Friday, September 08, 2006

Which Part of the Class Ladder is Harder to Climb – the Bottom Half, or the Top?

Some students in my Social Structure class made a claim that took me aback, and I have been chewing on it ever since. They contended that it is harder to climb from the bottom to the middle of the social structure, than it is to climb from the middle to the top.

When I brought this idea home, Mrs. Gruntled agreed with the students.

My first reaction, though, was the opposite. Sure, it is difficult to rise from poverty to the secure middle class. You are beset by obstacles and temptations to self-destruction on every side.

Yet the gap between the middle and the top of the social pyramid is dizzyingly gigantic. The difference in power between the average middle-class family head and the commander in chief of the world's only superpower is staggering. The status gap between respectable suburban college graduate and the oldest of Old Money cannot be bridged in a generation or two. And the view up the slopes from the average American family's net worth, $93 thousand, to Bill and Melinda Gates' net worth of about $25 billion (down from $100 billion at its peak) is truly Olympian.

And this seems to me to be the clincher: though it is difficult to rise from poverty to the solid middle class, millions do it all the time. On the other hand, though millions are striving mightily, and with many valuable assets at their disposal, to rise from the middle to the top, only the tiniest fraction will ever get anywhere near there.

I think most people can envision and even relate to the difficult climb from the bottom to the middle. On the other hand, I think they have no idea how high up the top really is.

I think climbing the top half of the ladder is much harder than climber the bottom half.

I would welcome your thoughts.


Brett said...

Some of it depends on how far down you extend the bottom of the ladder. Are we just talking poor people in the United States? Or are we including sub-Saharan Africa, Haiti, etc?

I think you are correct for the United States. There is certainly not a conspiracy going on, but it is convenient for the hyper-wealthy that your students (and probably most people) think it is easier to get very rich from the middle than to get to the middle from being very poor. This cultural assumption maintains hope and a good work ethic amongst middle class folk like your students. They imagine that if they work hard enough--as you suggest--they will rise to the upper echelons. At the same time, the poor in the system will continue to assume that poverty is unescapable, thus maintaining an underclass for the service economy.

This is also why, I think, that the unfailing work ethic of most new immigrants--who have not been steeped in these cultural assumptions--allows them to move from poverty to the middle class normally within one or two generations.

Quotidian Grace said...

I agree with you.

The income tax structure in the US is a burden on the upper middle class that makes it very difficult to climb the economic ladder if you are dependent on earned income. That same tax structure is designed to assist the people with low income to get into the middle class.

Your students probably aren't paying income tax yet on a full-time job income--ask them again in about 10 years!

Alan said...

I'm with your students on this one .... and they should know, they're college students. And, a college education (something that's pretty tough for the very poor to obtain) is probably one of the primary things that keeps someone from becoming middle class.

Take structure may make it tough for people to get from middle to upper class, but I don't think that's as hard to get past as a lack of education.

Russell Smith said...

I think the main thing is where you drawn the line between "middle class" and "upper class" -- and what upper class are you talking about -- the upper class in your state, in your city, or of teh nation.

My parents and their friends were all upper class in our hometown of SC -- they hung with the governor and Bank Presidents (my dad was a neurosurgeon -- his father worked as a clerk for the railroad). I mingled in a whole set of folks who moved from middle to upper class -- in South Carolina. But on the national scene -- they would have still been considered middle class (for none of them were potentates and power brokers on the level of a gates or the New England Old money).

It's all in how you draw the lines.

Gruntled said...

Yes, Russell, you make a very good point. I was thinking of the national ruling class. Provincial potentates have a very satisfying status position to live in, since they are at the top of their everyday social structure. But in terms of national power, most of the provinces (like Kentucky) are barely even represented.

Elaine said...

When I read the question, I too made certain assumptions that I see reflected here. I assumed that you meant the bottom 5-10% of the poor in America, and I also assumed that when you said the top you didn't mean the very top but rather somewhere between the top 5 and 10% of the population.