Socio-economic class differences are particularly hidden in the US context. Part of this can be explained by the ideology of the American Dream. According to a popular belief in meritocracy, anyone who works hard enough will succeed, and those who do not succeed must not have worked hard enough. There is a logical error in this form of reasoning, which does not explain the following two scenarios: What about people who do not work very hard at all and still succeed? What about those who work exceptionally hard and never succeed? Part of this, of course, is about how we define success. Succeeding at the American Dream means something akin to having a great job, making a lot of money, and owning a car, a house, and all the most-recent gadgets. These are markers of material, that is, economic, wealth. Wealth is not only captured in personal income, but other assets as well (house, car, stocks, inheritances), not all of which are necessarily earned by hard work alone, but can come from inheritance, marriage, or luck.

Though rich/poor may be the binary associated with class, most people in the US context (no matter how much wealth they have) consider themselves “middle-class.” (Pew Research Center, 2010). The label “middle-class” represents more than what people have in their bank accounts—it reflects a political ideology. When politicians run for election or argue over legislation they often employ the term “middle-class” to stand in for “average,” “tax-paying,” “morally upstanding” constituents and argue for their collective voice and prosperity. Rhetorically, the “middle class” is not compared to the super rich (since, in the US, you can never be too rich or too thin), but rather the poor. So, when people talk about the middle class they are also often implying that they are NOT those “deviant,” “tax-swindling,” “immoral,” poor people. This may seem harsh, but this is truly how the poor are represented in news media (Mantsios, 2007). If this still seems far-fetched, just replace with phrase “the poor” with “welfare recipients.” Welfare recipients are often faceless but framed as undeserving of assistance since they are assumed to be cheating the system, addicted to alcohol or drugs, and have only themselves to blame for their poverty (Mantsios, 2007). Welfare recipients are the implied counterparts to the middle-class everymen that populate political speeches and radio rants. Thus, in the United States, socioeconomic class has been constructed as a binary between the middle-class and the poor.

Furthermore, these class-based categories also carry racial and sexual meanings, as the “welfare queen” stereotype conjures images of poor, black, sexually-promiscuous women, contrary to the fact that white women as a group are the largest recipients of welfare. Fred Block and colleagues (2006) discuss how these stereotypes about the poor are written into American poverty policies. For instance, in 1996, President Bill Clinton passed the Personal Responsibility/Work Opportunities Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), which fundamentally rewrote prior US welfare policy. This act limits lifetime receipt of welfare to a maximum of 60 months, or 5 years, and requires that able-bodied recipients work or job-train for low-skill jobs while receiving checks. Under PRWORA, recent immigrants cannot receive welfare for their first five years of legal residence, and undocumented immigrants can never receive welfare benefits (Block et al. 2006). These restrictions are based on the assumption that welfare recipients are ultimately cheating the American taxpayer and looking for a free ride. In spite of these changes, most people still believe that being on government assistance means a lifetime of free money. Media contempt for welfare recipients is accomplished by not humanizing the experience of poverty. People experiencing poverty can face tough choices; for instance, working more hours or getting a slightly better paying job can cause one to fail the “means test” (an income level above which people are ineligible for welfare benefits) for food stamps or Medicaid. The poor are increasingly forced to decide between paying for rent versus food and other bills, as the cost of living has risen dramatically in the past few decades while working-class wages have not risen comparably.

The SPENT game captures and humanizes this process of making tough decisions on a tight budget. Try it out and see how you fare:

However, class issues are not only about income differences. Cultural capital is a term coined by the late sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1984) to address non-monetary class differences such as tastes in food and music or knowledge of high culture.   Bourdieu explained that even when a formerly poor individual experiences economic mobility and becomes middle-class, there are still markers of her former status in the way she carries herself and the things she knows. We see many examples of this in popular films. When someone goes from rags to riches, they often use the wrong utensils at a dinner party, call something by the wrong name, cannot tell the difference between a Chardonnay and a Merlot (wines ), or spend their money in a showy way. Thus, someone can have high cultural capital and not be wealthy, or have low cultural capital and be a millionaire. For instance, in the popular (and very campy) movie Showgirls (Verhoeven, 1995), the main character, Nomi Malone, goes from homeless and unemployed to a well paid Las Vegas showgirl at record speed. Along the way, she buys an expensive Versace dress and brags about it. Unfortunately, she reveals her lack of cultural capital, and thus her former status as poor, by mispronouncing the brand (saying ‘Verse-ACE’ instead of ‘Vers-a-Chee’) and is humiliated by some rather mean bystanders. In sum, the concept of cultural capital highlights the ways in which social class is not just about wealth and income, but that social classes develop class cultures.

This photo shows wine being poured into a glass container.

“Pouring wine into a decanter” by Agne27 is licensed under CC BY 2.0