Social Class & Poverty in the US: Crash Course Sociology #24

Social Class & Poverty in the US: Crash Course Sociology #24

Social Class in America can be hard
to talk about. And not just because you may find it
awkward to discuss who’s poor and who’s rich,
or who has more power and who has less. As sociologists, the difficulty for us is in pinning
down exactly what we mean by social class. There isn’t just one definition of it, and
the definition you use will depend on what
society you’re interested in. If we go by Marx’s definition, we have two classes:
the bourgeoisie, who own the means of production,
and the proletariat, who do the labor. But this might be too simplistic for our world. If you own a small store, and you work there,
which category do you belong in? Your day-to-day life probably looks more like
that of a retail employee than that of a CEO.

But Marx would put you in the bourgeoisie,
because you own a business and hire workers. So let’s try another definition, one that’s more
in the tradition of our old friend Max Weber. His theories were more about what kinds of
opportunities a person’s class gives them. The owner of a big company has different opportunities
than the owner of a small shop. But they’ll both have different resources available
to them than someone who manages an office,
or somebody who works at a factory. So in this case, a social class can be defined
as a group that’s fairly similar in terms of income,
education, power, and prestige in society. And we can use this definition to better
understand the social classes that make
up society in the United States, and it can help us to answer some of the
questions they raise. Like, is there more than one kind of upper
class? How can the middle class fit everyone who
thinks they belong in it? And what does poverty in America really
look like? [Theme Music] Broadly speaking, American society can be
split into five social classes: upper class, upper middle class, average
middle class, working class, and lower class The upper class consists essentially of the
capitalists in Marx’s system.

This is the top of the income and wealth
distribution – those who earn at least $250,000/year
and control much of the country’s wealth. And as we learned last week – money talks. This group tends to wield a lot of political
and social power. But within the upper class, there are sub
classes that distinguish, by and large, between
old money and new money. The upper-upper class includes those who derive
their wealth from inheritance rather than work. People in this class may have jobs, but usually
they take on more honorary positions such as board
members or heading up philanthropic organizations. But there’s also a large part of the upper
class whose wealth came from work. Most of those we think of as wealthy – the
Bill Gates, Oprah Winfreys, and Kanye West’s
of the world – fall into this group. After upper class comes the middle class. Remember awhile back when we talked
about how almost every American thinks that
they’re middle class? That’s way too many people to fit into the middle,
which is why sociologists split the mid-range of
the income distribution into three groups. Upper middle class families typically have
incomes between $115,000 and $250,000 per year
and make up about 15% of income earners.

About 2/3 of the adults here have college
degrees – and many have post-graduate degrees. It’s almost a given that their kids will
attend college when they grow up. Adults in this sector tend to have jobs that
are considered prestigious – doctors, lawyers,
engineers, and the like. Their families typically own homes in good
school districts, and are able to afford luxuries,
like travel and multiple vehicles. And it may not surprise you to learn that they’re
wealthy, at least compared to most Americans. This group is likely to have wealth from their
home, strong 401Ks, and financial investments. Now, families in the so-called average middle
class make between $50,000 and $115,000 and
make up about 35% of income earners.

Keep in mind, the median family income in
the US is $70,700. So families in this group still tend to own their own
homes, but the mortgages might be more cumbersome. And they have some wealth, usually tied up in their
home or a modest retirement savings account. About half of this group is college-educated,
though they’re more likely to have attended
public universities than private schools. And average middle class jobs are typically
so-called white collar jobs – think office workers,
teachers, middle-managers. In contrast, most blue-collar workers, or
those whose work is primarily based in manual
labor, fall into the lower-middle class. About 30 percent of Americans are in this
category, with incomes ranging from about
25 to 50 thousand dollars a year. Lower middle class families are less likely
to own their own homes and typically hold
little to no wealth. The most defining feature of this social class
is the type of jobs that are associated with it – namely, manual labor, which is why it’s
often referred to as the working class. Factory work, construction, manufacturing,
maintenance work – all of these jobs generally
fall under working class occupations.

And while some working class jobs require
technical skills, they don’t usually require a
college education. It’s important to note that working class jobs are
more sensitive to how the economy is doing, because
these jobs tend to be built around making stuff. When a recession hits, factories need fewer
workers to meet demands. Or the plant’s owners might decide that
it’s cheaper to use machines rather than
workers to produce their goods. And just as vulnerable to economic downturns,
if not more so, is the lower class. Lower class Americans are blue-collar workers
at the bottom of the income distribution. They make less than $25,000 a year and tend to work hourly jobs that are part-time, with unpredictable schedules and no benefits, like health insurance or pensions.

About 20% of Americans, or the bottom quintile,
fall into this group. The majority of these families don’t own
their own homes and are more likely to live in
neighborhoods with higher rates of poverty, lower quality school districts,
and higher crime rates. In contrast to an upper-middle class family,
whose children are likely to go to college, only 9% of children born in the bottom income
quartile complete a four-year college degree. And the lower class also includes many
Americans who are living in poverty. The US government sets an income
benchmark called the federal poverty level, a threshold that’s used, in part, to determine
who’s eligible for public assistance programs,
like food stamps or help with health care.


As of 2017, the federal poverty level for
a family of four is $24,600. And 13.5% of Americans live in households
below that. The government arrives at this figure by estimating
the minimum annual pre-tax income that’s needed to
pay food, shelter, transportation, and clothing costs
for a given household size. Of course, what’s poor in the United States
won’t be the same as in another country – the US federal poverty line is a measure
of relative poverty, based on a standard of
living in the US. Relative poverty is used to describe a lack
of resources compared to others who have more. But absolute poverty is a lack of resources
that threatens your ability to survive. The federal poverty level gives us an indicator
for which Americans have the fewest resources
and lets us examine trends in groups that are the
most economically vulnerable.

For example, groups that can’t work, like
children, the severely disabled, and the frail elderly,
are particularly vulnerable to poverty. But many working Americans are vulnerable to
poverty, too – 12% of working-age adults in poverty
work full-time, and another 29% work part time. These are the working poor. You can see how it’s quite possible to work full
time and still live in poverty, when you do the math. The federal minimum wage in
the United States is $7.25 per hour. A 40 hour work week for 50 weeks a year
would net an income of $14,500, which is well
below the poverty line for a family of four. It’s hard enough to pull yourself out of poverty on a
low-wage income, which is partly why more than half
of families in poverty are headed by single mothers.

Higher rates of poverty among women,
known as the feminization of poverty, is related to the increasing number of
women who are raising children on their
own, and who work low-wage jobs. But in addition to gender, you can also can
look at poverty by race. Contrary to popular belief, most poor
Americans are not Black; in fact, two-thirds
of the poor in the US are white. Black Americans are, however, more likely
to be poor than white Americans: 24.1% of Black Americans, who make up
about 13% of the total American population,
were living in poverty in 2015.

Compare that to 11.6% of white Americans,
who make up about 77% of the total population. Now, the causes of poverty are many. And it’s not easy to understand why some
groups are more vulnerable than others. America likes to think of itself as a nation that
values self-reliance, where anyone can succeed. And this view is partly why some argue that
poverty is the result of an individual’s own
failings, or of certain cultural attitudes.

One of the most famous proponents of this
idea was Daniel Patrick Moynihan – former US senator, ambassador to the
United Nations, and, by trade, a sociologist. A report he wrote while Secretary of Labor
in the Kennedy administration, known as the
Moynihan report, blamed high rates of poverty among African
Americans not on a lack of economic opportunity, but on cultural factors in the Black community,
like high rates of birth outside of marriage. By contrast, American sociologist William Julius
Wilson – who you might remember from episode 7 –
has provided a counter to this idea. Wilson has documented how Black Americans
are much more likely to face institutional barriers to achieving economic success, and are more likely to live in areas where
jobs are scarce. He argues that in order to understand poverty, we
have to look at wider economic and social structures,
as well as the history and culture of racism in the U.S.

Next week, we’ll talk more about how social class
structures affects how Americans live their lives. But for now, you learned about the five
different social classes in the United States: the upper class, the upper middle class,
the average middle class, the working class,
and the lower class. And we discussed what poverty looks
like in the United States. Crash Course Sociology is filmed in the Dr.
Cheryl C. Kinney Studio in Missoula, MT, and it's
made with the help of all these nice people.

Our Animation Team is Thought Cafe and Crash
Course is made with Adobe Creative Cloud. If you'd like to keep Crash Course free for
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