In his research on the children of the rich and the poor, Robert Coles asked the children to draw pictures of themselves with crayons. He found that poor children often do a hasty and incomplete job, drawing an unflattering picture. "Sometimes they are unwilling to complete what they have begun-as if they are unsure of life itself," notes Coles. A migrant child once told him, very matter-of-factly,that he didn't think he would live beyond the age of 20. Coles felt that this was simply a child who knew the score for someone in his situation. The children of business executives, doctors, and lawyers also know the score for themselves, reftecting this in their carefully drawn pictures of themselves, their homes, and their surroundings. (Coles, 1977, p. 386 and passim)

Although sociologists differ in the way they define social class, they agree on its importance in the lives of individuals and societies. In this chapter we begin by examining some of the ways social class has been defined and measured; then we analyze how class differences affect life chances and life-styles. The third section explores poverty, how it is defined, what causes it, and how it responds to social policies. The next section considers class consciousness and social mobility, and the last section addresses the question: Are classless industrial societies possible?


One of the single most important ideas for understanding society is social class. Social class, as widely used by U.S. sociologists, refers to economic position and social status. It includes strong elements of social status, meaning place in a social hierarchy and indicated by the willingness of various groups to interact socially with other individuals and groups. Although Warner, Meeker, and Eels (1949) mentioned occupation and wealth, their primary emphasis was on prestige and on whether or not Americans would associate with one another as social equals. As noted in Chapter 8, their emphasis was on shared values, life-styles, and behavior (indicated by who socialized with whom), with little attention to the social locations that shaped those behaviors.

Major Views of Class

Weber (1920) focused on the market position of individuals and groups. By this he meant how well they fared at the economic bargaining table, which was affected by their power, knowledge, skill, and scarcity. Weber's focus adds occupation and property to social status. He certainly was aware of the important role played by property in social stratification, but it was Karl Marx who suggested a theory of classes based on property ownership or nonownership. The modern theorist Ralf Dahrendorf adds a third dimension to status and economic posi- tion. He stresses the importance of one's position in a bureaucratic structure-for example, as vice president for marketing or deputy director of a city housing agency (1959). Position in the class structure is influenced by the significance of the decisions one makes at work and by how many people are affected by those decisions. Since class is based on one's position in an organization, class would change at retirement, when one no longer possesses authority within an organization. This view stresses the growth and importance of organizations (already noted in Chapter 6) for class position, while it plays down the importance of market position and property. These theoretical positions may be summarized by saying they are concerned primarily with status, economic life chances, ownership of productive resources, and organizational position. These different definitions of class are important because they influence the way class has been measured in research studies, and the concepts and measures used affect the conclusions people draw about the significance of social class in the United States.

Research Conceptions of Class

Most American researchers characterize someone's socioeconomic status (SES) by using the person's occupation, education, and incomc. As you can see, this index of SES touches on several of the dimensions noted in the theoretical views of class, but it ignores distinctions based on property and position in the relations of production. (The various ways social class has been measured are summarized in Table 9.1.)

Table 9.1

Let's look more closely at occupation and income to see if they capture the central inequalities of our society; then let us consider whether adding the concept of property adds to an understanding of social class in the United States.

Occupational Rankings


How is it possible to classify the thousands of different occupations in the United States? Different scholars focus on different features of occupations. Some distinguish occupations on the basis of whether they involve mainly mental or physical work; whether people spend most of their time on the job giving orders or taking orders; in terms of access to useful knowledge and information, opportunity for advancement, degree of autonomy, or degree of exposure to occupational hazards; and finally in terms of their prestige. In all these approaches, someone assesses a particular occupation and assigns a rank to it.

In a study designed to measure occupational prestige, the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) asked a random sample of the population to give "their personal opinion of the general standing" of selected occupations. Re- spondents graded each occupation on a fivepoint scale from "excellent" to "poor." The results of the original study in 1947, and restudies in 1963 and 1983. The relative rankings remained quite constant over time. The best predictors of the rank of an occupation are the educational level and income of workers in it (Reiss et al., 1961). Both efforts to rank occupations view the American class structure as a continuous band rather than as composed of separate categories. The prestige of an occupation seems to involve the averaging of two distinct dimensions: people's perceptions of the rewards of an occupation and its value to society (Hope, 1982).

Measuring Class with Income

Income equals the sum of money wages and salaries, income from self-employment, and income other than earnings. Notice that total money income thus includes money you worked for-earnings-and income other than earnings. Income other than earnings includes money income from estates, trusts, stock dividends, interest on savings or bonds, rental income-in short, income from money invested in your name. Families have incomes that are higher and more equally distributed than do single individuals. This occurs because family incomes are often based on the incomes of more than one individual. Income poses certain problems for research. People tend to be more reluctant to reveal their incomes than their occupations, and they may not always be reporting the same thing. (Are they reporting gross income before taxes or net income after taxes?) There are other problems with using income alone as an indicator of social class. The gap between manual and nonmanual workers is declining in terms of what they earn and how they spend it. In the United States, unlike Great Britain, it is difficult to judge the exact "social class" of many people on the basis of their speech, appearance, or cars except at the extremes of the class structure. Both upper-and lower-class individuals can usually be identified by appearance and clothing, but the great majority in the middle are not so distinguishable. Although people can be categorized by income, those categories may have little or no shared social meaning. An electrician and a salesperson may earn similar incomes in a year but have widely different life-styles and attitudes. Thus income may not be the only element that distinguishes social classes. Class differences appear to be rooted in more basic underlying disparities, such as wealth.

Differences in Wealth Although differences in occupation and income do exist, Marxian sociologists argue that a more fundamental cleavage underlies all capitalist industrial societies. This division is one of property, not income. And property, or wealth, is obtained primarily through inheritance or luck rather than through occupation or income (Thurow, 1975). Wealth differs from income. Wealth is the total value (minus debts) of what is owned. It includes consumer goods (such as houses and cars) as well as assets (stocks, bonds, real estate, factories). The top fifth of the population in the United States (about 45 million people) owns or controls three-quarters of the nation's wealth. In stark contrast, the remaining fourfifths (or about 181 million people) share the remaining one-quarter. This vast majority owns little beyond their own personal property- clothing, furnishings, a car, and perhaps a house. For these people, property means something quite different from what it means for the very wealthy. It means a few possessions, many of which are still being paid for. This property does not usually produce income for the owner (except in the case of a traveling salesperson, whose car may help to produce income). The bottom fifth of the population owns less than 0.2 percent of the nation's wealth (Thurow, 1975). This group has more debts than assets. The differences in the amount of wealth owned by the top and bottom fifths of the American population are enormous. Some individuals control fortunes exceeding $500 million, whereas millions of people have only their debts. Differences in income are considerable, but not nearly so great as differences in wealth. The top fifth of American families earned 43.7 percent of all the income earned in 1987, whereas the bottom fifth earned 4.6 percent- a difference of 39 percent compared to the 76 percent difference in wealth. The distinction between earnings and income from property holdings is crucial to understanding social class structure and to reconciling competing explanations for the existence of inequality. Holding property is important for about 5 percent of the total American population. This 5 percent, however, represents more than 10 million people, and property is very important for them. It affects their income, power, status, self-image, and life-style. It provides resources to the top 5 percent that are not available to the other 95 percent. These are financial resources that may be converted to power, that tend to confer status, that can command knowledge and information, and that enable them to advance ideologies consistent with their interests in the world. Moreover, the property they control affects the social arena within which the other 95 percent of the population operates. Corporate owners, for example, may decide to close a plant in a town, thus putting more than half the population out of work.

Social Class as Position in the Social Relations of Production A Marxian concept of class is related to both ownership and income (Wright and Perrone 1977). This conception emphasizes the position of individuals in the social relations of production. Four criteria are used to pinpoint an individual's position in the social relations of production:

1. The ownership of the means of production

2. The purchase of the labor power of others

3. The control of other people's labor power

4. The sale of one's own labor power

Table 9.3

These four criteria are used in Table 9.3 to assign individuals to one of four classes. Capitalists are defined as the class that ovns the means of production, buys and controls thc labor of others, and does not need to sell its own labor. Managers are considered a separate class even though they supervise others and may own some stock in the corporation. They are not capitalists unless they own a controlling interest. They also need to sell their own labor. The class position of workers is set by their situation of selling their own labor and not having any control over the labor of others. The last class called the "petty bourgeoisie," consists of small businesspeople and shopkeepers who own their own stores but do not buy or control the labor of others in any major way. The class categories in Table 9.3 represent an entirely different way of viewing class structure. When occupational differences are examined, classes are seen as a ladder with many rungs. Small steps exist between positions, but it is difficult to say which rungs comprise a distinct class. "Occupation" represents an effort to classify the substantive content of jobs, whereas "class" refers to the social relations of control within which occupational activities are conducted. This means, for example, that certain people supervise others and that certain classes receive profits while others do not. There is some relationship between occupational position and class position, but it is by no means perfect. Employers are much more likely to be managers, proprietors, and officials than to hold any other occupation, and they are much more likely to hold those occupations than are the members of other classes. Workers are likely to hold such jobs as truck drivers, clerks, or craft workers. The total number of employers and petty bourgeoisie is rather small. The vast majority of the working population (almost 90 percent) are workers or managers. As a result, a small group occupies the dominant position in the social relations of production, a feature that is nearly invisible when we consider only occupational categories.

In later research Wright et al. (1982) added more criteria to those in Table 9.3, including degree of participation in decision making, authority over others at work, and the degree of autonomy and self-direction people have in their work. Their findings are as follows:

1. The working class is the largest class in the class structure of the United States. 2. Nearly half of all the positions in the class structure have a "contradictory character." By this they mean that the positions share features of several classes; for example, a position may have a high degree of autonomy but involve no ownership. The fact that there are relatively few "pure" class positions means that class polarization is lessened. 3. Lower-status white- collar occupations share many of the features of manual occupations; therefore it makes little sense to call such occupations "middle- class." 4. A sizable majority of the U.S working class consists of women and minorities.

Some argue that class should be measured by occupation rather than by property because of the managerial revolution in American business. This has created a situation where knowledge or other technical criteria are more important than property for one's class position. It is understandable why so much stress is placed on occupation, since the majority of people in thc labor force do not possess property. However, whether we want to explain variations in income or in wealth, a Marxian class analysis explains more of these differences than an occupational explanation alone does. Owners consistently have higher incomes than do managers and workers, even whcn education, occupational status, age, and length of time in thc job are comparable. Within the nonpropertied class, managers earn much more than workers, even when education is held constant (Wright and Perrone, 1977). This evidence is more consistent with a class analysis than with a technical skills explanation. Managerial pay scales may go up much more sharply than do worker pay scales, because pay reflects not only productivity but also the exercise of social control within businesses and bureaucracies. The promise of higher salaries may encourage individuals to control themselves and others in ways that are desired by higher-level managers and owners.

Nevertheless, Marxian class categories do not explain all the inequality in job rewards. Considerable inequalities in carnings and job fulfillment are also produced by occupational distinctions (Kalleberg and Griffin, 1980). These findings confirm once again the value of using several theoretical lenses to view and explain the social world. Occupation and class together account for more inequality than does either one alone.

Subjective Indicators of Class Assessments of occupation and productive position do not include information about individuals' perceptions of their own class positions, or subjective social class. Yet no consideration of social class is complete without taking into aecount the pereeptions of individuals. It eould be, for example, that Sam's neighbors consider him to be working elass, whereas Sam considers himselfto be middle class. Whose judgment do we use in such a situation? Do we follow the neighbor's (or a sociologist's) definition of Sam's social class, or do we accept Sam 's self-definition? We cannot ignore Sam 's ideas beeause they are likely to affect his behavior. He may be more likely to have middle-class friends, to follow middle-class recreational and leisure activities, to belong to a middle-class church, and to have middle-class aspirations for his children. Although his beliefs may not coincide completely with his objective class position, they may affect his behavior. So if we want to understand social behavior, we need to know both a person's "objective" social class and his or her subjective class identification. In the early 1940s pollster Elmo Roper did a nationwide survey for Forltune magazine in which Americans were asked whether they belonged to the upper, middle, or lower classes. When 73 percent replied that they were middle class, it was widely asserted that the United States was a middle-class nation. But social psychologist Richard Centers quickly challenged this interpretation. Also using a national sample, Centers added the category "working class" to the possible choices available to respondents. In his survey, half the respondents chose "working class" and only 43 percent said they were middle- class (Centers, 1949). Centers also found a high correlation between subjective class position and position as measured by more objective criteria, such as occupational type. The work by Centers and others who came after him suggests that Americans do not like to describe themselves as lower-class but are quite willing to say they are working-class, which sounds honest and industrious.

Two more recent studies reveal consistency in the percentage who identify themselves as middle- class, but there is some shift away from self-descriptions as upper-or upper-middleclass. Hodge and Treiman's (1968) results show the same aversion to describing oneself as lower-class that Centers observed. Jackman and Jackman (1982) found that people questioned in 1975 were just about as likely to identify themselves as middle-class and somewhat more likely to say they were working class or poor. It will be interesting to see if people's subjective interpretation of their class position changes in the future in the same direetion that the income distribution is changing. Ocupational standing is the objective socioeconomic factor that is most strongly related to subjective class identification, although education, skill, income, job authority, and freedom to make decisions on the job are also important Jackman and Jackman, 1982). Fully half of clerical workers identified themselves as working-class or poor, as did 58 percent of craft workers, a result that is consistent with the research of Wright et al. (1982).

These studies are notable because very few people said they did not believe in classes or could not answer, suggesting that nearly everyone is aware that classes exist. Indeed, Jackman and Jackman (1982) report that class rivals race as a source of group identity and that class bonds are especially pronounced among those identifying with the lower classes.

A major problem with the subjective method is that it depends heavily on how the question about class is worded. Also, some individuals may rank themselves higher or lower than their income, occupation, property, and life-style seem to warrant. "Social class" is the general concept referring to economic position and social status. SES and the Marxian class measure developed by Wright and Perrone are summary measures that tap several dimensions of economic position and social status. Both of these measures are related to the life chances and life- styles of individuals.