The Consequences of Class: How Social Positioning Affects Our Lives
References to social class are pervasive in American culture. From Congress beating the “middle class” relief drum, to social activists crying fowl on behalf of the poor, or to the latest criticisms of the uber-wealthy’s spending habits, the stratification of the masses by an unofficial, albeit commonly accepted, class system in America is a reality. The purpose of this essay is to frame some of the consequences such stratification presents. While some of these consequences are merely “perceived” differences between the “haves” and the “have nots,” very real social norms are affected by one’s access to wealth, power and prestige. This paper will explore seven key areas where these differences are significant.
In an American culture where much is made politically about one’s right to marry, as determined by age, gender and sexual orientation, the ramifications of one’s social class as it relates to marriage is often overlooked. A 2005 survey cited the average American wedding cost over $26,000 (Wong, 2005). At that price tag, one would easily infer that marriage and all of the trappings that go along with a modern-day wedding would be a privilege set aside for the very wealthy. Likewise, it is becoming an increasing trend that greater access to higher education by the middle and upper classes is delaying marriage into the 30s. This, in turn, is having an effect on women deciding to wait to have children until a later-age, and affecting health care issues in a new manner, unseen in previous generations. However, wealth and social class is not limited to just the act of marriage. A recent article on MSNBC indicated that financial concerns and the perceived fear of a lack of social status and the ability to maintain a particular lifestyle is playing an enormous role in preventing many couples from divorcing (Johnson, 2008).
In an election year as volatile and historical as the 2008 General Election, social class played an interesting role in voter turnout. In recent decades, perceptions have grown that Democrats were the champions of the lower and middle classes, while Republicans represented the interests of the wealthy and those who appreciated a “hands-off” approach to government interference in the creating and building of their wealth in the stock market. However, the endorsements of Barak Obama by wealthy Hollywood and other celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, coupled with the usual activist/loyalist Democratic base further bolstered the election results to elect the first African American President in U.S. history. Record voter registration and turnout in low-income precincts were also indicative of the affect the perception of class involvement and opportunity for change meant to many who previously felt disenfranchised from the election process because they felt they lacked any influence or had access to any power.
Education has always been a bellwether for how class is affecting society. From the earliest days of settlers in America, where only those from the richest families were taught to read, to the creation of public schools and the subsequent creation of private schools for those who didn’t want to mingle with common folk and deserved a “better” education, to the present day reality of funding for public schools through a property tax system inherently designed to favor wealthy areas over poor neighborhoods, education is almost entirely a class-based system in this country. While many areas of analysis could be leveled at education to illustrate the point of class, one needs to look no further than any inner-city school system and the rates of teacher turnover, low pay, insufficient resources and drop-out rates among high-schoolers in that District. A simple comparison to a wealthy suburb of that very same inner-city school District would easily demonstrate the stratification of opportunity between the classes.
It is estimated that well over 44 million Americans do not have access to health care in this country, and as the economy worsens, that number will climb. Access to health care in a capitalistic society is available to those who can pay for it. Those without the financial means to purchase their own health care are provided with limited access to public health care through the government, but it is no way universal, nor does it adequately cover poor individuals to the same extent and with the same levels of coverage that the private-pay insured are afforded. The difference between coverage for someone with cancer who has Anthem or United healthcare versus someone covered by Medicaid includes differences in medication options, treatment options, pain management options, and palliative/hospice care options. Those with private pay insurance have options; those without are left without any choice whatsoever. In total, life expectancy, because of poor health care is significantly lower than that of privileged classes
Social position, by definition, implies that groups of people are linked to one another through similarities in means, power and access to power. One of the ways in which society is affected deeply by class is that of opportunity through the networks people associate. Examples include how within privileged society, financial opportunity begets financial opportunity. Business contacts lead to more business, more opportunities and a wider circle of potential. However, within the circles of poverty, where crime and drug abuse are often results of lack of opportunity, recidivism is exceptionally high, as the opportunities to leave poor decisions and networks of contacts and associates behind are limited.
The desire to change one’s social status to that of a higher level, a perception of being better off than one is at present, is a key principle in the advertising market in this country. Acceptance of one’s life as perfectly fine the way it is, would totally undermine the concept of marketing as we know it. Wal Mart’s newest slogan, “Save money. Live better.” is the epitome of advertising in this country: appeal to the masses that their life at present is somehow insufficient without _______________ (fill in the blank). In acknowledging the class system that under girds this country, one must also acknowledge that marketing also plays a huge role in perpetuating the stereotypes associated with class and privilege.
The stereotypes and associated expectations that accompany each class in society are some of the most damaging of the consequences of class. Perceptions that those in poverty are uneducated, lazy, unwilling to work or mentally ill perpetuate stereotypes that keep people locked into an inferior class mindset and work against opportunities to change circumstances. The idea that the “middle class” is somehow a transitional point where people mark time until they “make it” and move up in the world or fall backwards into poverty leaves many attempting to live beyond their means, and has contributed to the credit nightmare unfolding in this country. The perception that those in positions of wealth are more educated, refined, culturally sophisticated, driven and hard working are often just images, pretexts put forth by those living behind a screen of insecurity. Those in the “upper” echelons of society strive to maintain an outward demonstration of their wealth, fearing any perceptions that their status has fallen. Even the most recent bailout of AIG demonstrated how difficult it is for the wealthy to break the habits and expectations they hold for themselves. The booking of a luxury retreat by members of the elite AIG management team shortly after receiving the bailout money from the Federal government was a clear indication that privileged expectations do not diminish even in the face of economic crisis.
In conclusion, it is reasonable to say that the stratification of the social classes in this country has profound and widespread effects on this country. Social classes are an inevitable part of a capitalistic society. In this environment, classes are a by-product of a work ethic, opportunity, and a fair measure of determination. This is how we have defined the American dream for generations. Unfortunately, with time, marketing and the perpetuation of growing stereotypes in this country, the stratification of classes has had an even farther reaching impact than many would initially think.
Johnson, Alex. “Unhappy couples staying together as economy makes divorcing too costly.” MSNBC.com. 23 November 2008. Retrieved 18 December 2008 <http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/27808110/>
Wong, Grace. “Ka-ching! Wedding price tag nears $30K.” CNNMoney.com. 20 May 2005. Retrieved 18 December 2008 <http://money.cnn.com/2005/05/20/pf/weddings>