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Class: Social Class and Inequality

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Author: Jessica Collett
Understanding Societies lecture notes - Social Class and Inequality

Class Notes

Stratification is "the ranking of entire groups of people that perpetuates unequal rewards and life chances" (Newman 329). Examples include slavery, a caste system, or an estate system. Within America, we are most familiar with social classes (such as upper-, middle-, and lower-class), and believe in social mobility between these. Class standing affects many aspects of our lives, including access to higher education, occupations, health and availability of health care, relationship quality, parenting styles, childhood experiences, and psychological outcomes.

Why does poverty persist?  There are enduring disparities in income and wealth. In 2004, the annual income of the top 5% of families averaged $173,640, whereas the bottom 20% of families averaged $24,780 (U.S. Bureau of the Census 2007). Even though the minimum wage is gradually increasing from $5.15 per hour to $7.25, some question the degree to which this is enough to close the income gap as $7.25 per hour will still leave millions workers below the poverty line (Newman 315).  While millions continue to be impoverished, compensation for CEOs has tripled between 1999-2005 to nearly $3 million per year (Newman 315).

The Social "Benefits" of Poverty is a structural functionalist account explaining the functions of poverty in society. Poverty creates a large workforce ready to do the dirty work within society, including volunteering for military service. Poverty also creates jobs for those who need to serve those in poverty, including police officers, welfare workers, social workers, and lawyer. Poverty creates the need for previously purchased goods that might otherwise be thrown away (Newman 317). Other scholars argue that America has a belief in Competitive Individualism, while others suggest that those in poverty live in a Culture of Poverty that keeps the poor in their social position.  Welfare reform is meant to address the ideas behind the Culture of Poverty. 


Required Reading: 

"The More we Pay, the More It's Worth," Ruane and Cerulo (Second Thoughts, pp. 123-129)

"The Uses of Poverty: The Poor Pay All," Gans (Electronic Reserve)

"Branded with Infamy: Inscriptions of Poverty and Class in America," Adair (Sociology Reader, pp. 250-260)

Recommended Reading

"The Architecture of Stratification: Social Class and Inequality," Newman (Sociology, pp. 291-328)


Keywords:  stratification, slavery, caste system, estate system, social classes, social mobility, meritocracy, upper class, middle class, lower class, social "benefits" of poverty, ideology of competitive individualism, culture of poverty, welfare.


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