Sociologists Dennis Gilbert and Joseph Kahl developed a model of the American classsocial class structure. Briefly, the upper class in America (3% of the population) is divided into upper-upper class (1% of the U.S. population), earning hundreds of millions to billions in income per year while the lower-upper class (2%) earns millions in annual income. The middle class (40%) is divided into upper-middle class (14%) earning $76,000 or more per year while the lower-middle class (26%) earns $46,000 to $75,000. The working class (30%) earns $19,000 to $45,000. The lower class (27%) is divided into working poor (13%, earning $9000 to 18,000) and underclass (14%, earning under $9000).
Among America's working class and working poor are hotel housekeepers, waitresses, house maids, and retail clerks. In Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America, Barbara Ehrenreich describes her experience of working a series of low-wage jobs in 1998 and trying to survive on her wages. Among other low-wage jobs, she worked in Wal-Mart, earning $6.00 per hour. In addition to trying to survive on her wages, she described how working overtime without pay was the custom at Wal-Mart. Managers informed workers to punch out of the time clock and to begin some additional work (without pay).
Because of the Great Recession from 2007-2009, the gap between the rich and poor has increased in America. Today, the richest one percent of Americans earn nearly a quarter of the country's income and control 40 percent of its wealth. The gap between the wealth of white families and the wealth of African-American families and Hispanics has also increased. The average wealth of a white family in 2009 was 20 times greater than that of the average black family, and 18 times greater than the average Hispanic family. In other words, the average white family had $113,149 in net worth, compared to $6,325 for Hispanics and $5,677 for African-Americans.
Let's take a step back now and see where inequality really began.
Origins of Inequality and private property
The origins of inequality can be found in the transition from hunter/gatherer societies to horticultural/pastoralist societies. Here, it might be useful to describe a few characteristics of these societies.In hunter/gather societies, (around 50,000 B.C.), small groups of people gathered what they could find and they also hunted and fished. People grew and collected their food for all of their needs. There was very little trading between the groups and there were not many inequalities between groups. There was not a surplus of goods. Everyone possessed basically the same as everyone else. The division of labor was small. People did almost the same jobs as each other. Food gathering and food production was the focus of work.
In horticultural/pastoralist societies (around 12,000 B.C.), groups grew to be very large and humans settled down in one place. For the first time, people had more time to do other work besides producing food, such as making leather and making weapons and other special skills. This new division of labor led to surplus of goods. The groups then traded with each other. This led to inequality because some people accumulated more possessions than others.
Fast forward many millennia later to just before Industrialization began. In the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries, there was collectivity in the space and land in Europe. Life was brutal and harsh, but there was a joint and shared responsibility in the way people lived their lives and went about their work. People farmed land in a collective way because they saw it as something for everyone to take care of and for everyone to enjoy the fruits of their labor.
The concept of private taking and private property began to flourish in the late 15th century beginning in Europe and spreading around the world. Jean-Jacques Rousseau linked private property with inequality in his book, Discourse on Inequality. Collective land and space, once shared by all, began to be divided up into private takings and private ownership (and this continues today). Land, oceans, and air, once shared by everyone in the world, began being bought and sold like products in a store. The great land masses of the world were reduced to private property. Laws and regulations were created that allowed a country to claim a certain amount of water for exploitation. Air was divided into air corridors that were bought and sold for commercial traffic for airplanes. Today, the right to private property is an important value in most societies. With deregulation, privatization, and free trade, we continue to see a private taking and private ownership of entities once shared by everyone.
The idea that there should be equality in society emerged in the 17th and 18th centuries in the writings of Hobbes and Locke. Their thinking helped people consider that inequality was the result of the actions and intentions of social institutions and specific groups and not the will of God. Even so, the question of the origin of inequality remains today in addition to why inequality continues.
The persistence of inequality
Sociologist Joel Charon offers a few reasons why inequality continues in society. His arguments reflect social reproduction theory, which focuses on the roles of institutions and cultures in the perpetuation of inequality and the process by which the social class structure is maintained. First, the rich and powerful protect the system of inequality. They are typically the owners of the means of production (factories, machinery, land, transportation) and have the resources to protect themselves and their positions. This control is heightened in societies with advanced technology as more developed technology facilitates the ability of the wealthy to pass on their wealth to their offspring. For instance, in modern societies, the transition of wealth is basically as simple as changing the names on the bank accounts or transferring stock from parents to children, which can be done at the push of a button. But in less developed economies - like hunter-gatherer or pastoralist - the transmission of wealth is far more difficult as it involves the physical transferring of goods. Thus, technology has the potential to substantially heighten inequality by facilitating the intergenerational transmission of wealth.
Karl Marx argued that the rich and powerful have control over the means of production, which is economic power, and they also have great influence on government power, including the rules governments follow, the people who work for the government, and the laws governments make. The rich and powerful also have control over the media, the schools, the courts, and many other parts of society and they support institutions (religion, economy, and education) that favor them. For example, the Walton family made $3.2 million in political contributions in 2004. The Waltons have great economic power and also the ability to influence government through large donations to political actors that protect their positions and their businesses. Inequality continues because those at the top protect their positions and use their power to influence other parts of society.
Second, culture teaches the acceptance of inequality. Research shows that Americans believe in equality. Research also shows that Americans view inequality as justified. One belief system that people commonly embrace--mistakenly, according to contemporary economic research-- is that the rich and powerful are more talented, hardworking, and intellectually superior and thus more deserving. The poor are poor because they are lazy or irresponsible or unmotivated. If they can't make it, it is their fault. These are ideologies that protect the system of inequality. These ideologies legitimatize the position of the rich and powerful and explain and justify the position of the poor. People tend to accept inequality, not because they are happy with their situation, but because over time people believe their situation is natural and normal and it is what they expect from life.
In the United States, important cultural values are taught early on which support the system of inequality. These include a focus on the individual, a value of hard work, measurable achievement, and the ‘sacred' ideal of equal opportunity. People accept as truth these beliefs: ‘If you work hard, you can rise to the top. ' ‘You can be anything you want to be. ' ‘Where there's a will, there's a way. ' ‘America is the land of opportunity; anyone can make it if they try hard enough. ' ‘Work hard, get an education, and don't give up when the going gets rough. ' These values support the inequality that already exists and these values deny the impacts of inequality.
The American dream contains the belief that every individual can achieve prosperity and success through hard work and self discipline. For example, U.S. President Barack Obama said in a speech in 2005, "whether chance of birth or circumstance decides life's big winners and losers, or whether we build a community where, at the very least, everyone has a chance to work hard, get ahead, and reach their dreams. " While these might be inspirational words, they focus on the individual and leave out the social structural causes of inequality and poverty, such as the high unemployment rate, inheritance laws that allow families to pass on wealth, lack of state supported child care or health care, and tax policies that favor the wealthy. As a startling example, the Walton family received a federal tax cut of $91,500 per hour during the 2004 tax year.
Third, people are socialized to accept their position in life. The rich and powerful socialize their children to expect wealth and power. Parents, teachers, and friends show us our position in society and teach us to expect that same level. Parents who attended prestigious boarding schools and Ivy League colleges such as Harvard, Yale, or Princeton expect their future offspring will attend such schools. Harvard researcher Michael Hurwitz found that legacy students were 45% more likely to be admitted to elite colleges.
Ivy League colleges, private country clubs, debutante balls (a formal introduction and presentation of young women to society) and the social register (a book listing the most important and famous American families) are ways that the wealthy maintain their cohesion and pass on their prestigious positions to their children.
In addition, education helps to reinforce an acceptance of inequality and education prepares each social class differently, depending on the roles they will play when leaving school. This means teaching the appropriate skills but also the appropriate values for each social class. Elementary and high schools in the U.S., in particular, teach different values to different social classes. Working-class students learn obedience; upper-middle class students learn leadership and creativity. Upper-middle class students participate in activities that focus on public performance and skill development. Working-class students participate in informal play, visiting family, and ‘hanging out. ' Socialization brings the acceptance of a culture that justifies inequality, and it normally brings an acceptance of one's relative position in the system of inequality.
Finally, police, courts, and prisons work together to protect the system of inequality. Research has shown that the criminal justice system in the U.S. is biased against the poor from start to finish, from the definition of what constitutes a crime through the process of arrest, trial, and sentencing.
Much of society seems to encourage and protect the system of inequality. Given all of these ways inequality is perpetuated in a society, is it at all possible to eliminate it?
Can we eliminate inequality?
Inequality and poverty didn't just drop down from the sky, like an apple does from a tree. The previous section shows it is embedded in society in many ways, but if the conditions that generate social inequality are conscious and intentional creations of human actions, they can be changed. We will examine this complex issue in the next section.