Poor & the Working Poor
The following discusses stratification and social class in the United States. It defines stratification, social class, and poverty. Sociological perspectives including the functionalist belief in a system of meritocracy and the conflict theories surrounding the Marxian two-class system of the bourgeoisie or capitalist class and the proletariat or working class, as well as Max Weber's indices of social class, including wealth, power, and prestige, are discussed. The distinction is made between social classes in the United States based on socioeconomic status and the difference between absolute and relative poverty is explained. The structural and economic reasons for inequality in the United States are examined in terms of race, gender, and other categorizations that can affect wealth. The current state of social class and poverty in the United States is discussed along with ideas for improving the conditions of the poor and the working poor in the nation.
Keywords Absolute Poverty; Alienation; Bourgeoisie; Capitalist Class; Class Conflict; Feminization of Poverty; Income; Meritocracy; Poverty; Power; Prestige; Proletariat; Relative Poverty; Social Class; Social Inequality; Socioeconomic Status (SES); Stratification; Underclass; Wealth; Working Class; Working Poor
Although the United States was founded upon the ideals of equality, meritocracy, and social mobility, the United States is one of the most stratified high-income countries in the world and, beyond that, has the distinction of keeping its poor in their state of poverty longer than any other Western country (Stephen, 2007). According to data aggregated by the World Bank, the United States has higher rates of income inequality than most other high-income countries, including Canada, Australia, South Korea, and the countries of Europe (Luhby, 2011).
Sociological Perspectives on Social Class
Sociologists use various theoretical perspectives to look at and explain social class differences and how they relate to social inequality. This article will discuss social class, stratification, and poverty, as well as the sociological perspectives on each. Social class and stratification refer to how people are grouped into various hierarchical social categories based on individuals’ accumulation of wealth, power, and prestige. These inequalities help to determine the ownership and control of resources and the type and status of the work that people perform. Thus, in the United States, a large portion of the population is not only poor but also less able to participate fully in society (Koepke, 2007).
Differences in the ability for some to accumulate more than others have historically turned into conflicts between groups of people who have felt that they were not receiving their fair share of society's wealth. This inequality continues to exist today in the United States. In fact, among the wealthy nations of the world, the United States receives the distinction of being first in a list of societies with inequality of income distribution (Rothchild, 1995). Although the United States may enjoy more economic equality than most other parts of the world, particularly certain countries of Africa and South America where income inequality is highest, the United States ranks last among the developed countries of the world.
Functionalists look for the factors in a society that make it stable and help it to run smoothly and efficiently. The functionalist perspective finds that inequality must exist and is not necessarily harmful. This view holds that 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 are best compensated with a high level of income, wealth, prestige, and power. For example, a heart surgeon must spend years in school and in training and has the the entire life of an individual in his or her hands. This system of rewarding people for their work with wealth, power, and prestige for jobs that are unique and demanding is called meritocracy. A meritocracy rewards people based on their abilities and their credentials. It is a hierarchical system based on merit.
The most well-known conflict perspective regarding social class is the work of Karl Marx, who believed that one’s wealth and position in society is based on how he or she fits into the system of production as either the owners of the means of production of goods, such as the factories, or as sellers of our labor for an hourly wage. Marx recognized only the two classes: the capitalists, or bourgeoisie who own and control the land, capital, natural resources and the working class, or proletariat, who work for the capitalists to earn a living wage. Marx explained that exploitation of the proletariat by the capitalists occurs because of the excesses production produces, which do not go to the workers, but becomes profit for the capitalists. This makes for an unequal distribution of the accumulated wealth produced. When this occurs, the workers feel a sense of alienation, exploitation, or powerlessness within the equation of capitalist over proletariat. Marx believed that the exploitation of workers would ultimately lead to class conflict and an overthrowing of the capitalists and a more equal distribution of wealth overseen by a more just government.
While neo-Marxists continue to follow the predictions of Marx, others find that because the relationship between ownership and labor has blurred, with workers being compensated with company stock, or partial ownership, in the companies which employed them, that a workers' revolution as envisioned by Marx will not likely occur. With the advent of the credit card and the ease of obtaining credit, the workers often feel that they can afford the things in life that they equate with wealth. They can purchase big-ticket items, such as a car or a home, using credit and still have money left in their accounts for groceries. With this surface of material complacency, it is more difficult to find the deep alienation that Marx observed.
Another prominent social scientist, Max Weber, pointed out that the relationship between the haves and the have-nots was more than simply a two-class conflict between the capitalists and the proletariat. Weber identified three dimensions of stratification—wealth, prestige and power—which determine a person's social class.
Wealth is identified as one's owned assets such as property, income, and investments. Those who have similar levels of such assets are included in the same social class. The more wealth one has, the higher the social class to which he or she belongs. A case in point is Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft Corporation, who enjoys not only wealth, but also two other dimensions, prestige for his accomplishments and his philanthropy and power for his ability to affect the lives of others using his wealth and prestige.
One can also be elevated in social class even without a lot of wealth if he or she commands prestige: the respect of others based on life work, position, or celebrity. For example, Mother Teresa, a nun from Macedonia who won the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize (Nobel Foundation, 1979), spurned the accumulation of wealth and chose to live in poverty, but she was influential worldwide because of her prestige as a champion of the poor.
A third dimension of Weber's notion of social class is power, through which a person can achieve his or her will despite the objections of others. Power may be economic, social, or political and affects one’s level of influence in society.
Symbolic Interactionist Perspective
While functionalist and conflict sociological perspectives take in the "big picture" of society and look at large groups of people, the symbolic interactionist perspective takes a micro level view of topics such as social class and stratification. A symbolic interactionist would study the effects of poverty, for example, on a group of high school students and their grades and ability to attend college. Or, the symbolic interactionist might study the language used in the workplace to identify workers, noting that those with less prestige are often called by their first names, while those with a higher office might be referred to by a title and last name (Rollins, 1985).
What is Stratification?
Because the United States is divided into social classes based on wealth, prestige, and power, it is said to have a system of stratification; this is a hierarchical system that puts those with the most wealth, power, and/or prestige at the top of the hierarchy and those with the least at the bottom.
Several classes have been identified in American society, beginning at the top, with 0.5 percent of the population belonging to the upper-upper class. These people have accumulated wealth over long periods of time typically through inheritance or have come into a great deal of money through the financial services or banking industry, real estate development, or government contracting. People in this class tend to have a great deal of influence on the economy and society, despite the fact that there are few of them (Gilbert, 2003). This group enjoys a disproportionate share of wealth, influence, and power in the United States, such as the ability to borrow money at extremely low rates, to keep profits and production overseas, to divert personal assets to tax havens, and to influence legislation.
The 99th to 99.5th percentiles largely include physicians, attorneys, upper management executives, and small business owners whose businesses have done well. This group earns a disproportionately large share of income, but its members typically have less economic, social, and political power as those in the 99.5th to 99.99th percentiles.
The upper-middle class makes up about 14 percent of the population and is also largely made up of professionals with postgraduate degrees who work in white-collar jobs as physicians, attorneys, and stockbrokers, and those in upper managerial positions.
According to the Pew Research Center, the percentage of Americans living in middle-income households has fallen from 61 percent of all Americans in 1971 to 51 percent in 2011.
The working class makes up another 30 percent of the population and includes factory, clerical, and retail sales workers.
In 2011, according to the US Census Bureau, about 15 percent of the US population (46.2 million) lived below the official poverty level; of those Americans living in poverty, 10.4 million individuals were among the working poor, spending at least twenty-seven weeks in the labor force but earning incomes below the official poverty level. In 2011, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the ratio of the working poor to all individuals in the labor force for at least twenty-seven weeks was 7 percent (US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2013). The working poor include laborers and service industry workers. These people are called the working poor because while they work full time, they do not earn enough to support themselves or their families. Women, African Americans, and Hispanic Americans were more likely than Asian Americans, white Americans, or men to be among the working poor (Gilbert, 2003).
According to sociologists H. Luke Shaefer and Kathryn Edin, in 2011, approximately 1.65 million US households were categorized as living in extreme poverty, or living on less than two dollars per day per person. In 1996, only 1.7 percent of households lived in extreme poverty; by 2001, that number had risen to 2.3 percent and ballooned to 4.3 percent in 2011 (Shaefer & Edin, 2012). The lower class is predominantly made up of temporary, seasonal, or part-time workers, many of whom also receive some form of public assistance. Members of this group generally do not have an education beyond high school and may not work consistently (Gilbert, 2003).
What is Poverty?
As the categories of the working poor and extreme poverty indicate, many people in the United States work yet live in poverty. Poverty is defined by the Social Security Administration as the minimum amount of money needed to maintain a subsistence lifestyle. In 2000, approximately 33.3 million people lived below the official poverty line in the United States, or 12.2 percent of the total population. By 2012, the percentage of Americans living in poverty had increased to 15.9 percent, or 48.8 million Americans.
Who are the Poor?
Statistics show that poverty in the United States affects all races and...
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