Class Matters: Insights on Class Issues in America from the New York Times

In lieu of taking a summer graduate sociology class on Social Inequality, I’ve been slowly working my way through the course syllabus. First up on the reading list is Class Matters, a compilation of New York Times articles on class issues and the growing disparity between the rich and poor in America.  Published in 2005, the book documents our increasing income gap and the growing stagnation of social mobility even before the Great Recession of recent years.

While I don’t think it’s a surprise to anyone that there are economic (among other) inequalities in America, Class Matters lays out evidence of a recent decline in social mobility, or the movement of people between socioeconomic classes. In other words, the American dream that promises those from all walks of life a fair chance at happiness and prosperity is becoming more a fantasy each year.  In comparison to other countries, reporter Janny Scott states, social mobility in the U.S. is no higher than in Britain or France, and is lower than in Canada and some of those mythic Scandinavian countries. We outrank developing countries like Brazil, where poverty status is a life sentence, but that’s hardly a comparison to high-five about.  Instead of moving forward, toward a future where every hard-working individual has equal opportunity-access, we seem to be slowly floating backwards, towards more polarized, static socioeconomic levels.

At the same time, more of today’s billionaires are self-made, “new money” (think Jay Gatsby).  As the book points out, “only thirty-seven of last year’s Forbes 400, a list of the richest Americans, inherited their wealth, down from almost two hundred in the mid-1980s.” This kind of fact might seem to support our rags-to-riches national anthem; no longer do you have to be an heiress, born to the Rockefeller family, to collect yachts, jets, and mansions.

But these self-made billionaires are still exceptions to the rule, living among the top .01% of Americans and controlling over 10% of the nation’s income.

Income of top .1 and .01%
The share of national income earned by the top .1% and .01% of American taxpayers has not been this high since the 1920’s. (c) 2005 by the New York Times Company

A different kind of inheritance still determines your social class. We’ve known for awhile how parenting styles are often linked to socioeconomic styles and offer distinct social advantages or disadvantages; how growing up in a violent neighborhood damages kids’ academic performance and ability to learn, among a host of other effects; how access to better education is so often tied to parents’ ability to buy a house in a better school district, pay private school tuition, or dedicate their own time and resources their children’s education.

These situational conditions that kids are born into greatly impact their later economic success. But it wasn’t until more recently that the experts and researchers realized exactly how far-reaching these effects could be.  In 1987, Gary Becker, a Nobel Prize-winning economist had stated that “mobility in the United States was so high that very little advantage was passed down from one generation to the next.” In their article, “Shadowy Lines that Still Divide,” Janny Scott and David Leonhardt report on new studies that show “the economic advantage once believed to last only two or three generations is now believed to last closer to five.”

To put this into perspective, think about the appalling racial inequalities that were commonplace only a few generations ago, before the civil rights movements of the 1960s. As a sociology professor Walter Allen told journalist Isabel Wilkerson in “Angela Whitiker’s Climb,” Blacks today simply do not have the same accumulated wealth as whites because they’re still catching up: “It translates into whether your family could buy that $23,000 home decades ago that is now worth $2 million or $3 millions. Blacks weren’t allowed to buy these $23,000 homes. Blacks fall at least a rung below their white counterparts because of the wealth factor alone.”

As Class Matters points out again and again, peoples’ perceptions of class often go against these facts. A 2005 New York Times poll found 40% of respondents thought it was easier to move up the economic ladder than thirty years ago, and 80% said it was possible to go from poverty to riches with a little hard work.  Respondents who were at a solidly working class income level ($50,000 and below) often identified as “middle class,” if they had 4-year college degrees.

(c) 2005 by the New York Times Company
(c) 2005 by the New York Times Company

However, the fact that 66% of respondents said they were either much or somewhat better off than their parents probably says more about the general rise in standard of living and wider access to what were once though luxury items. Think cell phones, celebrity designer lines at Walmart, cheaper “subluxury” BMW models.

While greater access to these material comforts across classes is an encouraging trend to note, the many stories recounted by the contributing writers of this New York Times column force us to question the implications and future consequences of a widening income gap and a disappearing social mobility.  In “Life at the Top in America Isn’t Just Better, It’s Longer,” Janny Scott uses the stories of three heart attack victims, all from different class backgrounds, to show the incredible impact of social class on medical treatment, recovery, relapse, and longevity. Anthony DePalma sheds light on the crushing poverty, exploitation, and lack of opportunity for illegal immigrants in “Fifteen Years on the Bottom Rung.”

Perhaps the book’s most emblematic story is Isabel Wilkerson’s “Angela Whitiker’s Climb,” an account of a black, poor mother of six who went from teenage dropout to drug addict to single, welfare mom in the projects, to a married woman and registered nurse on the brink of middle class standing. Though Angela Whitiker eventually was able to rent a house, get a car, and hold a stable, well-paying job (the accessories of middle class-status), her journey required an inhuman amount of work, perseverance and loss. Two of her boys, marked by their preteen times in the projects, were involved in drugs and crime. Even at story’s publication, Whitiker’s well-paying nursing job wasn’t enough to pay both phone bill and her daughter’s prom expenses.

Though the Class Matters series published almost 10 years ago, many of the stories and trends still ring true today.  Even with the old copyright and consequent absence of information on the impact of the Great Recession, Class Matters is an easy, engaging read that covers a wealth of relevant class issues. It’s a good place to start if you’re interested in learning more about social class without committing to a hefty book written from the viewpoint of only one or two academics.

Next on the list: Robert Frank’s Richistan, and two well-known ethnographers’ takes on class issues — Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed and Venkatesh’s Off the Books.

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