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Social structure of the United States

Sociological Classification

The social structure of the United States of America, in the technical language of social science, is characterized by moderate social mobility[?]. It is a generally open society[?] in which there are few legal barriers to peoples' change of social status. However, there is much debate over how effective public policies[?] and institutions[?] are at promoting and facilitating changes in status. Moreover, the United States has great extremes of relative wealth and poverty.

Social class essentially consists of three factors: wealth, power and prestige. The lower class[?] in the United States consists of about 20% of the population and is deficient in all three factors. Many members of the important minority groups in the United States -- Hispanics, African Americans, Asian Americans, and Native Americans -- fall into the lower class, but the majority of the lower class in the United States consists of persons of European origin, the majority group. The derogatory term "white trash" attaches to some of these people. The lower class is poorly educated, with low literacy and other employment skills. Their health is often poor, with a life expectancy below the rest of the population. They tend to be socially isolated, are less often members of social and cultural groups and have a low rate of political participation. There is a high rate of unemployment and physical disability. Lack of money defines the class, as does lack of power and prestige. A significant portion of the lower class, expecially single women with children, receives welfare[?].

A number of groups in the United States correspond to the European and Asian peasant. Historically there was a slave caste and after the American Civil War a system of sharecropping[?] in the deep South. In isolated instances where there are large landholdings there is still a small impoverished class of agricultural laborers. In contemporary times large numbers of migrant agricultural workers[?], in large part Hispanic, perform field and packing work. See agricultural history of the United States[?] and social history of the United States[?].

About 70% of the population is made up of working class people who work for wages in blue-collar[?], white-collar[?] and agricultural occupations. The 30% of the population which works in white-collar work is sometimes characterized as the "lower middle class[?]". While they may be unemployed from time to time, in general, members of the working class earn a modest income through some skilled or semi-skilled occupation. Although they are subject to some economic insecurity due to fluctuations in the economy and layoffs due to plant closings, in general they have a stable and dependable income. A small part of the working class, especially those in organized occupations, enjoy an above-average income. Working class people often have some training and education, may belong to a labor union and other organizations and have a modest level of political participation. Their life is generally not organized about their work, but around their personal life with an emphasis on recreational and family activities. See labor history of the United States[?]

Owners of small business with modest wealth and income can be considered as the lower middle class[?] -- in Marxist terms, the petty bourgeoisie, stereotypically considered as socially conservative, a characterization which often does not apply in the contemporary United States.

10% or so of the U.S. population can be characterized as upper middle class[?]. This is the well-educated, highly skilled portion of the population which works in executive and professional fields. Their work plays a central part in their lives and in their self- and public-image. They are leaders in their communities and are socially, culturally and politically active. They may have modest investments in industry and business, but generally depend on income from remunerative work. A portion of the upper middle class are owners of small businesses. The historical middle class or bourgeoisie, considered as a class which supports itself through investment and management of capital, is split in the United States between the upper middle class and the upper class.

About 5% of the population of the United States is engaged in agriculture as the proprietors of independent farms. Once the dominant American social class, this group diminished during the 20th century. It is now characterized by modest income but significant capital holdings as land and equipment. Generally this group can be characterized as upper middle class, but portions of this group fall into the lower middle class or upper class. See agricultural history of the United States[?].

1% to 3% of the American population can be characterized as upper class[?]. There are a number of ways that people fall into this classification, wealth being the most obvious, but leaders in any profession, business, or cultural area can be characterized as upper class. Portions of the upper class are highly educated, cultured and influential. Part are simply rich with only modest personal skills and achievements. Families who have been upper class for generations display a distinctive lifestyle. Newcomers, the nouveau riche, often do not share this culture, but may through socialization in private schools[?] and other elite institutions acquire it over time. A tiny portion of the upper class is highly influential and has an advantage as its members seek high office in government or engage in efforts to influence events. Throughout the history of the United States opportunities have arisen for the accumulation of great wealth. A portion of the current upper class consists of the descendants of those who were lucky and aggressive enough to take advantage of those opportunities. Although a few emigres[?] may be encountered there is no American nobility, a grant of nobility being explictly forbidden in the Constitution. See economic history of the United States[?] and social history of the United States[?].

American Terms and Classification

The above definitions bear little resemblance to those used by Americans when they discuss class. As commonly used, "lower class" usually refers to the poor, "upper class" refers to the rich, and "middle class" refers to everyone else. The middle class is sometimes similarly divided into sections, with professionals and successful small-business[?] owners comprising the upper middle class, and the others, among them white-collar workers, comprising the remainder. This class is considered to be the largest. "Working class" refers to blue-collar workers. The term "lower middle class" is often used as a synonym for working class. See Culture of the United States for an overview of its culture.


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