Social classes stratify society into levels. This stratification, in varying degrees, is present in almost every country regardless of their economic and political sophistication. These social classes have been in existence since man’s earliest civilizations, and have endured the years and the upheavals thereafter.
In America, social classes are not absolute. This means that while all Americans are born into a particular social class, they are not necessarily bound to it for the rest of their lives. Through a combination of hard work, determination, and some luck, anyone in America can ascend the social ladder and leave a legacy of a better life for their descendants. Of course much of this depends on the resolve of the individual to improve his lot and create a better life than the one he has been born into. However it is worth noting that the social classes that classify the American people are not clearly defined, with much of the interpretation largely dependent on the individual making the classification. Indeed, while social classes exist in America, it does so on an indistinct and very subtle manner, with the lines being drawn and redrawn arbitrarily, and with one class straddling the other on many occasions. But regardless of how social classes exist in America today, there is no denying the fact that social classes find firm roots in America. And this hierarchical structure creates a cycle that perpetuates itself, creating social justice issues like inequality and poverty. In a democracy such as the United States, the people are not as equal and free as it seems. The irony is that very idea of a democracy where everyone is free to pursue their own aspirations creates a society that is highly stratified and asymmetrical.
History has a lot to do with how Americans perceive social classes. Pioneer settlers of America left Europe precisely because of the oppressive social class divisions which made it difficult for them to live their own lives. America was built upon the idea that all men are equal and have the right pursue their own happiness. In light of this, to acknowledge social classes is to betray the very spirit upon which America was founded. This principle is the same one used by Weber when he said that modern societies took the “historical forms” of their predecessors through a process of rationalization and refinement. (Morrison, 2006, 278) Weber would have probably looked at America’s society by analyzing its history.
By tradition, the conflict of the different social classes has always been between the elite and the working class, with both taking up the name of the poor class in order to advance their own cause. This is at the heart of Marx’s ideology, who believed that the ruling class took advantage of the poor. Thus he forwarded the idea of a classless society where everyone worked for the state in a collective and concerted effort. Marx foresaw that a capitalist country runs the risk of having the control of resources into the hands of the very few. (Galbraith, 1998, 60) William Dohofff, a renowned social scientist wrote the book Who Rules America?, wherein he posits that the United States is ruled by the elite class, both in terms of the political and economic aspects of the country. This influence is vested on the elite class by virtue of their money, which gives them the power to effect the changes that they want.
Domhoff in his book’s introduction said that most Americans do not acknowledge the existence of a social class because they challenge the very foundations of the democratic principles that form the very soul of the country. He furthers that to Americans, the concept of social classes carry negative connotations, foremost of which is the idea that classes are “fixed stations” in life, a state that can be very difficult to get away from. (75, 2005) Notwithstanding this aversion to social classes, the fact still remains that the United States is stratified as with most modern democracies. Americans live it but refuse to acknowledge it.
The imbalance created by social classes is mainly a function of who has access to better opportunities. Social scientists believe that in America, there are three widely accepted social classes: the poor, the middle class and the elite, with the middle class occupying a number bigger than the two combined. This stratification creates an imbalance and where the powers vacillate between the hands of the very few who have the money and the influence and in the hands of the working class, who exert power by virtue of their great numbers. The truth is that while social classes are not absolute in America, only a handful are able to extricate themselves from their original social class. A social class has deep historical roots, meaning that the upper class replicates itself through its descendants. Like a piece of heirloom or property, social classes are almost always passed on to the next generation. Rarely do families change their status or social class unless some events force the shift. For instance, the old rich, because they can afford to do so, are able to send their children to the best schools.
These people grow into successful professionals with the money to create their own business or continue the family legacy. The money that the old upper class have enable them to breed the next generation of people who have the capacity to protect and improve their status by virtue of their money, education and reputation. The upper class people are well-educated, well-travelled, highly cultured, and well-connected because their money allows them to be so. These characteristics in turn, make it easier for them to create even more money by landing high-profile jobs or by establishing their own businesses. By contrast, the poor, because they have few resources to use, will have to make do with less. Their options are more limited because they do not have the money to finance what they want to pursue in life. Of course this does not mean that those from the lower class have no chance to ascend the social strata; they can and they are free to try. But the truth still remains that those who have the money have the resources to create more riches for themselves, everything is there for the taking; whereas the poor must work harder in order to create opportunities for themselves.
This perhaps is the reason why social classes are “sticky”. In a sense, your class defines the quality of life that you will have and your children as well. Social classes perpetuate themselves because one class can only create the kind of life that they can afford. People live within their means, and those who have little will have to do with less, and those who have more can afford the better things in life. The poor become poorer and the rich become richer, as one social class reproduces and perpetuates its own.
In terms of differences in social classes in modern America, there are some areas where the marks are more distinct than in others. In education, people from the elite class are able to send their children to private schools, hardly anyone of them go to the public education system. Thereafter, they then go to Ivy League schools to pursue a college degree. For the elite, this path is pretty much the same for everyone. Their good education enables them to land high-ranking jobs. The ability to afford quality education is perhaps one of the most striking differences between the upper class and the rest of society. For the middle class, college must be planned for well in advance. It means that while the children are going to school, their parents may have been saving for college if there is something left after the monthly expenses. Basically the middle class and the lower class live on a per-income basis. They cannot make plans beyond their monthly income and expenses. Because college is very expensive, they may resort to student loans or work their way to a college degree. In healthcare, the elite class is also privileged because they have access to the best doctors and best facilities. The elite class can afford quality healthcare without depending on an insurance plan.
For the middle and lower class, healthcare without insurance is not possible because medical treatments are very expensive. Moreover, because the elite belong to a group of the powerful and famous, they can command the services of the top-notch doctors anywhere in the world. They may even receive services for free because the positive publicity they generate is well worth more than the cost of the treatments. Indeed the elite live a privileged life; in terms of education, health care, and other basic services, they have access to the best that society can offer. In as far as these things are concerned the upper class will never need for anything. They have the money buy the best that money can afford. The upper class is a special group of people who number very few in terms of demographics, but whose influence exerts heavily on society. Their numbers may be very small, but their clout and influence tips the balance of power in their favor. Power in America is highly concentrated on this very small number of the elite class, a class that most people in society look up to in awe and deference. This life of power and privilege is the dream that motivates most Americans to work hard.
However, this privilege is very much tied to money, so in a sense they are bound to their money as well. Without it they will lose everything. For the middle class, money is a means to an end; a tool to buy the things that they need. They are not servants of money because they know how to get by with very little of it.
This opportunity to move from one social class to another is called mobility. According to Devine,
The study of social mobility is about the movement of people between different social classes. It embraces the processes by which they are upwardly or downwardly mobile which may involve short and long distance mobility across the class structure. (1997, 45)
Indeed mobility is the single most important concept when it comes to social classes. It refers to the equal opportunity of everyone to pursue their own dreams and to do everything within their power to realize those dreams. Mobility is the heart of the American society; it inspires people to believe that the class you were born into need not limit who you can become. You are not bound by the parameters of your class; you can aspire to be more or different. Social classes create limitations, but the person decides whether to remain trapped or break free from it.