Gulf between the rich and the rest of America

Holly Sklar writes, “the gulf between the rich and the rest of America will continue to widen, weakening our economy and our democracy. The American Dream will be history instead of poverty.”

With the advent of more billions into the ranks of the Fortune 400, so it is; instead of witnessing the booming middle class that marked the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions, America is undergoing a transformation that more clearly limns the demarcation between classes than ever before.

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With economic segregation an ever more encroaching reality, the distinctions between race, age, and gender come increased under review as Americans are forced to examine the origins of social class, its solidification in early childhood, and its place in the national life.

In academic circles, social class describes the relationships between individual agents and groups as they struggle through social hierarchies. Weber famously defined the social stratification as a three-component theory frequently adopted my sociocultural scientists. Weber viewed class as the composite of three distinct elements, the economic relationship of an individual to the market, his or her status in regards to non-economic capital like educational attainment, and political affiliation. By strict construct, he assumes these factors are unrelated, but inevitably, they play an important and intrinsic role in defining each other; for example, the educational levels of the elite extend beyond the free education provided by the government; without the financial ability to afford it, it is out of one’s reach.

The glass ceiling that pervades American life defines not only one’s education, but all of the aspects of one’s place in, relation to, and understanding of social class. In the capitalist marketplace, these correlations are more exaggerated and play a more defining role in everyday life. Louis Breindeis argues that this dynamic undermines the egalitarian precepts of a democracy. “You can have wealth in the hands of a few, or democracy. But you cannot have both.”

Collins and Yeskel purport that the recent atrocities in the Gulf Coast bring the issue of social class and its national construction and relevance to the forefront of concern. As the horror of Katrina and ensuing flood wiped the poor out of New Orleans, the financial distinctions between those who could afford to escape and those who had little choice but to stay became clear to almost all Americans right away.

The thousands of poor who lost their homes, jobs, schools, and American Dreams of independence were only a portion of those nationwide who are among the booming working poor, whose separation from the billionaire CEOs at the top is becoming more exaggerated by the day.

The development of the economic inequality picture is the result of monetary policies, budget decisions, wage-setting practices, corporate and governmental benefit opportunities, and business regulations. All of these economic factors combine to make a national atmosphere in which the cash flow to the most needy is truncated, the housing market increases its costs, education affordability decreases, and low-wages face little buffer in the face of friendly government relations with big business. As the money to the top rises, the middle, lower, and working classes get squeezed out.

While America fosters a position that supports all its citizens, particularly its most vulnerable, millions of children are born into poverty each year. Growing up, they do not get to ride brand new bikes for their birthday; many do not even have the luxury reserved by the upper classes to attend a safe elementary school. Like Pharoah and Lafayette Rivers, children born into the heartbreaking poverty that exists on American soil grow up seeing two worlds: the one where neighborhoods are not subsidized by governments, where criminals do not dominate their inner-city homes with murders, where cartoons are not interrupted by gunshots; and, by contrast, those that are.

“There are no children here,” their mother explains, “they’ve seen too much to be children.”

The Rivers boys grew up in the Chicago ghetto, in a family of six with a largely absent father. Their nearly-single mother struggles to provide some semblance of a normal home life for her children, but the criminality and pathology that pervades her inner-city neighborhood deprives the children of the innocence those not financially disadvantaged witness. While critiques of the welfare-system purport that children like these have every opportunity to make use of the American education system to attain their dreams, the very fundamentals of their life are put into a different light that would prevent the easy attainment of a better life. As children of a specific social class, they witness a specific societal texture; that fabric does not allow for social buoyancy like that of middle class children, their schools are understaffed and friends’ lives full of depressing trauma. They do not live a childhood that builds towards a future success; they spend their early years coping.

These early lessons play an important role in defining their role in society; while it was not their choice to be born into a Chicago ghetto, that stigma stays with them in all other parts of American society. Despite their own goodwill, Lafyette’s struggle to prevail over his difficulties and exceed at school, for instance, they are branded as members of a specific class; even to Kotlowitz, they are the symbol for a group. As they grow older, these difficulties to not decrease; popular films like “Hoop Dreams” make clear the struggle that boys who have been socially cast in a specific class face even through college. William and Arthur are the stories of success: they play basketball in college, they want to go professional; popular focus is not on their successes, though, it is on the class into which they were born and out of which they have little mobility.

Traditional Weberian and Marxist perspectives illuminate the “injuries of class,” but they make little room for the isolated factors that control mobility between classes.

Age, race, and gender all take an important part in defining not only a person’s place in one group, but also their relation to the other groups. The definitions of social class are established early in life, as the Rivers knew first hand. Likewise, so do many scholars.

“My kids and I been chopped up and spit out just like when I was a kid. My rotten teeth, my kids’ twisted feet. My son’s dull skin and blank stare. My oldest girl’s stooped posture and the way she can’t look no one in the eye no more. This all says we got nothing and we deserve what we got.”

The role of blame in the establishment of class is also a concrete cementer that keeps classes separate. The distinctions are clear to children, and growing up in one social class keeps an entrenched culture of inclusion and fear active in the child’s mind.

Erin Brokovich was a poor, single-mother of three. Her children did not get to attend nursey school and playtime classes while their mother worked; they either stayed home or came with her. They understood their position in a social class, as did their mother; she asserted her ability to play in other classes throughout the movie. While she affronts the Ivy-educated, Armani-clad lawyers with whom she eventually works with her seemingly lower-class attitudes and atmosphere, she proved that there were no fundamental, interpersonal differences between them, merely numbers and experience. In theory, that would not matter in America; in actuality, it is defining. Feminists argue that class is produced on gender and race stratifications of domination, bolstering their arguments with the cliche of a “welfare mother” and not a “welfare father.” Sidel argues that women are forced into a position of subordination by the class system, one very similar to that clearly colored on the lines of race.

Conley studies the relationship between race and class in a scientific, longitudinal manner. While he uncovers that family finances and initial social class play more firm a role in a child’s ultimate attainment as an adult, the racial difference in the social current are vast. He found that black students were more likely to be suspended from high school and less likely to graduate from college.

The problem social class presents for black men is as equally traumatic as that posted to the stereotypical “welfare mother;” for them, inside the ceiling of social class, asserting masculinity in a culture of domination becomes increasingly important.

He affirms the dispelled myth that the appearance of black men in sports meant the end of racism, and instead asserts that their presence there is misused, pushing them into “low prestige and high-risk positions, exploited for their skills, and finally, when their bodies are all used up, excreted from organized athletics at a young age with no transferable skills with which to compete in the labor market.”

It is clear that be the variable age, race, or gender, the crippling affects of social class are present at birth, learned at childhood, and incredibly difficult to conquer.

“To be connected to any one factor, such as gender or class or race, can make life difficult. To be connected to multiple factors can guarantee limited economic status and poverty.”

Because social class is established early in life, as a child grows, his or her understanding not only of himself but also of others is the product of age, gender, and race. Confronting the problem of social class in America, and its strict delineation of the larger population, has to be addressed on all of these lines if it is to benefit from the great wealth of talent locked in the confines of “class.”

References:

Adair, Vivian C. “Branded with Infamy: Inscriptions of Poverty and Class in the United States.” Signs. Vol. 27, No. 2. (Winter, 2002.)

Collins, C. & Yeskel, F. “Economic Apartheid in America: A Primer on Economic Inequality & Insecurity.” New York: The New Press, Oct. 31, 2005.

Conley, Dalton. Being Black and Living in the red: Race, Wealth, and Social Policy in America.” Berkley: University of California Press, 1999.

Kotlowitz, Alex. There Are No Children Here. New York: Anchor Press, 1992.

Messner, Michael. “Masculinity and Athletic Careers.” Gender and Society, Vol. 3. No. 1. (Mar., 1989.)

Sidel, R. “Keeping Women and Children Last: America’s War on the Poor.” International Journal of Circumpolar Health. Vol. 57. New York: Hunter College, 1998.

Sklar, Holly. “Fat Chance: Economic Divide Prevents the Poor from Getting Ahead.” The Times-Union. Albany, NY: The Hearst Corporation, Oct. 2, 2005. Available Online: http://timesunion.com/AspStories/Storyprint.asp?storyID=404602

Sklar, Holly. “Fat Chance: Economic Divide Prevents the Poor from Getting Ahead.” The Times-Union. Albany, NY: The Hearst Corporation, Oct. 2, 2005. Available Online: http://timesunion.com/AspStories/Storyprint.asp?storyID=404602

Sklar.

Collins, C. & Yeskel, F. “Economic Apartheid in America: A Primer on Economic Inequality & Insecurity.” New York: The New Press, Oct. 31, 2005.

Colins & Yeskel, 18.

Ibid, p. 63.

Kotlowitz, Alex. There Are No Children Here. New York: Anchor Press, 1992.

Kotlowitz, p. 16.

Adair, Vivian C. “Branded with Infamy: Inscriptions of Poverty and Class in the United States.” Signs. Vol. 27, No. 2. (Winter, 2002.) p. 451.

Adair, p. 141.

Sidel, R. “Keeping Women and Children Last: America’s War on the Poor.” International Journal of Circumpolar Health. Vol. 57. New York: Hunter College, 1998.

Conley, Dalton. Being Black and Living in the red: Race, Wealth, and Social Policy in America.” Berkley: University of California Press, 1999.

Messner, Michael. “Masculinity and Athletic Careers.” Gender and Society, Vol. 3. No. 1. (Mar., 1989.)

Messner, 72.

Langston, Donna. Tired of Playing Monopoly. P. 132.


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