USA : Basic American Values and Beliefs (Part 2)

From Goldenline (a Polish publication)



CLASS – a term used by Max Weber to refer to persons who share a similar level of wealth and income.

STRATIFICATION – a structured ranking of entire groups of people that perpetuates unequal economic rewards and power in a society.


SOCIAL INEQUALITY – describes a condition in which members of a society have unequal amounts of wealth, prestige or power.

American ideology highlights equality but in the US there is the most unequal distribution of income or wealth: The top fifth of the population (upper class) receives just over 40% of the income, while the poorest fifth (lower class) must make do with only 5%. Income inequality is a basic characteristic of a class system.

Upper class - 1% to 3% of the American population can be characterized as upper class. There are a number of ways that people fall into this classification, wealth being the most obvious, but leaders in any profession, business, or cultural area can be characterized as upper class. Portions of the upper class are highly educated, cultured and influential. Part are simply rich with only modest personal skills and achievements. Families who have been upper class for generations display a distinctive lifestyle. Newcomers, the nouveau riche, often do not share this culture but may through socialization in private school and other elite institutions acquire it over time. A tiny portion of the upper class is highly influential and has an advantage as its members seek high office in government or engage in efforts to influence events. Throughout the history of the US opportunities have arisen for the accumulation of great wealth. A portion of the current upper class consists of the descendants of those who were lucky and aggressive enough to take advantage of those opportunities. 


Upper middle class - 10% or so of the U.S. population. This is the well-educated, highly skilled portion of the population which works in executive and professional fields. Their work plays a central part in their lives and in their self- and public-image. They are leaders in their communities and are socially, culturally and politically active. They may have modest investments in industry and business, but generally depend on income from remunerative work. A portion of the upper middle class are owners of small businesses.


The historical middle class or bourgeoisie, considered as a class which supports itself through investment and management of capital, is split in the United States between the upper middle class and the upper class. 


About 5% of the population of the United States is engaged in agriculture as the proprietors of independent farms. Once the dominant American social class, this group diminished during the 20th century. It is now characterized by modest income but significant capital holdings as land and equipment. Generally this group can be characterized as upper middle class, but portions of this group fall into the lower middle class or upper class. 


About 70% of the population is made up of working class people who work for wages in blue-collar, white-collar and agricultural occupations. The 30% of the population which works in white-collar work is sometimes characterized as the “lower middle-class".


While they may be unemployed from time to time, in general, members of the working class earn a modest income through some skilled or semi-skilled occupation. Although they are subject to some economic insecurity due to fluctuations in the economy and layoffs due to plant closings, in general they have a stable and dependable income. A small part of the working class, especially those in organized occupations, enjoy an above-average income. Working class people often have some training and education, may belong to a labor union and other organizations and have a modest level of political participation. Their life is generally not organized about their work, but around their personal life with an emphasis on recreational and family activities.


Lower class - consists of about 20% of the population and is deficient in all three factors (wealth, prestige, power). Many members of the important minority groups in the United States – Hispanics, African Americans, Asian Americans, and Native Americans – fall into the lower class, but the majority of the lower class in the United States consists of persons of European origin, the majority group.


The derogatory term “white trash” attaches to some of these people. The lower class is poorly educated, with low literacy and other employment skills. Their health is often poor, with a life expectancy below the rest of the population. They tend to be socially isolated, are less often members of social and cultural groups and have a low rate of political participation. There is a high rate of unemployment and physical disability. Lack of money defines the class, as does lack of power and prestige. A significant portion of the lower class, especially single women with children, receives welfare.


Lower class is populated by many of the elderly, as well as single mothers with dependent children (“feminization of poverty”) and people who cannot find regular work. 


• 2000 – poverty line was 13,500 $.

  In 2000 16,5 % : men rearing children alone
             30% : women rearing children alone

• Women make only two-thirds of male salaries

Middle class is disappearing, now highly diversified, it consist of working class and lower middle class. Factors which contribute to the decrease in the proportion of households categorized as middle-class (one with an income between 75% and 125% of the nation’s median households income):

• high unemployment (loss of a status)
• new growth industries and non-union workplaces
• the rise in single-mother households (“feminization of poverty”)
• the rise of two-income households (in 2000- 72%; in 1950- 22%)

While relatively few identify with the working class, the vast majority of Americans readily claim to be part of the middle class, a term that is not described with much precision.


The lack of class identification is also a matter of American ideology, which makes each individual responsible for his own fate.


Many Americans say with pride that there are no class differences in the US, but this is not really true. Class differences exist, but social mobility is possible with hard work (American Dream). Social mobility is easiest for whites of Northern European origin – WASPs. People of other ethnic origins, particularly African Americans, Hispanics still experience strong discrimination, and are treated worse and given fewer opportunities than other people of similar ability.


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