I tried a new assignment in my "Social Structure" class this year: a paper called "Keeping up with the Joneses."
Our aim was to explore the relationship between absolute class and relative status. I had students collect some markers of their own family's class - their parents' education, occupation, and income, and the family's major assets and expenses. With this information they could see where in the national class structure they fit.
Then I asked them to think about experiences they had that showed their status relative to peers and near-peers. One body of evidence came from times when they felt relatively poor or lower status, and times when they felt relatively rich or higher status, than those around them.
In class yesterday we compared experiences, and afterwards I read all the papers.
This turned out to be an eye-opening assignment. Many students had only the vaguest idea of their family's income, and had never asked before. Some parents - fathers, especially - were reluctant to give a specific answer, and not all did. A few students had a clear idea of their family's finances, especially if they were tight. In most cases, though, students thought of themselves as average, middle class people. And in most cases they were surprised to find that their families were significantly above the median income of American families.
They had no trouble remembering moments when they felt up or down relative to the status of someone near. Their stories from childhood turned on things they were not allowed to have, or had when a friend did not. If the parents did not supply an explanation of why some things were not to be had, the students as children had automatically supplied one explanation: we (they) can't afford it.
As they got older, though, students noticed status differences that turned on culture and learning, more than on objects and money. These status differences are more subtle, but more enduring. One excellent fruit of their education is that they gradually come to value understanding more than things.
The strongest emotion that came from most of my students' exploration of their family's class and status is gratitude for all that their families have made possible for them.