The Impacts of Social Class

Consequences of Social Class

One’s position in the the social class hierarchy has far-reaching effects on their health, family life, education, etc.

Learning Objectives

Describe how socioeconomic status (SES) relates to the distributiuon of social opportunities and resources

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • While sociologists debate exactly how social classes are divided, there is substantial evidence that socioeconomic status is tied to tangible advantages and outcomes.
  • Social class in the United States is a controversial issue, with social scientists disagreeing over models, definitions, and even the basic question of whether or not distinct classes exist.
  • Many Americans believe in a simple three-class model that includes the rich or upper class, the middle class, and the poor or working class.

Key Terms

  • hierarchy: Any group of objects ranked so that everyone but the topmost is subordinate to a specified group above it.
  • socioeconomic: Of or pertaining to social and economic factors.

In the United States, a person’s social class has far-reaching consequences. Social class refers to the the grouping of individuals in a stratified hierarchy based on wealth, income, education, occupation, and social network (though other factors are sometimes considered). One’s position in the social class hierarchy may impact, for example, health, family life, education, religious affiliation, political participation, and experience with the criminal justice system.

Social class in the United States is a controversial issue, with social scientists disagreeing over models, definitions, and even the basic question of whether or not distinct classes exist. Many Americans believe in a simple three-class model that includes the rich or upper class, the middle class, and the poor or working class. More complex models that have been proposed by social scientists describe as many as a dozen class levels. Regardless of which model of social classes used, it is clear that socioeconomic status (SES) is tied to particular opportunities and resources. Socioeconomic status refers to a person’s position in the social hierarchy and is determined by their income, wealth, occupational prestige, and educational attainment.

While social class may be an amorphous and diffuse concept, with scholars disagreeing over its definition, tangible advantages are associated with high socioeconomic status. People in the highest SES bracket, generally referred to as the upper class, likely have better access to healthcare, marry people of higher social status, attend more prestigious schools, and are more influential in politics than people in the middle class or working class. People in the upper class are members of elite social networks, effectively meaning that they have access to people in powerful positions who have specialized knowledge. These social networks confer benefits ranging from advantages in seeking education and employment to leniency by police and the courts. Sociologists may dispute exactly how to model the distinctions between socioeconomic statuses, but the higher up the class hierarchy one is in America, the better health, educational, and professional outcomes one is likely to have.

Physical Health

Social class is a strong social determinant of health.

Learning Objectives

Describe how a low socioeconomic status (SES) can impact the health status of individuals

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Social class is correlated to environmental hazards that increase one’s risk of contracting a disease or sustaining an injury; low access to fresh produce, exercise facilities, and preventative health programs are all environmental hazards that negatively impact health outcomes.
  • Health inequality refers to the unequal distribution of environmental hazards and access to health services between demographic groups, including social classes, as well as to the disparate health outcomes experienced by these groups.
  • In addition to environmental hazards, lower socioeconomic classes have lower levels of health insurance than the upper class. Much of this disparity can be explained by the tendency for lower status occupations to not provide benefits to employees.

Key Terms

  • Environmental Hazards: Risk factors related to social and economic conditions that may produce negative health outcomes, including pollution and distribution of grocery stores, for example.
  • health inequality: The unequal distribution of environmental health hazards and access to health services between demographic groups, including social classes.
  • social determinants of health: The economic and social conditions that influence individual and group differences in health status.

A person’s social class has a significant impact on their physical health, their ability to receive adequate medical care and nutrition, and their life expectancy. While gender and race play significant roles in explaining healthcare inequality in the United States, socioeconomic status (SES) is the greatest social determinant of an individual’s health outcome. Social determinants of health are the economic and social conditions that influence individual and group differences in health status. Social determinants are environmental, meaning that they are risk factors found in one’s living and working conditions (including the distribution of income, wealth, influence, and power), rather than individual factors (such as behavioral risk factors or genetics). Social determinants can be used to predict one’s risk of contracting a disease or sustaining an injury, and can also indicate how vulnerable one is to the consequences of a disease or injury. Individuals of lower socioeconomic status have lower levels of overall health, less insurance coverage, and less access to adequate healthcare than those of higher SES.

Individuals with a low SES in the United States experience a wide array of health problems as a result of their economic position. They are unable to use healthcare as often as people of higher status and when they do, it is often of lower quality. Additionally, people with low SES tend to experience a much higher rate of health issues than those of high SES. Many social scientists hypothesize that the higher rate of illness among those with low SES can be attributed to environmental hazards. For example, poorer neighborhoods tend to have fewer grocery stores and more fast food chains than wealthier neighborhoods, increasing nutrition problems and the risk of conditions, such as heart disease. Similarly, poorer neighborhoods tend to have fewer recreational facilities and higher crime rates than wealthier ones, which decreases the feasibility of routine exercise.

In addition to having an increased level of illness, lower socioeconomic classes have lower levels of health insurance than the upper class. Much of this disparity can be explained by the tendency for middle and upper class people to work in professions that provide health insurance benefits to employees, while lower status occupations often do not provide benefits to employees. For many employees who do not have health insurance benefits through their job, the cost of insurance can be prohibitive. Without insurance, or with inadequate insurance, the cost of healthcare can be extremely high. Consequently, many uninsured or poorly insured individuals do not have access to preventative care or quality treatment. This group of people has higher rates of infant mortality, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and disabling physical injuries than are seen among the well insured.

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Health Insurance Distribution (under 65 years): As seen in this graph, with insurance needed for most health services, access to healthcare is not evenly distributed among Americans. The largest group of insured Americans consists of middle and upper class employees who receive health insurance through employers. As of 2007, 16% of the population had no health insurance coverage and, thus, had greatly limited access to healthcare.

Health inequality refers to the unequal distribution of environmental health hazards and access to health services between demographic groups, including social classes. For example, poor and affluent urban communities in the United States are geographically close to each other and to hospitals. Still, the affluent communities are more likely to have access to fresh produce, recreational facilities for exercise, preventative healthcare programs, and routine medical visits. Consequently, affluent communities are likely to have better health outcomes than nearby impoverished ones. The role of socioeconomic status in determining access to healthcare results in heath inequality between the upper, middle, and lower or working classes, with the higher classes having more positive health outcomes.

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Farmers Market: Farmers markets are visible sources of fresh produce and healthy foods. These markets are concentrated in middle to upper income neighborhoods and are not found in food deserts.

Mental Health

Different classes have different levels of access to treatment and encounter different mental health stressors.

Learning Objectives

Define mental health and explain why it is regarded as a socially constructed concept

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Mental health describes a person’s level of psychological well-being, or the presence/absence of mental disorder. Mental health can include one’s ability to enjoy life and demonstrate psychological resilience.
  • Mental health is socially constructed and defined; it is determined by both scientific and cultural knowledge, and it is understood differently by various groups, institutions, and professions.
  • The evaluation of which mental states can be considered healthy and which require medical intervention also varies by class.

Key Terms

  • mental disorder: A psychological pattern, potentially reflected in behavior, generally associated with distress or disability, not considered part of normal development in a person’s culture.
  • mental health: Emotional well-being, especially with reference to outlook on life, ability to cope with stress, or the absence of a mental disorder.

Mental health describes a level of psychological well-being or the presence/absence of a mental disorder. From the perspective of “positive psychology” or “holism,” mental health may include an individual’s ability to enjoy life and to demonstrate psychological resilience when confronted with challenges. The World Health Organization defines mental health as “a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community. ”

What counts as healthy enjoyment and resilience depends upon one’s class perspective. Members of different classes encounter different stressors—lower class people likely face more financial stress as it pertains to day-to-day sustenance and well-being, while upper class people might experience stress from the intense social pressures associated with elite circles. The evaluation of which mental states can be considered healthy and which require medical intervention also varies by class.

Mental health is a socially constructed and socially defined concept; different societies, groups, cultures, institutions, and professions have very different ways of conceptualizing its nature and causes, determining what is mentally healthy, and deciding what interventions are appropriate. Definitions of mental health depend on cultural understandings in addition to biological and neurological findings. Members of different social classes often hold different views on mental health. Similarly, different social classes have different levels of access to mental health interventions and to information about mental health. Thus, the diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders varies widely by social class.

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Mental Disorders (1837): To say that mental health is socially constructed means that its definition and criteria can change across time and culture. This lithograph illustrates the eight mental health disorders that were thought to be prominent in England during the early-19th century: dementia, megalomania, acute mania, melancholia, idiocy, hallucination, erotic mania, and paralysis. Since 1837, many of those disorders have been erased from medical textbooks or modified in light of changing social norms.

Family Life

Family life, including marriage, childbearing and household composition are strongly influenced by social class.

Learning Objectives

Give examples for effects of social class on marriage, birth rates, and family composition

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • In the United States, the probability of a first marriage ending is substantially higher for couples with low socioeconomic statuses than for those in the middle or upper class.
  • Globally, the birth rate in countries with large impoverished populations is much higher than in wealthier countries.
  • In nations with high levels of fertility, upper class individuals tend to have more children than their lower class peers, while in nations with low levels of fertility, upper class families exhibit even lower fertility than average.
  • Social class has both a cause and an effect relationship with family composition, and lower social class is often correlated with one-parent households.

Key Terms

  • birth rate: The birth rate is typically the rate of births in a population over time.
  • Family Life: A general term that refers to marriage and childbearing patterns, household composition and home stability.
  • overpopulation: A situation which occurs when the number of occupants of an area exceeds the ability of that area to provide for those occupants.

Family life – marriage and childbearing patterns, household composition, and home stability – are strongly influenced by social class. In the United States, the probability of a first marriage ending is substantially higher for couples with low socioeconomic statuses than for those in the middle or upper class. Research shows that the higher rates of divorce for individuals in lower social classes can often be attributed to the greater financial stress these couples face, though factors like class expectations can also play a role.

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Probability of First Marriage Dissolution by Race/Ethnicity and Income (1995): This graph shows that among all races and ethnicities, low income households are more likely to experience divorce than middle and high income households are. Thus, social class bears on rates of marriage dissolution.

Globally, the birth rate in countries with large impoverished populations is much higher than in wealthier countries, indicating that income and wealth play a role in shaping family structures. Demographers have identified a direct relationship between average number of children per household and the economic development of a nation. Today, less developed countries struggle with overpopulation while many governments in developed countries are instituting policies to deal with low birth rates. In nations with high levels of fertility, upper class individuals tend to have more children than their lower class peers. In nations with low levels of fertility, upper class families exhibit even lower fertility than average.

Social class has both a cause and an effect relationship with family composition. For example, single-parent households are likely to have a lower social class because they violate social norms. At the same time, single-parent families can contribute to financial and social instability. A single parent will often face higher costs (in the form of paid childcare), lower earnings (loss of the second parent’s income or loss of time spent at work), or both.

Education

Educational attainment is tied to social class, with upper class individuals acquiring higher degrees from more prestigious schools.

Learning Objectives

Discuss three factors contributing to educational inequality

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Those in high social classes are likely to have greater educational attainment than those in low social classes.
  • Educational inequality is also perpetuated by legacy admission.
  • Because members of high social classes tend to be better educated and have higher incomes, they are more able to provide educational advantages to their children as well.
  • Educational inequality is one factor that perpetuates the class divide across generations.

Key Terms

  • educational attainment: Educational attainment is a term commonly used by statisticians to refer to the highest degree of education an individual has completed.
  • private school: A fee-charging private or independent school.
  • legacy student: A student who is admitted to a school (often a college or university), primarily because one or both of their parents are alumni of the same institution.

Education is a major component of social class, both directly and indirectly. Directly, individuals from higher social classes are more likely to have the means to attend more prestigious schools, and are therefore more likely to receive higher educations. Indirectly, individuals who benefit from such higher education are more likely to land prestigious jobs, and in turn, higher salaries. Just as education and social class are closely intertwined, stratification in education contributes to stratification in social class.

Educational attainment refers to the level of schooling a person completes — for instance, high school, some college, college, or a graduate degree. Upper class individuals are likely to attend schools of higher quality and of greater prestige than those attended by their lower class counterparts. Because members of high social classes tend to be better educated and have higher incomes, they are able to offer greater educational advantages, such as private schooling, to their children as well.

Upper-class parents are better able to send their children not only to exclusive private schools, but also to public state-funded schools. Such schools are likely to be of higher quality in affluent areas than in impoverished ones, since they are funded by property taxes within the school district. Wealthy areas will provide more property taxes as revenue, which leads to higher quality schools. Educational inequality is one factor that perpetuates the class divide across generations.

Such educational inequality is further reinforced by legacy admission, the preference given by educational institutions to applicants who are related to alumni of that institution. Germane to to university and college admissions (particularly in the United States), this practice emerged after World War I, primarily in response to the resulting immigrant influx. Ivy League institutions admit roughly 10% to 30% of students from each incoming class based on this factor.

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Educational Attainment and Income (1991-2003): Households with higher educational attainment are likely to have higher incomes than those with low educational attainment — members of the lowest income bracket tend to have no more than a high school education, while the highest income bracket members tend to hold graduate degrees.

Religion

Social class is associated with individuals’ religious affiliations and practices but not with religiosity itself.

Learning Objectives

Explain how social class relates to religious affiliation, denomination and religiosity

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Social class is an indicator of religious affiliation, with upper class members concentrated in formal denominations and lower class members concentrated in informal denominations.
  • Social class is not an indicator of religiosity; members of each social class practice their faiths with a range of intensities.
  • Income, and therefore social class, is related to an individual’s denomination. Religion is also strongly linked to level of education.

Key Terms

  • Religious Affiliation: The measure of which religious denomination a person identifies with or practices
  • religiosity: An index of how strongly religious a person is

Social class, measured by socioeconomic status, is associated with individuals’ religious affiliations and practices. This affiliation has more to do with how religion is practiced rather than degree of religiosity. Members of lower classes tend to be affiliated with more fundamentalist religions and sect-like groups. Members of the middle class tend to belong to more formal churches. For example, American Presbyterians and Episcopalians (two highly formal Protestant denominations), tend to have above average socioeconomic statuses. Methodists and Lutherans (two moderately formal Protestant denominations) tend to have about average SES. Baptists and members of Protestant fundamentalist sects (which tend to be decentralized and informal) have below average SES. Variations in SES across denomination reveal a correlation between religious affiliation and social class.

Social class is not significantly correlated to religiosity, an index of how strongly religious a person is. Religiosity is measured by tracking frequency of church attendance, church group involvement, frequency of prayer, and other such markers of strength of religious practice. Members of each social class show a range of religiosity.

On the other hand, income, and therefore social class, is related to an individual’s denomination. When one looks at average income by religion, there are clear differences. The highest-earning religion on average is Judaism, with an average income of $72,000 in 2000. This is dramatically higher than average; the next highest-earning denomination is Unitarianism at $56,000. Jehovah’s Witness, Church of God, and Seventh Day Adventists are at the bottom of the income distribution, with $24,000, $26,000, and $31,000 respectively.

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Religious Affiliation by Median Household Income (2000): Household income, an indicator of social class, can also indicate what religious denomination a person is likely to embrace. America’s top income bracket is more likely than other groups to be Jewish, while the lowest bracket is more likely to be Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Religion is also linked with education. 72% of Unitarian and 67% of Hindu adherents are college graduates, while only 12% of Jehovah’s Witness and 15% of Church of God members graduated from college.

Politics

The higher one’s social class, the higher their levels of political participation and political influence.

Learning Objectives

Evaluate how social class impacts political participation and political influence

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Political office holders tend to be of high socioeconomic status, furthering the impact of class on American politics.
  • Wealthy, well-educated Americans are more likely to vote and to donate money to politicians than lower class individuals are.
  • Those who vote as members of a social class can be said to be participating in identity politics.

Key Terms

  • Political Influence: The extent to which one’s political participation achieves its desired results, or the amount of power a political actor has to achieve his or her will.
  • Political Participation: A measure of whether or not a person votes in elections, donates to campaigns, or attends public forums where decisions are made.

Social class impacts one’s level of political participation and political influence. Political participation refers to whether or not a person votes in elections, donates to campaigns, or attends public forums where decisions are made, such as town meetings or city council meetings, for example. Political influence refers to the extent to which one’s political participation achieves its desired results. For example, if one attends a public forum, is their opinion likely to be heard, or if they donate money, is a politician likely to support their desired policy?

Wealthy, well-educated Americans are more likely to vote and to donate money to politicians than lower class individuals. This trend means that middle and upper class individuals have greater political participation and greater political influence than those in lower positions. Additionally, higher status people are more likely to hold political positions than lower class people. An illustration of this is the presidential election between George W. Bush and John Kerry in 2004. Both had millions of dollars of accumulated wealth, and they had higher degrees from Harvard and Yale, respectively.

Those who vote as members of a social class can be said to be participating in identity politics. Identity politics is a phenomenon that arose first at the radical margins of liberal democratic societies in which human rights are recognized, and the term is not usually used to refer to dissident movements within single-party or authoritarian states. Some groups have combined identity politics and Marxist social class analysis and class consciousness. During the 1980s, the politics of identity became very prominent and was linked with new social movement activism.

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Voter Turnout by Educational Attainment –2008 Presidential Election: Educational attainment, an indicator of social class, can predict one’s level of political participation. Those with high educational attainment are more likely to vote in elections than those with little education.

Crime and Criminal Justice

Criminal justice is the system of practices and institutions of governments directed at deterring and mitigating crime.

Learning Objectives

Describe how the administration of punishment has changed throughout history

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • When a person is suspected of violating a law, they are processed through the criminal justice system.
  • The criminal justice system includes law enforcement (such as police or sheriffs), the courts, and corrections authorities (such as prison wardens and social workers).
  • Legislation can attempt to refocus and restructure the criminal justice system in the United States, as when the 1967 President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice issued recommendations to improve the efficacy of criminal justice.
  • These reforms reflected a change in the purpose of the criminal justice system. Historically it had been used as a way to deter crime and punish criminals, but now has the added goal of rehabilitating offenders.

Key Terms

  • court: A tribunal established for the administration of justice, through which legal issues are adjudicated.
  • adjudication: The process of reaching a judgment or sentence in a legal proceeding.
  • law enforcement: The various government agencies involved in the prevention of crime and the apprehension of criminals.

Criminal justice is the system of practices and government institutions directed at upholding social control, deterring, and mitigating crime, or sanctioning those who violate laws with criminal penalties and rehabilitation efforts. The American criminal justice system consists of three main parts: (1) enforcement; (2) adjudication; and (3) corrections. These distinct agencies are the principal means of maintaining the rule of law within society.

The first contact an offender has with the criminal justice system is usually with law enforcement, most often the police who investigate a suspected violation and make an arrest. Next, the courts carry out adjudication or the legal processing of offenders. The courts serve as the venue where disputes are settled and justice is administered. Depending on the offense, either a judge or a jury determines whether the suspect violated the law and what their punitive sentence will be. If found guilty by the court, offenders are then turned over to correctional authorities. Correctional authorities may include prison wardens or social workers, depending on the type of offense.

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Courtroom: The criminal justice system includes adjudication, wherein the courts legally process suspects to determine their guilt or innocence and sentencing.

Like all other aspects of criminal justice, the administration of punishment has taken many different forms throughout history. Early on, when civilizations lacked the resources necessary to construct and maintain prisons, exile and execution were the primary forms of punishment. Historically shame punishments have also been used as forms of censure.

The most publicly visible form of punishment in the modern era is the prison. Prisons may serve as detention centers for prisoners after trial. Jails are used for containment of the accused before trial. Early prisons were used primarily to sequester criminals and little thought was given to living conditions within their walls. In America, the Quaker movement is commonly credited with establishing the idea that prisons should be used to reform criminals. This can also be seen as a critical moment in the debate regarding the purpose of punishment.

In the United States, criminal justice policy has been guided by the 1967 President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice, which issued a ground-breaking report titled “The Challenge of Crime in a Free Society. ” This report made more than 200 recommendations as part of a comprehensive approach toward crime prevention. Some of those recommendations found their way into the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968. The commission advocated a “systems” approach to criminal justice, with improved coordination among law enforcement, courts, and correctional agencies. The commission defined the criminal justice system as the means for society to “enforce the standards of conduct necessary to protect individuals and the community. ”

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Police Confiscate Gun: Police officers are the most visible members of the law enforcement branch of the criminal justice system, and are charged with maintaining social order by arresting offenders who violate the law.