Figure 2: Members of the upper class can afford to live, work, and play in exclusive places designed for luxury and comfort. (Photo courtesy of PrimeImageMedia.com/flickr)| The upper class is considered America’s top, and only the powerful elite get to see the view from there. In the United States, people with extreme wealth make up one percent of the population, and they own one-third of the country’s wealth (Beeghley 2008). Money provides not just access to material goods, but also access to power. America’s upper class wields a lot of power. As corporate leaders, their decisions affect the job status of millions of people. As media owners, they shape the collective identity of the nation. They run the major network television stations, radio broadcasts, newspapers, magazines, publishing houses, and sports franchises. As board members of the most influential colleges and universities, they shape cultural attitudes and values. As philanthropists, they establish foundations to support social causes they believe in. As campaign contributors, they influence politicians and fund campaigns, sometimes to protect their own economic interests. American society has historically distinguished between “old money” (inherited wealth passed from one generation to the next) and “new money” (wealth you have earned and built yourself). While both types may have equal net worth, they have traditionally held different social standing. People of old money, firmly situated in the upper class for generations, have held high prestige. Their families have socialized them to know the customs, norms, and expectations that come with wealth. Often, the very wealthy don’t work for wages. Some study business or become lawyers in order to manage the family fortune. Others, such as Paris Hilton, capitalize on being a rich socialite and transform that into celebrity status, flaunting a wealthy lifestyle. However, new money members of the upper class are not oriented to the customs and mores of the elite. They haven’t gone to the most exclusive schools. They have not established old-money social ties. People with new money might flaunt their wealth, buying sports cars and mansions, but they might still exhibit behaviors attributed to the middle and lower classes. -------------------------------------------------
The Middle Class
Figure 3: These members of a club likely consider themselves middle class. (Photo courtesy of United Way Canada-Centraide Canada/flickr)| Many people call themselves middle class, but there are differing ideas about what that means. People with annual incomes of $150,000 call themselves middle class, as do people who annually earn $30,000. That helps explain why, in the United States, the middle class is broken into upper and lower subcategories. Upper-middle-class people tend to hold bachelor’s and postgraduate degrees. They’ve studied subjects such as business, management, law, or medicine. Lower-middle-class members hold bachelor’s degrees or associate’s degrees from two-year community or technical colleges. Comfort is a key concept to the middle class. Middle-class people work hard and live fairly comfortable lives. Upper-middle-class people tend to pursue careers that earn comfortable incomes. They provide their families with large homes and nice cars. They may go skiing or boating on vacation. Their children receive quality education and health care (Gilbert 2010). In the lower middle class, people hold jobs supervised by members of the upper middle class. They fill technical, lower-level management, or administrative support positions. Compared to lower-class work, lower-middle-class jobs carry more prestige and come with slightly higher paychecks. With these incomes, people can afford a decent, mainstream lifestyle, but they struggle to maintain it. They generally don’t have enough income to build significant savings. In addition, their grip on...