Because America promotes the notion that one can achieve anything if one only works hard enough, the subject of class is a sensitive topic. However, the U.S. is a highly stratified society, and the working class is increasingly experiencing less social and economic mobility. Even though many people immigrate (both legally and illegally) to the U.S. in pursuit of greater economic opportunities, the majority end up as part of the working class and remain there. One of the reasons for this is that the country is becoming more divided between rich and poor, and the working class is being shunted into the latter category. The existence of a "middle class" is becoming less of a reality. Despite this, the working class continues to make an enormous and important contribution to American society.
Keywords Assimilation; Blue-Collar Workers; Capitalism; Class; Meritocracy; Social Mobility; Stratification; Tokenism
The Working Class
Workers are often considered the backbone of a society. To a large degree, the working class is made up of the people we refer to as "blue-collar workers." These workers may be skilled or unskilled and work in a wide range of fields such as manufacturing, mining, construction, home renovations, temporary daily labor, maintenance and repair, and other forms of physical labor. The notion of a working class can actually be a vague term, and it can vary from country to country depending on the ways in which the various social strata are defined. In America, the working class generally consists of laborers who are distinguished from "white collar workers" such as academics, businesspeople, or sales executives. The working class is also generally thought of as having a lower or limited education. However, defining the working class is becoming ever more difficult. According to Smock (1995):
In addition to bluecollar workers, arguing justifiably that the demarcation between working class and lower middle class has become even more blurred in recent years. What the men and women in these families have in common are jobs paying low wages, little or no discretionary income, and vulnerability to bouts of unemployment (p. 187).
Class, Social Mobility
While the dream of upward mobility and achieving the "American Dream" continues to persist not only in the U.S. and in other countries, the reality is that America has always been a stratified society. There have always been the rich, the middle class, and the poor. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, the lines between middle class and the working class began to blur. The majority of these people are in the working class. They have regular jobs, bring in a regular salary, and may even have a pension fund and health insurance. However, the likelihood of ever moving beyond the working class is becoming less and less likely all the time.
One of the key issues facing the working class is social inequality. In fact, one could make the argument that decreasing social mobility and social inequality are very much related to each other. The longer an individual or family remains part of the working class, the more difficult it becomes to move out of that class and the more they are affected by social inequality. Social mobility in the U.S. has a strong correlation with white collar work and the ability to save money beyond one's monthly paycheck. In other words, if a person or family continues to subsist on their monthly income but cannot save beyond that, there is little to no likelihood (unless they win the lottery or inherit money) that they will ever move beyond the working class.
The Working Poor
Within the larger group referred to as the working class, there is the group known as the "working poor." These are people who live either on or just below the poverty line, and the statistics are grim. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, "10.5 million individuals were among the ‘working poor’ in 2010; this measure was little changed from 2009." (U.S. Department of Labor, 2012, p. 1).
Although social mobility is increasingly difficult to achieve, America is still considered to have an open class system. This suggests that while people may be born into a class, they are not expected to remain there. One of the most enduring principles of American society is that hard work and especially achievement can lead to a person's movement up the "social ladder." Hard work has always been highly prized in America and viewed as a means of improving one's life (Loeb, 1961).
Some would suggest that there are inherent inequalities in American society that make social mobility difficult. As stated above, persons in the working class usually work some form of physical labor, or they work in the service industry. After a day of such work, people are often tired to the point of exhaustion. Many come home to families and face a whole new set of responsibilities—decisions regarding children, bills to pay, etc. The majority of these people do not have the money, energy, or freedom to attend night school and educate themselves for a better job and higher salary. There are many who cannot afford a home computer in order to pursue online education. In addition, the country's economic downturn in 2008 led to a high percentage of layoffs, leaving the working class in an even more vulnerable position. If they were fortunate enough not to be laid off, they might still be in the position of having uncertain or part-time employment and the possibility of unstable work.
The subject of race and class in America continues to be one of the most contentious and emotional to deal with. The history of race in America has been a difficult one even though the country has often been thought of (and has actually been) a haven for people from a wide range of countries and cultures. Yet, the truth is that people of color are the majority of the working class in America. "Hispanics and Blacks continued to be much more likely than Whites and Asians to be among the working poor. In 2010, 14.1 percent of Hispanics and 12.6 percent of Blacks were among the working poor, compared with 6.5 percent of Whites and 4.8 percent of Asians” (U.S. Department of Labor, 2012, p. 1)..
The fact that African Americans and Latinos continue to be the majority of the poor or working class translates into fewer opportunities for social mobility. This color divide represents a disturbing reality for American society. It translates into a grim future for people of color and far less chance to change that reality than was previously thought to be true.
Education has long been considered the "bridge to social mobility" in America. It has generally been accepted that the higher one's education, the greater the opportunities for social mobility. Education and social mobility were once thought to be highly connected. While that may be true to some degree, there is also a case to be made that education simply reinforces class status rather than serving as a bridge for social mobility.
Some researchers suggest that instead of creating a path to social mobility, the educational system often reinforces the status quo. While there have been and continue to be initiatives implemented to try to ensure that the educational system is equal for all, some still say that this is more of a fantasy than a reality. The truth for working-class students is that they come from a background where resources are limited, and there may be a need for them to take a part-time job at a younger age than they are ready to in order to access postsecondary education. According to Rouse and Barrow (2006):
For low-income students, greater psychological costs, the cost of forgone income (continuing in school instead of getting a job), and borrowing costs all help to explain why these students attain less education than more privileged children. And these income-related differences in costs may themselves be driven by differences in access to quality schools. As a result, U.S. public schools tend to reinforce the transmission of low socioeconomic status from parents to children (p. 99).
At least one study suggests that children from working class families are always behind the proverbial "eight ball" due to the reduced access to resources and information. "Students in poor and minority neighborhoods are less well prepared academically; ill-prepared to select colleges, apply for admission, and secure acceptance; and poorly informed about the cost of attending college and the availability of needs-based financial aid" (Haveman & Smeeding, 2006, p. 126).
According to Hurst (2007), barriers for working-class students exist in higher education too. In particular, they have...
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