About Class

For years, class has been a taboo topic. Here are some frequently asked questions to move past that taboo.

What do you mean by class?
Class is a relative social rank in terms of income, wealth, education, status/position, and/or power.

A class consists of a large group of people who share a similar economic and/or social position in society based on their income, wealth, property ownership, job status, education, skills, or power in the economic and political sphere. Class is determined not just by “economic capital” (what you earn or own) but also by “social capital” (who you know) and “cultural capital” (what you know). Our class identity affects us on the personal and emotional level, not just in economic terms, since it influences how we feel about ourselves and others.

What do you mean by “classism?”
Classism is when someone is treated differently—better or worse—because of their class (or perceived class). Classism is similar in many ways to racism, sexism, heterosexism and other forms of oppression. Classism appears individually through attitudes and behaviors, institutionally through policies and practices, and culturally through norms and values. Like other forms of oppression and prejudice, it is the tendency to make sweeping generalizations or stereotypes about people, such as “Poor people are lazy.”

Isn’t the United States a “classless” society?
No. There are classes in the U.S. just like everywhere else in the world. However, we do a great deal to deny or mask class differences, and there is more confusion about the role of class in our society than in many other countries.

How does classism show itself?
On an interpersonal level, classism might play out when a middle- or higher-class person acts arrogant, superior, or entitled—or is considered smarter or more articulate than a working-class or poor person. As the dominant group, people on the higher end of the class spectrum, and institutions get to define what is “normal” or “acceptable” behavior in the class system. But classism also shapes the structures and rules of institutions, so that privilege also has real financial benefits for higher-class individuals.

What are the different classes?
There is no precise definition or delineation of class groups. The most commonly used class identities are: upper class (or owning class), middle class, working class, and poor. Another way of looking at class is as a hierarchy of access to money and power. At the “top” are the Haves, or Dominants, and at the bottom are Have-Nots or Subordinates. Most of us occupy places along that continuum and experience both domination and subordination in various aspects of our lives.

Aren’t we primarily a middle-class society?
Because we don’t talk straight about class, there is a lot of confusion as to where each of us fits into the picture. As a result, most people in our society (80 to 90 percent in some surveys), including very poor and very wealthy people, identify themselves as some version of “middle class” — a symptom of the myth that we are classless society.

How do I know what class I’m in?
Our class position and identity can change during our lifetimes as our income, wealth, and occupational status change. But our class of origin usually shapes us most deeply. Because there is no exact dividing line between classes, it’s useful to consider a variety of questions, including your parents’ level of education, the kind of work they did (skilled or unskilled), whether your family’s income was earned or inherited, where you lived and if you owned, rented or lived in public housing, whether your family had health insurance, etc.

I’m confused. Is class a subjective feeling or a function of how much money I have?
It’s both, and more. Class is relative, both subjective (how we feel) and objective (in terms of our access to financial and social resources and decision-making). Some unionized industrial workers earn as much as a college professor but identify as working class because of their family history, the lower status accorded to their job, or the limited amount of control they have at work. We also experience class very differently depending on our race, gender and ethnic backgrounds. But while there are subjective considerations, it is accurate to say that people at the top end of the economic class spectrum are mostly dominant and derive substantial benefits and privileges from our class system, while virtually everyone at the bottom end is subordinate and has limited access to the material benefits of our society. However, our felt experience often varies depending on whether we are looking “up” or “down” the class continuum.

Can I tell if someone is poor or rich by looking at them?
Maybe. But more often you risk reinforcing stereotypes. There are a lot of “millionaires next door” who may have a high net worth but don’t look any different than their working-class neighbors. For various reasons, people of all classes have learned to disguise, hide, “code switch,” or adapt their class identity. It makes more sense to suspend tired stereotypes and get to know people’s real stories.

What’s the line between “working class” and “poor”?
The federal government has an official definition of poverty. In 2005, a family of four with an income of less than $19,350 fell below the national “poverty line.” But in most regions of the country that’s far from enough to adequately support a family. (See the “Family Budget Calculator” www.epi.org/content.cfm/datazone_fambud_budget for a more accurate measure of the income needed to get out of poverty in different geographical areas.)

In our definition of class, poverty is more than an economic measure. True poverty is both an economic status and a lack of power over the forces in one’s life. There are people who are deeply disenfranchised from society and have little power in their lives, even though they might have an income over the official poverty line. There are those who might be economically poor but are self-sufficient in terms of growing food or exercising power in their lives and in their communities.

How does classism hurt poor and working-class people?
Depriving people of what they need to meet their basic material needs can hurt or even kill them. Classist attitudes in public policy can lead to hunger, disease, homelessness and other forms of deprivation.

Sometimes, people who are poor or working class internalize the society’s destructive beliefs and attitudes and turn them against themselves and others of their class. These can include feelings of inferiority to higher-class people, shame about one’s traditional class or ethnic heritage, and superior attitudes toward people lower on the class spectrum, resulting in the conviction that classist institutions, policies, and practices are fair. These are the sometimes hidden injuries and wounds of classism.

How does classism hurt wealthy and owning-class people?
Everyone is placed at a disadvantage when they have a limited interaction with their world, no matter how much money or material wealth they have acquired. Existing within gated communities, real or assumed, which chronically over-shelter owning-class people, can prevent them from obtaining a secure sense of place or purpose within a dynamic human community. Many owning-class people remain largely unaware of their economic privilege, which can inhibit them from satisfying their basic human desire to experience an authentic life. And upon becoming aware of their economic privilege, wealthy people can suffer from the guilt, shame and depression often associated with the realization that they may not feel like they deserve what they have, and that much of what they have may have come at the expense of other people.

Does classism contribute to inequality?
Yes. Because class and classism are so invisible and such a taboo subject, we often accept classist myths about other people. These myths fuel wider attitudes that in turn influence decisions, rules, laws and policies. Such policies have a real and dramatic impact on people’s economic possibilities and social lives. For instance, why do we tolerate such grotesque levels of wealth inequality in our society? At some level, we believe in a myth that says “people get what they deserve in our economy.”

But isn’t inequality a reflection of people’s different levels of effort, intelligence, and education?
No. We are far from having a really level playing field. Of course, people bring varying levels of effort and skill to their work. But these differences can’t explain the enormous disparities that currently exist. According to the Economic Policy Institute, “the average CEO earns more before lunch in one day than the average minimum wage worker earns all year”—a compensation ratio of 821:1. Is anyone really worth that much more than someone else? These obscene discrepancies are better explained by social attitudes, inherited class advantage, family of origin, and power—not inherent or learned ability.

What about all those people who were poor and became rich because of their own efforts?
There is no question that people rise and fall in our class system. We pride ourselves on a certain degree of mobility and class fluidity—and periodic stories of “rags to riches” reflect the possibilities that exist for upward mobility. But there are a lot of smart people who work extremely hard and live very economically insecure lives. The growing reality is that we think of ourselves as much more mobile than we factually are. Research shows that most people stay in the income group they start life in. The single biggest determinant of one’s class identity as a middle-aged adult is not your education level or job, but your father’s occupation and income (The Century Foundation). As a society, we tend to focus on individuals, not on the social structures and social context that impact and shape them.

How much of a role does inherited privilege play in our society?
Humorist Will Rogers once said: “If there was a correlation between wealth and hard work, we’d see a lot of rich lumberjacks.” It’s estimated that over 50 percent of wealth is inherited, which means winning the game of “ovarian roulette” is a major factor. But there are more subtle and invisible ways in which inherited privilege and advantages explain current class outcomes. Someone born into a U.S. family that is white, owns property, and has higher education levels competes in our economy with some clear advantages over someone who is born outside the U.S., is a person of color, and has less family wealth, property and educational opportunity.

Are you saying my efforts and hard work don’t matter?
No. Individual effort, creativity and wits do matter. But should they justify such huge canyons of inequality? At some point, we need to ask: “What kind of society do we want to live in? What is the price of ‘dog eat dog’ competition when the winners get mansions and private jets and the losers become homeless or, at the very least, have little or no access to health care and lead shorter lives of toil and hardship? Where does hard work end and inherited advantage begin?”

Are classism and inequality the result of our system of values?
We’ve built a society and culture around certain values of competition and individual private wealth. We celebrate and value certain people and what they do much more than others. But wouldn’t we all be better off if everyone’s efforts were valued and maximized? Are teachers really worth so much less than bond traders? Is paid work the only way to value someone’s contribution to society? What about the invisible “caring economy” and the unpaid work that many women do? Should we focus so much on individual achievement and merit to the detriment of strong community institutions and values of sharing? If we can unpack some of the myths about class, maybe we can have an honest conversation about the values underlying our economy.

Isn’t the U.S. the most upwardly mobile society in the world?
Not anymore. It used to be that the U.S. was a mobile society and the “old world” countries of Europe had rigid class systems and limited mobility. But unfortunately, there has been a reversal in these trends. In the thirty years after World War II, in the years 1947 to 1977, the U.S. experienced rising opportunity and mobility. But as the Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman recently observed in The Wall Street Journal, “The big finding in recent years is that the notion of America being a highly mobile society isn’t as true as it used to be.” This is why we have a stake in making sure the economy works for everyone, not just the very wealthy. To read more on declining U.S. mobility see www.classism.org/about_class.php

Isn’t race more important than class in explaining inequalities and problems in society and the economy?
Because of our history of racism in the U.S., we cannot pretend that race isn’t a dominant stamp upon our class system. There are deep interconnections and complex interactions between race and class, as well as gender. Bill Fletcher Jr., president of TransAfrica Forum, writes: “Class is the fault line of U.S. society and race is the trip wire.” But “ranking” oppressions and saying that one is more important than the other is not constructive. In order to deal effectively with classism we need to deal with racism and sexism. And in order to deal effectively with racism or sexism, we need to deal with class.

Aren’t people of color the majority of poor people?
No. The majority of poor people in the United States are white. But because class has been racialized in the U.S., a greater percentage of people of color live in poverty. Poverty and unemployment rates for African-Americans, Latinos (Hispanics), and Native Americans are more than double that of white Americans. We all need to broaden our understanding of how race, class, and gender oppressions are linked.

Is the owning class the only class of people who have power?
While most economic and political power is concentrated at the top of the class spectrum, not all power is in the hands of the wealthy. Other people have the power of community, the power to survive, the power of faith and of organizing, the power of working creatively to change systems.