Saturday, July 09, 2005

It's All About Class

You may have read the recent series in the New York Times focusing on the fact that Americans today have less class mobility than in the past.

Against the evidence, most of us actually believe just the opposite.

We still ascribe to the great American myth of the "self-made man."

This is important at a time when the gap between the rich and the poor widens every month. In spite of this growing chasm, an opinion poll conducted in 2000 reported that almost 40% of us believe that we are either members of the wealthiest 1% or that we are soon to be!

The fact that financial inequality is a fact of life today doesn't really get to me if I think I'm already at the top or will be able to get there soon.

As income disparity grows, social mobility tends to lock up.

Most of us underestimate the place of class in determining where a person ends up economically in life. We prefer to ignore factors such as social status at birth and the inherent privilege of some groups when compared to others.

We like to talk about genius, hard work as the determinants of success and economic status.

Turned around, we also buy into the notion that people who fail (i. e. the poor) do so because they lack intelligence or are lazy.

Very naive, to say nothing of self-serving.

Class at birth, something none of us had anything to do with, usually dictates where we end up in adulthood. Class status also is a reliable predictor for education, access to health care resources, housing, transportation, employment and power.

We need to set the "self-made man" myth aside, along with the idea that anybody can get to the top today.

Here's a fact to chew on: between 1980 and 2002, the bottom 90% of us experienced a decline in real income. On the other hand, those at the top watched their income double.

Amazing. Frightening.

We need not be surprised to see poverty grow and immobility solidify and deepen inequities in the U. S. No wonder we have so much work to do!

[These ideas flow from an interesting piece by David Moberg, "Class Consciousness Matters: What's Missing from the New York Times and Wall Street Journal" In These Times found at]


Tim Perkins said...

Larry: I'm willing to agree that attaining middle-class or upper middle-class status is more difficult if your point of origin is poverty. Those of us who started out middle-class already had a foot in the door.

But what I've seen as an educator in low-income areas is a bunch of opportunities wasted...leading me to believe that poor choices all along the way are the determining factor in one's failure to rise above poverty.

I think we can agree that education is the key to upward mobility in our society. I've seen many, many students who have overcome awful environments by taking education seriously and eventually getting a degree. Conversely, I've had those who repeatedly hang a left when they should be going right.

These are the ones who resist every attempt by teachers and others to help them capture the dream. I'm not saying it's all their fault, since they seem to be programmed from birth to follow bad examples.

Don't take this as a knock on you or CDM. I try to give generously to CDM because I believe heartily in its goals and outreach. And, as I've stated before, my outlook would likely change if I worked a summer or two downtown.

Larry James said...

Thanks, Tim. Your observations are not off base in terms of what individual students choose. It is complicated. I guess when I look at the scale of the problem--drop out rates among the poor, etc.--I know there are systemic forces at work that trump lots of individuals and their efforts. I will suggest some things in future posts that we did at one time in this nation to assist students and others in their efforts to move up. Currently we are cutting those tools and opportunities right and left via public policy decisions and no one seems to notice. Thanks for thinking with me. And thanks for your support.

An Educator said...


I think the public education system is a frightening example of the great class divide playing out. Children whose parents have money are in schools, public or private, that also have money. This leads to a better education, better colleges, better contacts and so on and so on. The kids who come from poverty have just the opposite path. It is very difficult to make a great decision about your educational future when your educational past has been substandard. It's hard to be in school when it takes hours and hours to see a doctor or to get help with groceries. It doesn't take long before the burdens of real life take over and education seems like someone else's dream.

John Greenan said...

Education is the key to helping anyone person advance--but an overall increase in education only increases competition unless more jobs are available.

I know engineers and lawyers, computer technicians and business school graduates that are unemployed, underemployed or struggling to find jobs.

The key to better jobs and more class mobility is improving our economy. This needs to be done in real terms; not by increasing paper profits or cutting costs by outsourcing more jobs.

Jeremy Gregg said...

Tim, I agree with Larry - it is complicated. However, we must remember this: the choices made by the poor students you teach are rarely that different from the choices made by the rich students across the town. The difference is that their capacity to handle the ramifications of those decisions is far less.

For example, I used to tutor kids in Highland Park. These were the sons and daughters or doctors, lawyers and amazingly wealthy businessmen. These kids made ridiculous choices, like getting high before class, skipping school to go to a midday pool party, never doing their homework, etc. However, unlike the poor, their parents could afford to pay $50 an hour for me to tutor these kids and get them ready for final exams.

Even if they're lucky enough to have parents who are aware of their problems/mistakes, poor students rarely come from families that have the ability to get them back on track for making the same bad choices that rich kids across town are making.