caribbean, and Brazil (Engerman, 1995).
The caste system is a closed system in that people's social status is decided at birth, usually because of their parents' status. Others are placed in a caste based on their race or the type of work that they do. Many have argued that a caste system exists in the United States, where poor children tend to remain poor and fail to experience upward mobility into upper strata. Others point to various guest worker programs that have been proposed for immigrants, including the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013. Both legal and illegal immigrants, whether they are living and working in the United States with or without proper paperwork, are necessary to the nation's economy. Through their labor, their taxes, and their consumerism, they contribute to the wealth of the American middle class.
It is argued that undocumented immigrants' status as second-class citizens would be institutionalized through a guest worker program. Undocumented workers are often exploited, working for low wages in poor working conditions. If they complain, employers can threaten to have them deported. Entire industries, such as meatpacking, use many undocumented workers, making up a critical mass of employees; this threatens the livelihoods and standards of other American workers, who end up competing with immigrants who accept less pay. With US jobs offering lower pay and benefits, the exploitation of immigrants could be undermining American workers as well (Traub, 2007).
As a society moves from an agrarian economic base to an industrial one, people must be placed in a variety of jobs requiring various skills and abilities. This process of sorting people leads to a class system, at least in the workplace. Some elements of the caste system exist in a class system. For example, the importance of the family unit in a class system society provides the stability and requirements of duty and loyalty that a caste system produces.
The class system is defined as the most open, allowing people in one class, through social mobility, to have the opportunity to move to a higher class—or even, with downward mobility, to a lower class. Even though birth affects one's social class, through achievement and mobility, a person can end up in a different class from other blood relatives (Macionis, 2007). The class a person occupies determines his or her life chances, or ability to receive more and better resources from the system. Within the class system, inequality among classes levels off when industrialization establishes itself, then begins to increase during a post-industrial phase. This could be caused by the growth of service-related employment, which takes the place of manufacturing jobs and often pays much less.
An industrialized society needs people with a variety of abilities and thus develops a system of rewards in the form of better life chances, wealth, power, prestige, and quality goods. People in a class society come to expect that hard work, talent, and ability will lead to more rewards for some and fewer for others. This is a system of meritocracy. In a caste system, one receives reward for being obedient and dutiful. The class system uses meritocratic methods to increase productivity and efficiency in the workplace but relies on caste-system qualities such as the institution of the family to keep control and order in society (Macionis, 2007).
Class systems offer greater mobility than other systems, so there is less status consistency. For example, someone with a college degree in the United States might make far less than a factory worker in an automobile manufacturing plant, although one would expect the opposite.
Class Differences in the United States Based on Income
At some point in our development as human beings living in the United States, we begin to realize that some people have more than others: more material goods such as houses, cars, nice clothing, and toys, and more opportunities to obtain those goods. It seems that some people have all the latest luxuries that arrive on the market, while others struggle simply to put food on the table for their families and still others sleep in church dooryards. That ability to obtain certain goods and the quality of those goods is generally linked not just to personal preference but also to social class, part of a system of stratification. Stratification means institutionalized inequalities in the distribution of resources such as power, wealth, and status between categories of persons within a single social system. Thus, stratifications are a trait of society and not simply individual determinations (Macionis, 2007). These inequalities, which tend to run along race, class, and gender lines, help determine the ownership and control of resources and the type of work that people perform.
Compounding and perpetuating the problem is the fact that the US economy is blind to the needs of people who have fewer resources than others. Thus, a large number of Americans are not only poor but also less able to participate fully in society (Koepke, 2007).
Differences in the ability of some to accumulate more than others have historically led to conflicts between groups that have achieved success and those who feel that they have not received their fair share of society's wealth. This inequality continues to exist today in the United States. In 2010, of the thirty-four countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the United States ranked fourth in terms of inequality of income distribution, beaten only by Turkey, Mexico, and Chile (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2011).
Further Insights: Why Does Stratification Exist?
Sociologists use the accepted theoretical perspectives to look at and explain social class differences and how they relate to social inequality.
The Functionalist Perspective
Functionalists look for the things in society that make it stable and help it run smoothly and efficiently. Their perspective finds that inequality must exist and is not harmful. Certain positions in society are more important than others, and they must be filled by the most qualified people. These people must have the ability and the talent to perform these jobs and, therefore, must be compensated with a higher level of income, wealth, prestige, and power. One example might be a heart surgeon, who must spend years in school and in training and who has the welfare, if not the entire life, of an individual in his or her hands. This system of rewarding people with wealth, power, and prestige for their work in jobs that are unique and demanding is called a meritocracy. A meritocracy is a hierarchical system that rewards people based on their abilities and their credentials.
This thesis, by two prominent social scientists, argues that stratification is necessary and beneficial for the smooth operation of a society. The greater the functional importance of a person's job, the more he or she should be rewarded for it. This makes others want to strive for the same rewards and thus increases productivity. Equality among all people would essentially make them lazy and unmotivated to achieve (Macionis, 2007). This is an argument that is often used...
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