Common Misconceptions About Class
Social Mobility: The idea that one can move from one class position to another.
“We live in a classless society where anyone can make it.” From very early on in school we are taught that anyone can make it if they try, and that the West is the land of opportunity. We are told Rags to Riches stories (from Cinderella to Sam Walton) and that we live in a classless society. The myth of the American Dream is so powerful that research shows the vast majority of Americans (over 70%) overestimate class mobility and believe that personal motivation is more important to mobility than the state of the economy or the economic circumstances they are born into (Kraus & Tan, 2015; Wyatt-Nichol, 2016). In addition to strictly economic reasons for class immobility such as net worth, class immobility is also influenced by class culture. The cultural norms we are socialized into relate to the class we are born into, and this ensures that we will be most comfortable in and surround ourselves with people who share our class culture. The schools we go to, the neighborhoods we live in, the jobs we aspire to, all reinforce our class positions and who surrounds us. While
some people will change class, they will be the exception rather than the rule. The Rags to Riches story so beloved and repeated in Hollywood is unlikely in real life. Only 6% of children born to parents with income at the very bottom rise to the very top (Isaacs, 2007). Consider the 10 richest people in the United States in 2016 (Forbes, 2016), most if not all of whom were already born into the upper classes (also notice that they are all White men). Now imagine their children. What schools will they go to? Whose children will they be surrounded by? What opportunities will they have? Are they likely to mingle with your children? It is highly unlikely that we will interact across these vast class differences.
“A rich person can become poor as easily as a poor person can
become rich.” Because we tend to think of class strictly in terms of how much money we have, we assume that a rich person who loses everything will end up in the same boat as a poor person. But in reality, a rich person does not lose everything when they lose their money. They will still have an internalized sense of entitlement, contacts with other wealthy people they can call upon and network with, knowledge of systems and how to navigate them, and the language and norms of the upper class that will open doors for them. In other words, they do not lose their cultural capital. Further, they have much more time before they use up all of their material capital—real estate, antiques, artwork, cars, boats, jewelry—known as net worth.
Net worth: All of your assets combined together. When you subtract your debt from what you own, you have your net worth.
“Education is the key to getting ahead.” While certainly there are more opportunities open to people with more education, education itself is also stratified. As discussed in Chapter 2, the kind of education we receive is based on the kind of school we go to (public or private), where it is located, and how it is funded. Within the school are different tracks that offer different kinds of knowledge intended to prepare us for different kinds of careers. If we graduate from K–12 public schools and go on to college, we again enter a system that is stratified. Consider the difference between a 2-year college with a focus on the trades and a student population from the local community, and an Ivy League university with wealthy students from all over the world, many of them legacy (i.e., students whose parents also attended and therefore were automatically accepted). Whether you have to work while in college and still graduate with a massive amount of debt or have everything paid for by your family
will also impact the outcome of your education. Which doors your education opens is greatly impacted by the status of the school you go to. So while education clearly makes a difference in terms of life opportunities, schooling is a stratified political structure that very predictably and efficiently reproduces rather than eliminates class hierarchies.