American Social Stratification an Overview

America stratifies itself on every scale possible, including class, caste and race. It is very telling when television’s “Housewives” franchise shows the levels of various women as they show off what is supposed to be a well heeled lifestyle. But the reality is that there is more than money involved. On a personal and interpersonal level, issues of character and other aspects of class, caste and race come out to play. 

The upper classes of America can be viewed at a shallow level where there is a surprising casualness of behavior and an expense to everything that is worn, used and done. But that behavior and activity comes from a lifetime of learning how to speak, move, deport oneself and to handle situations.

It is very difficult for a person from a lower class to play tennis and to sit a horse as if they had been doing it all with personal training and mentors since childhood. There is a closeness among those who went to the same schools and lived in the same communities, but there is an ability to welcome and to treat almost anyone well, with the exception of two things: mistakes in character and mistakes in integrity. 

Linguistics, the unwritten rules of behavior and the secrets of certain localized societies are quickly becoming apparent in the Washington segment of the housewives series. One woman is already in trouble for being brash, showy, and specifically for giving loud toasts and crashing parties, which is simply not done in Washington society. No one dares to tell her about her mistakes, but everyone is expected to know the rules if they want to break into that particular society.

Such rules do not apply in New York, Dallas, Chicago, Palm Beach, San Francisco or Los Angeles. As we look at those names, we know that each place is unique and different. As a result, each area has its own unwritten rules of upper class social standards.

The upper middle classes of America are populated and depopulated based on wealth, professional standing or work title. Behavior that reflects the social origins of those who came into more wealth than is needed is easily overlooked. But as fortunes or legal standings rise and fall, so do the tickets to upper and upper middle class society as lifestyle, housing and attending events cost greater amounts of money. 

The most harrowing society to live in as a social climber who wanted to access the upper middle or upper classes was, of course, the Edwardian Era, where the rules for each class were very strictly defined. One glaring mistake of entertaining or culture could not only permanently ruin social standing, but could bring down an entire business empire from ostracism or even official action.

In comparison, American society is very forgiving and almost reveres the tarnished anti-hero. Entrepreneurs such as Donald Trump, many celebrities, disgraced investment schemers and scandalized sports figures are all given second and even third chances after a scandal even if they end their lives in relative poverty.

The middle classes of America are populated by individuals who come from both ends of the social spectrum and from many parts of the world. Education, occupation, inheritance or even lottery winnings are the great equalizer among middle class citizens and visitors.

This is a volatile and rapidly changing population, especially during times of job loss, planned and unplanned retirement, difficulty in getting higher education and loss or gain of property ownership. A PhD, a former CEO and a blue collar worker are equally likely to be among the middle classes, either as they pass through or establish a lifelong position there.

But America offers great freedom to move among the levels of society, but not always in ways that require money.

Based on income alone, the lower middle classes of America are populated by the prematurely retired, unemployed, disabled and under educated individuals who simply do not have the income to meet the 40 to 60 thousand dollar annual incomes that qualify a person for middle class status.

Such individuals may own valuable property, have advanced degrees, be retired from the professions and have high level skills, or they may be low skilled or unable to work at jobs that offer a living wage. As a result, the lower middle class population is as varied and volatile during tough economic times as the middle class. 

The lower classes include those who make no money that is on “the books”. This class includes the generational dependents, the very disabled, substance abusers, the severely mentally ill, first generation illegal and legal immigrants, unsupported veterans, the elderly, recidivist criminals and those who have fallen out of society for good. 

America used to offer opportunity for those who could work to find a way out of the lower classes, while caring for those who would never be able to make a living on their own. But with corporations gutting retirement and pension plans, with an overload of highly dependent illegal immigrants and with economic collapse, the types of construction, labor and service jobs that sustain the lower classes have become more scarce. 

There is a final class that could be called the underclass. This class includes individuals who make their entire livings from the illegal drug, organized crime, illegal immigration and other criminal or “invisible” activities. They may or may not show up on government systems, or they may have false identities.

They can make income that is never reported to the government or they may launder their money through legitimate enterprises. As a result, the underclass can have income that forces them into subsistence living, or they can have income that allows them entry to the upper class of society.

There are castes in America. The blackest Americans are automatically assumed to be of the lowest caste of “untouchables”, with even new immigrants attempting to assign them to such positions. Hispanics are automatically assumed to be here illegally. Indians and Asians are assumed to be either Muslims or successful in the professions. Italians with strong East Coast accents are assumed to be tough guys. Whites are assumed to be racist and self entitled. 

In other words, caste in America is based on skin color, language, deportment, dress, ethnicity and behavior. While there are no official designations of caste, the differences in opportunity, treatment, attitude, assumptions, hostility,  bigotry and prejudice…and freedoms…are as real as if there were official designations.