Stratification & Class: Income Inequality
Income inequality has been a central issue of social research for decades among political scientists, sociologists, economists, and policy analysts. Many factors have been investigated as the central cause for income inequality in the United States. Additionally, there has been a growing concern regarding the gap between the richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor. Understanding the process of, and the factors contributing to, income inequality and the growing disparity between the wealthy and the poor helps scholars better understand the adverse consequences of inequality for individual health and personal security.
Keywords Conflict Theory; Functionalism; Income Inequality; Synergistic Effect of Race and Gender; Social Stratification; Structural Inequality
What is social stratification? How does income inequality contribute to stratification in the Unites States? Is stratification necessary for society to function?
These issues are of central importance to understanding the very nature of society and how individual opportunities are restricted or expanded based on their family status. Yet, many people are oblivious to how social stratification and income inequality influences their daily lives. Issues such as these fit into the broader study of social inequality, and more specifically, income inequality. They also shed light on the consequences of inequitable access to resources and how income inequality affects individuals, educational opportunities, job opportunities, advancement in employment, and living a long and healthy life.
Social stratification is the umbrella under which these concepts are united. In the United States, as is the case around the world, there is patterned inequality that divides society into categories in which there are disparities between access to social and economic rewards, with some people having more opportunity than others. Most scholars who investigate income inequality start from the foundation that there is social inequality that exists in the United States. This is attributed to variation in wealth, power, and prestige (Thio, 1992). Under the umbrella of scholarship on social stratification is one that focuses specifically on income as a primary factor that leads to differential opportunities and outcomes for members of society. Once thought of as a part of life (i.e., people are rich because they always have been, and the poor are poor because they don't work as hard), today many scholars are pointing to structural factors rather than individual choices as the major driving force behind social stratification, income inequality and the growing disparities between the rich and the poor. These scholars argue that inequality is not necessarily a function of society, but rather a result of institutional arrangements that perpetuate inequality from generation to generation.
The results of inequality have also garnered additional attention among sociologists, economists, political scientists, criminologists, healthcare, and social service providers. Social and income inequality are political issues that are gaining attention in the media, among the public and politicians.
Today there is still little consensus among these scholars regarding the causes and consequences of social inequality, income inequality, and ultimately the effects of inequitable opportunity on individual lives.
Theories of Inequality
There are many competing theories that attempt to explain income inequality on a national and international level. Most of these theories can be categorized into one of two theoretical camps: functionalism and conflict theory. The functionalist perspective asserts that inequality is a central component to the organization of society and serves a purpose in structuring social relationships. On the other hand, conflict theorists argue that income inequality is part of a socio-structural force lead by elites to increase their wealth and opportunity at the expense of the working and middle classes.
The theory of structural functionalism, coined by Davis and Moore (1945), asserted that stratification was necessary in society. The primary reasons given for their claims were that stratification serves a useful function of society. That is, not every job or task is equally important or desirable; these various tasks require different skills and therefore, in order to fill such positions there must be variation in the types of rewards given. Davis and Moore (1945) go on to explain that the function of stratification is to motivate the labor force in a highly competitive market and that without competition for higher pay (and thus, access to resources) it would be difficult to fulfill all of the needs of society. In other words, if a lawyer whose job requires extensive training and multiple degrees and the garbage collector were paid the same amount, nobody would want to collect the garbage or spend the additional time earning a law degree to become a lawyer. More specifically related to income inequality, Davis and Moore (1945) argue that the reason there is such a disparity in income between those at the top of the social ladder and those at the bottom is (1) those at the top have more skills; and (2) those at the bottom perform jobs that are less important than those at the top.
In a significant departure from structural functionalism, many scholars who adhere to the writings of Karl Marx regarding capitalism argue that inequality is not necessary, nor does it serve a pertinent function. Rather, as they see it, inequality is a symptom of societal dysfunction. Scholars such as Tumin (1953) claim that inequality provides opportunity to the privileged while at the same time limiting the possibilities for those in the working class. Moreover, it works to reinforce the status quo whereby the rich are able to secure their privilege in society and those who are less privileged are forced to work under the rules of the privileged. Finally, because of the disproportionate system of rewards, there is the possibility for those who are less privileged to become hostile to the status quo, resulting in crime or other acts of resistance.
Other scholars who subscribe to the ideas of Marx have further argued that income inequality is an unjust distribution of power whereby those who own large corporations and provide jobs to the working class have the ability to manipulate wages, perception of competition, while preserving their status by exploiting others.
These two competing theories paint a very different picture of the factors that contribute to income inequality. Structural functionalists argue that inequality is a functional force in society that rewards those who do more meaningful work greater than those who do less important jobs. Conflict theorists argue that inequality is a result of larger socio-structural forces that manipulate those with the least power and privilege by promoting competition and controlling wages in favor of the wealthy.
Understanding the theoretical underpinnings of scholarship on social stratification and income inequality is only part of the vast work that has been completed on the subject. One of the most controversial aspects of inequality scholarship is the disparity not only between the rich and the poor but also the patterned inequality that has been shown to exist between whites and other racial groups, between men and women, and between those with low IQs (intelligence quotients) and high IQs, as measured on standardized tests.
The contributions of socioeconomic indicators such as race, gender, and IQ to social stratification and income inequality are central to scholarly debates surrounding the causes and correlates of various subgroups in the population and their social status. Scholars who study these issues often find themselves in the most heated social debates about the causes of inequality.
The issue of racial...
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