Social class refers to a group of people with similar levels of wealth, influence, and status. Sociologists typically use three methods to determine social class:
- The objective method measures and analyzes “hard” facts.
- The subjective method asks people what they think of themselves.
- The reputational method asks what people think of others.
Results from these three research methods suggests that in the United States today approximately 15 to 20 percent are in the poor, lower class; 30 to 40 percent are in the working class; 40 to 50 percent are in the middle class; and 1 to 3 percent are in the rich, upper class.
The lower class
The lower class is typified by poverty, homelessness, and unemployment. People of this class, few of whom have finished high school, suffer from lack of medical care, adequate housing and food, decent clothing, safety, and vocational training. The media often stigmatize the lower class as “the underclass,” inaccurately characterizing poor people as welfare mothers who abuse the system by having more and more babies, welfare fathers who are able to work but do not, drug abusers, criminals, and societal “trash.”
The working class
The working class are those minimally educated people who engage in “manual labor” with little or no prestige. Unskilled workers in the class—dishwashers, cashiers, maids, and waitresses—usually are underpaid and have no opportunity for career advancement. They are often called the working poor. Skilled workers in this class—carpenters, plumbers, and electricians—are often called blue collar workers. They may make more money than workers in the middle class—secretaries, teachers, and computer technicians; however, their jobs are usually more physically taxing, and in some cases quite dangerous.
The middle class
The middle class are the “sandwich” class. These white collar workers have more money than those below them on the “social ladder,” but less than those above them. They divide into two levels according to wealth, education, and prestige. The lower middle class is often made up of less educated people with lower incomes, such as managers, small business owners, teachers, and secretaries. The upper middle class is often made up of highly educated business and professional people with high incomes, such as doctors, lawyers, stockbrokers, and CEOs.
The upper class
Comprising only 1 to 3 percent of the United States population, the upper class holds more than 25 percent of the nation's wealth. This class divides into two groups: lower‐upper and upper‐upper. The lower‐upper class includes those with “new money,” or money made from investments, business ventures, and so forth. The upper‐upper class includes those aristocratic and “high‐society” families with “old money” who have been rich for generations. These extremely wealthy people live off the income from their inherited riches. The upper‐upper class is more prestigious than the lower‐upper class.
Wherever their money comes from, both segments of the upper class are exceptionally rich. Both groups have more money than they could possibly spend, which leaves them with much leisure time for cultivating a variety of interests. They live in exclusive neighborhoods, gather at expensive social clubs, and send their children to the finest schools. As might be expected, they also exercise a great deal of influence and power both nationally and globally.