When I mapped out the topics I wanted to explore in this series, I thought it would be helpful to talk about class, especially since recent political events have revealed such a sharp divide in the U.S. along (presumed) class lines, and socioeconomic status is an important factor to take into consideration when it comes to improving literary representation–especially in the ways it intersects with race, culture, and ethnicity.
What is Class?
Generally speaking, class refers to the division of society according to social and economic status. Wikipedia defines social class as “a set of subjectively defined concepts…centered on models of social stratification in which people are grouped into a set of hierarchical social categories, the most common being the upper, middle, and lower classes.”
Markers of social class have varied over time. (If you’re not familiar with Marxist theory, you should take a moment to read about the relationship between social status and means of production.) Usually, class is determined by one’s wealth, income, level of education, occupation, and membership in a subculture or social network. Even something as simple as food can be a marker of social class.
In the U.S., there are six generally accepted classes:
an upper or capitalist class consisting of the rich and powerful, an upper middle class consisting of highly educated and affluent professionals, a middle class consisting of college-educated individuals employed in white-collar industries, a lower middle class composed of semi-professionals with typically some college education, a working class constituted by clerical and blue collar workers whose work is highly routinized, and a lower class divided between the working poor and the unemployed underclass.
So, why does this matter?
The View from the Top
As I mentioned in my post on white privilege, the class into which you are born determines, to a large extent, the opportunities and experiences you will have throughout your life. William Thompson argues,
It is impossible to understand people’s behavior…without the concept of social stratification, because class position has a pervasive influence on almost everything…the clothes we wear…the television shows we watch…the colors we paint our homes in and the names we give our pets…Our position in the social hierarchy affects our health, happiness, and even how long we will live.
The problem is that privilege is often invisible to the privileged. People who are born into the upper classes tend to attribute their income and success to their individual merits rather than to the advantages afforded them by the safety net of social status and/or inherited wealth. This can lead to class essentialism or social Darwinism, the belief that class categories are essential rather than constructed and that success comes to those who “deserve it”. (See this article about how Americans tend to overestimate the feasibility of class mobility.)
Matthew Hutson, reporting on several recent studies that have explored class essentialism, writes,
[Researchers] Kraus and Keltner looked deeper into the connection between social class and social class essentialism by testing participants’ belief in a just world, asking them to evaluate such statements as “I feel that people get what they are entitled to have.” The psychologist Melvin Lerner developed just world theory in the 1960s, arguing that we’re motivated to believe that the world is a fair place. The alternative—a universe where bad things happen to good people—is too upsetting. So we engage defense mechanisms such as blaming the victim—“She shouldn’t have dressed that way”—or trusting that positive and negative events will be balanced out by karma, a form of magical thinking.
Kraus and Keltner found that the higher people perceived their social class to be, the more strongly they endorsed just-world beliefs, and that this difference explained their increased social class essentialism: Apparently if you feel that you’re doing well, you want to believe success comes to those who deserve it, and therefore those of lower status must not deserve it.
This worldview can have far-reaching consequences, especially in our justice system, where members of the lower and working class are more likely to receive longer prison sentences. Belief in the “survival of the fittest” might also lead to policies that deny certain groups of people welfare or healthcare. For example, “only four years ago, then-Lt. Gov. of South Carolina Andre Bauer told a town hall meeting that poor people, like ‘stray animals,’ should not be fed, ‘because they breed.’” It also means that members of Congress, who earn a median net worth (as of 2011) of $966,000, will be more likely to engage in essentialist thinking and consequently enact laws that maintain social stratification and inequality because it benefits them. (The GOP’s recent healthcare bill proposed tax cuts for the very wealthy–taxes that under the ACA are essential for helping the poorer classes receive healthcare.)
It’s clear that socioeconomic status can shape the beliefs of a person reaping the benefits from the top of the social hierarchy, motivating them to maintain the status quo. But what is it like for folks living at the other end?
The View from the Bottom
America is the wealthiest nation in the world, yet it has higher levels of poverty than any other western democracy (source). Poor Americans tend to eat less nutritious food and skip more meals than the middle class, work more hours, get less sleep, have more health problems, and live shorter lives. These setbacks make economic mobility nearly impossible.
Poverty is especially devastating for children: “If you experience poverty as a child, you are 3-4 times less likely to graduate high school. If you spend your entire childhood in poverty, you are five times less likely to graduate. Which means your future has been all but decided for you” (source).
Read the following articles for a glimpse into what it’s like to live below the poverty line:
In my next post, I’ll look at the complexities of depicting class division in fiction, especially when poverty is a lived reality for members of your intended audience.
Before I end, a note about intersectionality:
While the American upper class is predominantly white, the lower classes span the spectrum of race and color, which means the poor and working class is far from homogenous, especially when it comes to political leanings, as the Washington Post has reported. For example, in the wake of the 2016 election, many people attributed Trump’s victory to the economic concerns of the working class. However, a recent study done by PRRI and The Atlantic revealed that the political motivation of the white working class was largely due to fears of immigrants and cultural displacement, making it more of a racial issue than a class one. I’ll talk more about this in my next post as well. In the meantime, you should read this article from The New Yorker by Hua Hsu.
Call to Action
If you’re able, consider helping some of the people in your community who might be struggling financially. Here are some suggestions from the Glamour article above:
Donate to Feeding America at feedingamerica.org, or find your local food bank and donate directly. You can also donate to Heat Share, the Salvation Army’s program that helps people in certain states pay for natural gas, oil, propane, wood, electricity, and emergency furnace repairs. World Vision also has a variety of ways you can help children living in poverty in the U.S., from providing food kits for families to donating money for necessities like shoes, clothes, and school supplies. Contribute at donate.worldvision.org.
January: Understanding Identity and Representation
February: Acknowledging (and Battling) Colonialism, Marginalization, and Erasure
March: Writing Race and Ethnicity
April: Writing Gender
- Improving Female Representation
- Writing Transgender and Non-Binary Characters
- Gender and Sexuality Terms
May: Writing Sexuality
June: Writing Disability
July: Writing Body Diversity
August: Writing Class Difference/ Intersectionality
- Understanding Social Stratification