American Class System and Structure: Definitions & Types of Social Classes

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  • 0:05 American Class System
  • 1:07 Upper Class
  • 4:15 Middle Class
  • 6:08 Lower Class
  • 7:35 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Erin Long-Crowell

Erin has an M.Ed in adult education and a BS in psychology and a BS in management systems.

In this lesson, we discuss the American class system and the social stratification layers that exist within each class. We also differentiate between income and wealth and discuss how they relate to social status.

American Class System

In a previous lesson, we discussed social stratification - a system by which society ranks categories of people in a hierarchy. In an open system of social stratification, which is what we have, status is achieved through merit or effort, and social mobility between classes is possible through education and certain opportunities. The American class system is typically broadly divided into three main layers: upper class, middle class, and lower class. They are mostly based on socioeconomic conditions. Although definitions and membership criteria aren't concrete, these three classes offer a general understanding of what social stratification looks like in the U.S. In this lesson we'll discuss these three types of classes, including the layers that exist in each.

The three main levels in the American class system are the upper, middle and lower classes
American Class System

Upper Class

First, we'll start at the top of the hierarchy. Individuals who are considered to be members of the upper class are the owners of the means of production and most of the country's private wealth. Many are important government officials, large business owners, or top executives that have a great deal of income and/or wealth.

It is important to know the difference between income and wealth, as they are two distinct concepts. They are also a big part of determining social status. Income is salary and/or other money that is regularly received, where wealth is the total value of all assets, minus outstanding debts. In other words, income is what you make, and wealth is what you have. Someone can bring in a high income without being wealthy, and can also be wealthy without bringing in any income. For example, some people earn a large salary but spend it all on a large house, fancy cars, travel, etc. These individuals basically live from paycheck to paycheck, and if they were to stop working, they would quickly become destitute. On the other hand, some people earn a modest salary but are very frugal in how they spend it - they live below their means and carefully invest anything that's left over. For some of these individuals, they could stop working and still have enough money to live on for years.

Someone can bring in a high income without being wealthy and vice versa
Wealth and Income Not the Same

Another example of how someone can be wealthy without an income can be seen in the most elite of the upper class. The upper class actually has two layers: the upper-upper class and the lower-upper class. The upper-upper class makes up less than one percent of the U.S. population, and membership is almost always the result of birth. These individuals are the 'blue bloods' or 'old money' who inherit massive wealth from their family. The Queen of England is an example, as are the Kennedys and the Rockefellers. These individuals have inherited enough that they don't need to work.

On the other hand, the majority of upper class members actually fall into the lower-upper class. These are mostly the 'working rich' or 'new money' - individuals who earn their lifestyle instead of inheriting it. Professional athletes, actors, and successful entrepreneurs are all examples. These individuals are still wealthy - some even more so than the individuals in the upper-upper class - but also have a high income.

Middle Class

The next step down in the social hierarchy of the U.S. class system is the middle class, which includes about half of the U.S. population. Most advertisements are directed towards this audience, and fictional characters in popular culture - TV shows, movies, and books - are typically middle-class members. The greatest amount of social mobility occurs at this level, whether it's upward, downward, or horizontal.

Like the upper class, the middle class has several layers: upper-middle, average-middle, and lower-middle. Upper-middles are those who earn above-average salaries, and typically live in fairly expensive houses in nice neighborhoods. Almost all of them are college graduates, and many go on to highly prestigious white-collar jobs - doctors, lawyers, businessmen, local politicians, and so on.

The center layer of the middle class is the average-middle, and the family income at this level is roughly the national average. Members typically work at less prestigious white-collar jobs - managers, teachers, office workers, and so on. Most are college graduates.

Members of the average-middle class include managers, office workers and teachers
Average Middle Class

The lower-middle class is also called the working class, and it's the bottom layer at this level. They typically have blue-collar jobs, such as police officers, electricians, truck drivers, plumbers, factory workers, and more. They earn slightly less than the national average.

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