Class Distinctions in America, Part I

America has the image of being generally middle-class, or favoring a middle-class ethos. The “common man” (or woman) is the general target for marketing, policies, aspirations, etc. We also have much more class mobility than in other cultures: the wealthy daughter of a doctor may work in a grocery store in summers in high school or the son of a CEO may deliver pizzas in college. But there is an elephant in the room that we seldom talk about in America, and that is class. Things are not so evident on the surface about class, the way they might be elsewhere. In England for example, speech immediately distinguishes a person’s education level and class background, although it is increasingly becoming “cool” to adopt various speech patterns and mannerisms that are not RP (received pronunciation, or, “The Queen’s English”). The aforementioned example of wealthy children working menial jobs would be unheard of in Asia or Latin America.

With class not so evident as it is in other countries, what distinguishes between social classes in America? What are the signifiers? Here are some thoughts, and this post will be continued in a second part.

Food. This is one of the saddest things about wealthiest country in the world. There is still hunger in America, and for those who are poor, the cheapest options are often the least healthy. Contrast this with the wealthier, food conscious individuals in America who shop at Whole Foods, farmers’ markets, and artisan shops for food. We have “food deserts” where people have little access to food, let alone healthy food, and children who rely on schools to provide them meals. SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), or “food stamps” is just little over four dollars a day per person, which is really not enough. When fast food options offer meals that are just a couple of dollars, those who have very little income would understandably opt for those. The advice to grow one’s own food is not always possible to those who live in cold or inhospitable climates. This is one of America’s greatest shames.

Healthcare. This is too complex a topic to go into in this article, but we can say that the Affordable Care Act has not yet achieved its goal of helping all Americans have affordable coverage. We need a universal healthcare plan, single payer if possible, and yet our politicians do not by and large support this plan. The poor often get relegated to community clinics with limited healthcare, and their access to specialists is even more limited. Some may opt not to even consult physicians when ill, due to fears of excessive bills. People who can afford it not only have good healthcare plans (covered by their employer), but they can have the luxury of choosing the best doctors, and even paying out-of-pocket for procedures and tests. Needless to say, wealthy and urban areas have large concentrations of highly trained and specialized doctors and medical professionals.

Spending habits. This is a highly taboo subject, and one that can potentially sound extremely classist. But there is some truth to the reason that the rich get richer, and why many people who do not have much money are in that situation due to their consumerism. I am in no way advocating trickle-down, Reaganist economics, and I personally think that class stratification is a very serious problem in America we need to address through various means such as taxation, social welfare and benefits, etc. I would like to add the caveat, though, that the working poor and people in lower-paying jobs who are indeed financially savvy and wise with their personal finances are simply not able to save and do not have disposable income. America has failed these people, and it is also another one of America’s shames.

But in terms of purely individual spending habits, I have seen that many prosperous people are extremely careful with their disposable income, saving for particular goals such as housing, their children’s education, retirement, and investing in quality rather than quantity. There is the temptation in American society to spend like mad on the latest trendy car/gadget/clothing/item, with the understanding that it keeps the economy moving. While there may be truth to this, it is often to the detriment of people’s personal finances. I grew up in a community where people were of largely (lower-) middle and lower-class SES, and when I attended Stanford University, I was quite surprised and fascinated to see that despite many of my peers being quite wealthy, they were not very materialistic in comparison to the people I grew up with. And my Stanford peers were from all around the United States and the world, thus illustrating a geographic cross-section of largely upper- and upper-middle class individuals. Certainly not everyone at Stanford was well to do, and I felt I was one of the rare, true middle-class students there. But I have noticed in living in places of different socioeconomic status that the spending habits of the well to do are certainly cautious.

This post will be continued.

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