By Angela Goble
Image from Pew Research Center 2008 report America’s Four Middle Classes
The large part of the U.S. society has historically come to assume that after the transformations brought about by the processes of the 1930s to 1970s, the Americans have become characterized by the pre-dominance of the middle-class values and that therefore the problems of class divide virtually ceased to exist. However, the recent developments in the field of growing social inequality have once again brought the issue of the class to the fore. The idea of classlessness is currently being progressively disproved by many people, and that is why it is necessary to try and understand why it emerged in the first place, and whether it was even accurate from the very beginning.
The process of erosion of class barriers was effectively launched by the New Deal reforms and continued by the Great Society transformations in the 1960s. The development of the system of class compromise brought an end to the violent social conflicts that often shook the U.S. in the 1910s to 1930s, creating an atmosphere where class distinctions were thought of as secondary in comparison with those of race or gender. The 1960s were especially instrumental in this sense, as the development of diverse ‘New Social Movements’ that centered more on race and identity, rather than class issues, appeared to displace the class agenda from the minds of many Americans.
The problem with the perception of the class in America lies in the fact that the majority of the population is accustomed to associating the class with the external distinctions in personal lifestyle, etc. The more fundamental economic distinctions, such as ownership of wealth, are taken to be secondary in comparison with the lifestyle preferences by the many. However, it should be said that the existing system of class division into upper, middle and lower classes allows for more objective evaluation of the real situation with a class divide in America. Nonetheless, the underlying assumption of the advocates of classlessness argument was that a social standing does not depend on the wealth accumulated by one’s ancestors. In this respect the Americans used to be rather confident in their own abilities: in the 1980s, only 31 percent of Americans agreed that a success in life depended on one’s family background (Hochschild). Nonetheless, the changing social circumstances have shattered such optimism nowadays.
The declining social mobility that was the result of the growing rise in corporate power from the 1980s on, dealt the harshest blow against the ideas of classless society in America. The growing transfer of manufacture jobs to China and other Third World countries due to higher profitability there undermined the basis for the steady income growth among the American working people, laying the foundation for a prevalence of unskilled jobs among the newly created work positions. Later on, this very process has been extended even to traditional white-collar jobs, undermining the previously secure positions of middle-class people. Such nations as Singapore or India are now more competitive on the global market in the field of IT specialists than the U.S. does. This creates the situation where job insecurity disrupts the previous sense of confidence, leading to social discontent and sense of crisis, as manifested, among other things, in recent Occupy movement, the members whereof are mainly young people that feel that their prospects to succeed in the ‘American Dream’ world are lower than ever in historical memory.
The accompanying growth in poverty testifies to these fears. For instance, in 2007 17 percent of American children lived below the poverty line (Cauthen and Fass, 1). Nonetheless, if measured in accordance with the newly risen goods and services costs, it may be concluded that about 40 percent of American children may be defined as belonging to poor families (Woodhouse 521). This in itself may tell the external observer that the significant part of the U.S. youngsters are put in underprivileged situation at birth, as the commercialization of social services and education facilities make it more difficult for them to ‘catch up’ with their more affluent peers than it may be possible several decades before. This factor should also be taken account of when speaking about the class dimension of the U.S. society.
Finally, a factor of labor immigration must be considered. During the last decades of the 20th century, a new process of mass migration began, which was both similar to previous migration waves of the 19th and early 20th century and different from them. While the immigrant waves of the past times unfolded in the circumstances of booming economy that enabled the relatively swift integration of the new migrant populations and their participation in social mobility processes, nowadays the structure of American economy, with the pre-eminence of services sectors, including the low-paid ones, condemns the migrants to the uncertain fate of low-income laborers that are scarcely able to lift themselves out of poverty. This leads in turn to growing social isolation and stigmatization of the majority of migrants, especially those coming from Latin America, that are often confined to the situation of perpetual underclass, marginalized within the U.S. society at large. The proliferation of private policing is one of the expressions of such trend, which may potentially lead to isolation and fragmentation of the U.S. urban communities (Cooper).
Finally, the subject of intergenerational social mobility should be mentioned. While the 1960s and 1970s saw the increasing numbers of people from lower social background entering the middle class due to the access to relatively cheap and even free high education, the modern U.S. tertiary education system is characterized by the dominance of commercial schemes that often make it impossible for the students from disadvantaged social backgrounds to complete their education. Even then, due to the erosion of stable jobs in manufacturing and high-tech sphere, the graduates are often forced to work on menial jobs for minimum payrolls, further sinking in the situation of social marginalization. In contrast to previous generations which have come to assume that a hard work at any cost bring final success, the new generation of young Americans seems to realize now that some greater structural factors than personal sacrifice and diligence, determine the chances for social advancement.
In total, it may be said that modern American society is furthest from the idea of classless community than it was ever before. It is rived with potential for massive class antagonisms, even though the majority of the U.S. population still believes in the possibility for social cohesion. However, under present circumstances, it is clear that the U.S. society is spectacular for its inequality, and that is why the class divide may become one of the defining moments in the national politics in the years to come.
Cauthen, Nancy K., and Fass, Sarah. Measuring Income and Poverty in the United States. Fact sheet. New York, NY: National Centre for Children in Poverty. 1 April 2007. Web. 16 February 2012.
Cooper, Matt. “Living in a Classless Society.” World Internet News. 30 November 2005. Web. 16 February 2012.
Hochschild, Jennifer F. Facing Up to the American Dream: Race, Class, and the Soul of the Nation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005. Print.
Woodhouse, Barbara B. “Race, Culture, Class, and the Myth of Crisis: An Ecogenerist Perspective on Child Welfare.” St.-John’s Law Review 81.1 (2007): 519-532. Print.
Angela Goble is one of my excellent sociology students