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Social Class in the United States

It is frequent that people living in the United States prefer to think that we are a nation that no longer has social classes, that all people are much better off than they were one hundred years ago. When the various social classes are acknowledged, people often prefer to overlook the inequalities that accompany them. However, social class has historically been and continues to be a major predictor for a number of social inequalities related to work and educational opportunity as well as health. Although there have been many improvements in social structures that have benefited the population as a whole in the past century, many people in the United States find themselves at disadvantage due to their social class. This paper will examine the persistence of social classes in the United States and will seek to provide examples to demonstrate these inequalities.

What is Social Class?

Social class in the United States can be looked at according to purely economic factors such as income, and also using educational, wealth, and job related factors associated with socioeconomic status. Because poverty is so frequently a factor that is a root cause for these other social class factors, I will limit my discussion to income and wealth related measures for the most part. Furthermore, poverty continues to be overlooked by many who would argue that true poverty cannot exist in a nation as wealthy as the United States.

This is not true, however. Poverty in the United States persists at an inexcusably high rate that varies throughout the nation, and is disproportionately high among women, older adults, people of color, and individuals under the age of eighteen. According to the 2005-2007 American Community Survey, 13.3% of Americans live below the poverty level. This number includes 18.3% of children under eighteen, 14.6% of women, 25.3% of African Americans, and 25.8% of Native Americans (U.S. Census Bureau 2007) .

Clearly, poverty affects some groups more than others but it is one of the most commonly identified contributors to and magnifiers of poor health, low educational status, and social inequity across groups. Nearly one quarter of individuals with less than a high school education (23.6%) live below the poverty level, whereas 3.6% of those with a graduate level education live below the poverty level (U.S. Census 2007). With educational status, it is difficult to identify the direction of the relationship. However, it is reasonable to assume that poverty reduces opportunities for education and lack of education in turn makes it more difficult to get oneself out of poverty. Similar relationships can be seen to exist among health, poverty, and employment status. Poverty leads to poor health outcomes, poor health contributes to poverty, and makes it difficult to work full time. In turn, poor employment opportunities can lead to poverty (Corcoran 1995: 262-263).

The relationships between social class and general well-being are persistent and troublesome; even in the twenty first century, life looks different for those belonging to upper and middle social classes compared to the lower social classes. Not only are opportunities different, but gender relations and the social positions of community members at different ages differ as well, a fact that was as visible in the early twentieth century as it is today (Parsons 1942: 7).
Consequences Associated with Poverty and Low SES

In the below section, I will provides some examples of the disparities that exist between members of different social classes, including different socialized treatment in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the impact of social class on health.

The tragedy of Hurricane Katrina truly brought the issues associated with social class to the forefront of America's attention. In the summer of 1995, Hurricane Katrina ravaged much of the Southern United States, most notably devastating New Orleans, where levees did not hold, communities were built below sea level, and the lowest social classes found themselves losing what little they had. Pastor et al. note that we often make the assumption that “natural disasters are a sort of equal opportunity affair” that wreak havoc and suffering equally on their victims, regardless of age, gender, or social class (2006: 1). The events of the days and months following the disaster of Hurricane Katrina, however, reminded us as a nation that this is not the case. Social class and race (the details of this interaction are beyond the scope of this paper) impacted their vulnerability, affecting everything from where in the city people lived to their capacity to evacuate to what they had to return to.

Pastor et al. discuss at length several aspects of life in New Orleans that, in interaction with social class, influenced residents' experiences in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina: storm costs and insurance, job loss, Katrina toxic contamination and health threats, flooded homes, and flooded schools. Hurricane Katrina caused over $125 billion in damage, almost half of which was in insured damage. The death toll of the hurricane was well over 1,000. Most of the houses in the regions affected by Katrina did not have flood insurance. In Louisiana, only 46% of houses had flood insurance, a number much higher than other affected states Alabama (12.7%) and Mississippi (15%). Over 600,000 jobs were lost in Louisiana due to damage to the region and over one million Louisiana residents evacuated, many of whom may be permanently displaced. Unemployment rates in New Orleans were estimated at 47%, with the greatest impact affecting African American and Hispanic residents. Damage caused by Katrina led to significant environmental contamination and damage to infrastructure including the destruction of over 1,000 systems for drinking water. In New Orleans', 110,000 of 180,000 houses were flooded, leading to potential issues with mold and contamination of those that did survive the storm. Finally, school systems were not immune to the storm and nearly 350,000 school-age children in the region were displaced. 187,000 of these displaced students were in Louisiana (2006: 4). These devastations potentially impacted all residents of New Orleans, but it is important to note that the area most damaged by the storm was a generally poor area. In spite of being aware of the risks that faced the city's poorest, often transit-dependent populations, little was done to avert risk. Although the city was aware before Hurricane Katrina that over 100,000 of their citizens had no means of transportation other than public transit, it was still this most vulnerable segment of the population that was “left behind in their homes, shelters, and hospitals” (Pastor et al. 2006: 4). Not only does Hurricane Katrina demonstrate the myriad ways that social class can place people at varied levels of vulnerability, it shows that there is a complicated relationship between poverty and race/ethnicity that appeared to amplify this vulnerability. While this relationship is well beyond the scope of this paper, it is worth noting that it is an indication that social class and social status are both important contributors to human experience, even in our present decade.

A second important example of the impact of social class on experience or well-being is the case of health. Alder and Steward state this relationship very well, comparing societal classes (or the resources associated with them) to be like rungs on a ladder. Our relative positions on the ladder “predicts how long you live and how healthy you are during your lifetime” (2007: 4). One of the major issues of the differences between social classes in the U.S. is that the distances between the top and bottom rungs are massive. However, people at each social class level tend to have different, associated health levels. People in the lowest social classes are at greatest risk of dying before age 65 and are sicker throughout their lives, people in the middle class are healthier than the lowest class, but not as healthy as those in the highest class (Adler & Steward: 5).

Social class position affects health in a variety of ways. It affects health due to barriers to accessing health promoting resources and activities such as healthy foods or preventive exams. It also negatively affects health by increasing risk of exposure to environmental toxins, dangerous neighborhoods, work-related hazards, and poor access to recreational opportunities (Alder & Steward 2007: 10-11). All of these factors increase risk of dying and risk of being ill, which as discussed above, may help perpetuate a cycle of poverty both among individuals and between generations.

Conclusion

The persistence of social classes into the first decade of the twenty first century is disturbing, primarily because of the fact that here, in one of the wealthiest nations in the world, where many people have everything, so many people have nothing. People living in the lowest social classes suffer not simply because of a lack of money, but because of their lack of money compared to others and because of their lack of access to resources that can help guard against their vulnerability to a variety of risks, including environmental disasters and health issues. Poverty in this nation is at the root of many of our social issues and it seems that efforts to recognize the vast gaps in resources between groups must be increased and efforts to improve the access to resources for well-being should be a priority.

References

Alder, Nancy, and Judith Steward. Reaching for a Healthier Life. (2007). The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Socioeconomic Status and Health.

Corcoran, M. Rags to rags: Poverty and mobility in the United States. Annual Review of Sociology. (1995) 21:237-267.

Parsons, Talcott. Age and sex in the social structure of the United States. American Sociological Review. (1942). 7(5): 604-616.

Pastor, Manuel, Robert D. Bullard, James K. Boyce, Alice Fothergill, Rachel Morello-Frosch, and Beverly Wright. In the Wake of the Storm: Environment, Disaster, and Race After Katrina. (2006). New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

United States Census Bureau. (2007). Data on poverty. In American Community Survey. Accessed 4/18/2009 at http://factfinder.census.gov/servlet/STTable?_bm=y&-geo_id=01000US&-qr_name=ACS_2007_3YR_G00_S1701&-ds_name=ACS_2007_3YR_G00_.

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