Because the United States is divided into social classes based on wealth, prestige, and power, it is said to have a system of stratification, a hierarchical system that 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 in the United States and focuses on social exclusion and poverty. It defines stratification, social class, and aspects of poverty. The distinction is made between social classes, especially the working poor and the underclass in the United States. The structural and economic reasons for inequality of wealth in the US are examined in terms of race, gender, and other categorizations that can affect life chances. The state of social class and poverty in the United States is discussed.
Keywords Absolute Poverty; Discrimination; Feminization of Poverty; Inequality; Living Wage; Meritocracy; Poverty; Prejudice; Relative Poverty; Self-Fulfilling Prophecy; Social Exclusion; Socioeconomic Status (SES); Spatial Mismatch; Stigma; Stratification; Underclass; Working Poor
It is perhaps not surprising that a discussion of social exclusion is a discussion about poverty in the United States. Many Americans believe that the United States is a classless society where people have reasonable expectations to be free, happy and relatively well off. However, experts believe that the United States is one of the most stratified countries in the world and has the distinction of keeping its poor in their state of being for longer amounts of time and more often than any other western country (Stephen, 2007).
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, a hierarchical system that puts those with the most wealth, power, and prestige at the top of the hierarchy, and those with the least at the bottom.
Several classes have been identified in American society, beginning with those in the upper class. This part of the hierarchy comprises only about 15 % of the population, including the old-money rich, sports and entertainment figures, and highly educated professionals, but people in this class tend to have a great deal of influence on the economy and society (Gilbert, 2003). They also own approximately 40% of the nation's wealth, while everybody else shares the remainder (Rothchild, 1995).
Following that, another 60% of the population makes up the middle and working classes. The middle class includes white collar and skilled blue collar workers, while the working class includes factory, clerical and retail sales workers.
Below these two categories, the working poor, about 20% of the population, includes 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. Many single mothers belong to this class, as do African Americans and Latino/as (Gilbert, 2003).
Finally, there is the underclass, about 5% of the population, made up of temporary, seasonal, or part time workers, many of whom also receive some form of public assistance. This group is generally uneducated and does not work consistently, essentially remaining jobless much of the time (Gilbert, 2003).
How is Social Class Determined?
Some people have more of everything than others, which is a good way to begin a definition of relative poverty. If people experience relative poverty, it means that they can provide for the basic necessities of life such as food, shelter and clothing, but compared to those around them, they cannot afford the other material goods and services that are available. If people cannot provide even the basic necessities of life, they are said to experience absolute poverty. The ability to obtain material goods, as well as to accumulate wealth, power, and prestige, is linked to a person's socioeconomic status (SES), and to social class. The United States is a class system, which uses stratification, the institutionalization of inequality that distributes society's resources based on one's class.
Most Americans believe in a meritocratic system, where those who attain higher incomes, more prestige, and more wealth, must deserve their bounty. This belief goes back to what Max Weber called, "Protestant Work Ethic" (Weber, Parsons, & Tawney, 2003) and is referred to simply as "work ethic," which means that hard work and effort will produce the fruits, or rewards, of one's labor. Yet inequalities exist that go against this belief and these inequalities often run along race, age, class and gender lines. A growing segment of the US population is falling below the poverty line and actually lies outside its boundaries. This underclass includes people who experience what is called social exclusion, and who have little or no chance of achieving the American Dream.
To compound and perpetuate the poverty problem is the fact that the US economy is blind to the needs of these people who have fewer resources than others. Thus, a large group of Americans making up the underclass are not only poor, but also less able to participate fully in society (Koepke, 2007).
People identified as part of the underclass often have no measurable living wage. Their employment tends to be seasonal, or sporadic at best, and they have to rely on public assistance programs to achieve even the dire levels of absolute poverty. Their children have only a fifty-fifty chance of rising out of the same poverty themselves (Gilbert, 2003).
The underclass is not simply poor for a short period of time; its members are chronically or long term deprived because of their lack of education, jobs skills, and access to income. African Americans and single mothers make up a large part of the underclass (Gilbert, 2003).
Many social scientists believe that training and employment opportunities are the only things that can bring people out of this type of poverty. The underclass must have jobs that pay a living wage and that offer them some type of medical insurance. They need safe housing and neighborhoods, and healthy food for themselves and their children (Fine & Weiss, 1998). But these people are victims of social exclusion poverty.
Social Exclusion - Another Name for Poverty
To exclude is to leave out. The very poor in America, the underclass, make up about 5% of the population. While efforts to help the poor are historic since the reform movements of the nineteenth century and later in the twentieth century, poverty is still with us. In the 1930s, the US government made efforts to create social programs to help people out of the poverty caused by the Great Depression. In the 1960s, more social programs to fight poverty were implemented. But in years past, the funding for these programs has begun to decline and education and training, decent housing and health care insurance have been lost to many poor Americans (Carrillo, 2006).
Who Are the Poor in America?
In 1963, the War on Poverty was launched with the Social Security Administration's concept of poverty and measures of poverty thresholds (http://www.irp.wisc.edu).
National statistics on poverty are calculated using the official Census definition of poverty, the same definition that was coined in the 1960s. “Poverty is determined by comparing pretax cash income with the poverty threshold, the federal poverty measure, which adjusts for family size and composition. In 2006, according to the official measure, 36.5 million people, 12.3% of the total US population, lived in poverty” (Institute for Research on Poverty, 2007).
“In 2006, 17.4% of individuals under age 18 lived in poverty. Poverty rates among black and Hispanic children are very much higher than among white children and have been so since the Census Bureau began making separate estimates” (Institute for Research on Poverty, 2007).
Abruptly said, being poor means being short of money. Income below the absolute poverty line, which we define here as access to and provision of basic life needs including food, clothing and shelter. But research and experience with antipoverty programs have proved too, that poverty involves not just a lack of money, but some very complex, interrelated and sometimes intractable socioeconomic, family, and individual issues. According to Haveman (2008), these include:
• Attaining minimum standards of food and shelter
• Sufficient available time for home production/child care
• Access to important social institutions
• Cognitive and non-cognitive skills
• Educational attainment (e.g., less than a high school degree)
• Labor force and employment status (e.g., living in a jobless household)
• The quality of housing (e.g.,...
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