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THE AMERICAN DREAM The Role of Social Class in the “Pursuit of Happiness” AMERICAN DREAM Land of Opportunity Rags to Riches—Anyone can become rich, famous, powerful. Jobs and education available to all who want them. Meritocracy (rewards)=skill + effort.

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The Role of Social Class in the

“Pursuit of Happiness”


  • Land of Opportunity

  • Rags to Riches—Anyone can become rich, famous, powerful.

  • Jobs and education available to all who want them.

  • Meritocracy (rewards)=skill + effort.

  • Through hard work, courage and determination one can achieve prosperity. Americans can live better than their parents did.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the PURSUIT of Happiness”

Social Mobility

  • The movement of families up and down the economic ladder

  • 40% of incomes stayed at about the same level; 60% moved up or down.

  • Only 37 of America’s 400 wealthiest inherited their money from their family.

Social Classes

Social Stratification

The hierarchical distinctions between individuals or groups in societies.

The study of systematicinequality between groups of people

What are the key features of social class?


    • Valued possessions : cash, land, buildings, property

    • Income : money from employment, shares etc.

    • Tends to be intergenerational


    • Ability to carry out one’s will, even if opposed by others

    • Who has power???


    • Respect given to people with valued positions or resources

Upper Class Facts

Q.What % of Americans belong to the upper class?

  • 0.5%

  • Extent of wealth?

  • Top 1% owns more than one third of ALL net worth in the U.S.

  • 50% U.S. stocks, 60% bonds; corporations, property, inheritances; income mostly from investments not employment

  • Source of power?

  • Ownership of resources - money makes money

  • Economic power and political power intertwined

  • Source of prestige?

  • family name & resources (old: Rockefeller, Carnegie, Walton, Getty; new: Gates)

Corporate Class Facts

Q.What % of Americans?

  • 0.5%

  • Extent of wealth?

  • A lot, but not as much as the upper class

  • Usually not major owners of companies

  • median CEO salary $10.8 million

  • President of the U.S. $400,000 (why do it then??)

    Q.Source of power?

  • Heads of companies, government

    Q.Source of prestige?

  • Position of influence

Middle Class

The Cosby Show

America’s first black middle class TV family

Middle Class Facts

Q.What % of Americans?

  • 43%

    Q. Extent of wealth?

  • Some

  • Ownership—own home

  • Income—mid to high income

    • Engineer, $58,000

    • Teacher, $34,000

    • ALC Professor, ??

  • Source of power?

  • Limited within context of occupation

  • Source of prestige?

  • Some more than others, White collar job

  • Working Class

    Photograph from a book

    Working Class Facts

    Q.What % of Americans?

    • 43%

      Q.Extent of wealth?

    • Little

    • Ownership—little or no property

    • Income—mid to low

      • Factory worker, $24,000

      • Machine operator, $23,000

        Q.Source of power?

  • Limited, sometimes collective power through unions

    Q.Source of prestige?

  • Very little, Blue collar jobs

  • Lower Class

    Homeless man in New York - one of thousands

    Lower Class Facts

    Q.What % of Americans?

    • 13%

      Q.Extent of wealth?

    • Very little, usually none

    • Ownership: none

    • Income: low

      • Poverty rate in 2001: 9.9%

      • Only about 1/3 of poor get welfare

        Q.Source of power?

  • Limited to none

    Q.Source of prestige?

  • Limited to none

  • Inequality Based on Class

    • Health—Higher class live longer (79.2 years vs. 74.7 years).

    • Crime—impoverished areas tend to have higher crime rates

    • Education—despite continued increases in financial aid, the proportion of higher class students at elite schools is increasing.

    • Families—higher class are more likely to have children while within marriage and at older ages.

    Distribution of Wealth

    Racial gaps in the labor market

    Gender gaps in the labor market

    • More men work full time than women, but comparing men and women who work:

      Median Income



      • For every dollar men make, women make 64 cents

    Why does the gender gap exist?

    • Education?

      • Women make up over 50% of students in college

        Men and Women with a BA (1999)

        Male $47,126

        Female $34,455

    • Men work more hours?

      • Women in full-time work earn less than men with the same educational qualification

    Poverty rates and Gender

    Revisiting the American Dream

    • Land of Opportunity?

      • “rags to riches” or “the rich get rich?”

      • classes tend to reproduce themselves (e.g. occupational & wealth inheritance, legacy admits)

      • are all jobs open and equal for everyone?

      • clearly not

    • Social class is achieved or ascribed?

      • between 40 to 60% of parental income advantage passed on to children

    • A meritocracy?

      • barriers to channels of upward mobility (e.g. a good education)

    American: A Tale of Two Cities

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