Social Class in Psychology

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Practical Psychology

No matter who you vote for or where you live in the country, I think we can all agree that we live in a divided nation. But there isn’t just one divide. There’s racial divides, political divides, and the divide between people who live in urban areas and those who live in rural areas. I’m going to focus on a divide that lies at the heart of many political agendas: the division between social classes. Let’s look at the definition of social class, what it looks like in America, and how it has changed over the past few years. 

What Is Social Class? 

Social class, or "socio-economic class," is a way to measure and organize different groups of people based on economic status. By looking at people based on their economic status, we can analyze the effects of different policies, the motivations behind behavior, and the progression of the country as a whole. 

While there are some hard differences in income that separate the social classes, culture and lifestyle also contribute to these divisions. 

Social Classes in America 

What are the social classes in America? If you said, “upper, middle, and lower classes,” you’re right. But some sociologists and economists believe that there is more to social class than these three divisions. Let’s look at what makes someone “middle class,” and how many types of middle class there are to some experts. 

Upper Class

Recently, the upper class referred to individuals that made $200,000 a year. (These numbers will change over time due to inflation. They also only apply to America, as other countries have different wealth disparity and operate under different currencies.) 

The people within the upper class consist of business leaders, CEOs, and politicians. Some are richer than others. You might hear politicians refer to a group known as the 1%. In order to be in the top 1% of earners throughout the United States, you have to make at least $400,000 each year. Obviously, there are people that make much more than $400,000 each year. Data shows that the 1% of America has almost as much wealth as the entire middle class.  

Like all classes in America, there is not just one type of upper class person. Culturally, there is also a divide between “old money” and “new money.” People with “old money” have inherited their wealth, while people with “new money” have earned it recently through business ventures or other means. 

Middle Class

Let’s go back to talking about the middle class. This is where most people believe they stand in American culture. It makes up about half of the entire population, although since it is so vaguely defined, these numbers vary among experts. Although many politicians talk about the middle class as one group of people, there are some distinct divides between the upper and middle class. Income level and education, for example, divide the middle class. The type of jobs they hold may also separate the classes. 

Upper Middle Class 

We’ll start with the upper-middle class. These people are highly educated and typically hold higher-level jobs in business or technology. Members of the upper middle class often have sought-after specialized skills: they’re lawyers, engineers, or accountants. They typically make over $75,000 a year, but may not have the assets of their upper-class peers. The upper middle class makes up roughly 15% of the population. 

Lower Middle Class 

The rest of the middle class, about 35% of people, fit into the lower middle class. These people make between $30,000 and $75,000 a year. Jobs offering lower-middle class salaries often assist professionals through administrative or clerical work. Schoolteachers also fit into this category. While some members of the lower-middle class may have specialized skills, they are still considered “blue collar” workers

As you can see, these are two very different types of people. And America’s “middle class” is becoming smaller and smaller, as the division between the upper class and working class becomes wider and wider. 

Working Class 

The last social class in America is the working class. This is another name for the “lower class” that does not include unemployed people or those living in poverty. People in the working class tend to make less than $30,000 each year. 

While members of the middle class have likely graduated college, members of the working class are more likely to have completed some or all of high school. They may work as laborers, waiters, or in nursing homes. 

Members of the lower class typically do not have jobs at all, or work part-time. 

Social Mobility 

If you’re in the American middle class, how easy is it for you to jump to the upper class? 

Unfortunately, not as easy as you think. When determining the ease of moving social classes, experts look at social mobility. The American Dream is based on the idea of social mobility. You can come here with no money, and as long as you work hard, you can move through the ranks and become a wealthy and comfortable person. Right? 

Again, it’s not as easy as you think. Studies show that the United States has relatively low rates of social mobility compared to other countries. There are many reasons why this is. The cost of college may prevent working- and lower-class individuals from obtaining the skills they need to get a higher-paying job. Student loans may be holding middle class citizens back from owning property and growing their wealth. People in the upper class may decide to hold onto their wealth rather than redistribute it through job creation. 

Reddit user Jsmetalcore says it best: "The bootstraps argument is pretty bad once you realize the US only ranks 27th in social mobility." You can read the debate that follows their comment on Reddit.

Is Social Mobility Impossible? 

No. Does it mean that politicians should consider measures that encourage more social mobility, like putting taxes on the ultra-rich? It depends on your political leanings. While Democrats may believe that taxing the rich will help to redistribute wealth, Republicans may believe that taxing the rich prevents them from redistributing wealth. 

Continue to educate yourself on the structure of the American economy and how certain policies may affect things like social mobility and income inequality. This knowledge will help you find a political candidate or group that best aligns with your views.

Reference this article:

Practical Psychology. (2020, June). Social Class in Psychology. Retrieved from

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