Like all societies, the United States is stratified, and this stratification is often based on a person’s socioeconomic status (SES). This complex formula takes into account three factors:
The number of years a person spends in school, plus the prestige of his or her occupation, plus the amount of money he or she makes, determine one’s social class. While this method of dividing up the population into classes might be useful, it has several shortcomings.
One determinant of socioeconomic status is education. People with a high school degree are classified in one group. People with college degrees are put into another. Using educational attainment levels to indicate SES is problematic for two reasons:
Free, compulsory education has existed in the United States since the beginning of the twentieth century, but some school systems are better than others. The American public education system tends to be highly decentralized, with decisions about what to include in the school curriculum being made at the state or local level. School systems differ widely in what they choose to teach and when.
Some school systems produce graduates who are prepared for higher education, while others turn out people whose basic math and language skills are so poor that they qualify for only a few types of jobs. The quality of the education a school provides depends largely on its budget, which in turn relies heavily on the tax base of the town or city in which it is located. Wealthy cities can afford better teachers, newer materials, and superior technology, whereas poor cities can barely afford basic supplies.
Poorer communities also tend to have a higher dropout rate than wealthier communities. Therefore, while establishing a profile of a typical high school graduate is difficult, the assumption remains, for the purposes of social classification, that all high school graduates are equally prepared for either the workplace or for higher education.
The reliance on educational level as an indicator of social class becomes more problematic when one considers the huge variety of colleges in the United States. There are vocational schools, junior colleges, four-year colleges, and universities. Some colleges prepare individuals for specific careers, whereas others emphasize the development of intellectual and life skills. Religiously oriented colleges focus on development of the spirit and the teaching of theology as well as academic material. Some colleges encourage their students to pursue graduate degrees, whereas others assist middle-aged people in returning to college after long absences from the academic sphere.
As the quality of higher education varies, so does the cost of attending college. Even if our federal government completely subsidized the cost of a college education, as governments in some countries do, the financial circumstances of some individuals would preclude them from seeking higher education.
Occupational prestige is very subjective and varies from country to country. In the United States, as in most industrialized societies, jobs requiring extensive schooling and intellectual acuity, and that afford the greatest degrees of professional autonomy, are considered the most prestigious. These occupations include:
Jobs requiring manual labor, or in which a person serves or cleans up after others, tend to be low-prestige occupations:
Prestigious jobs are not always the easiest jobs to hold. The occupation of physician is very prestigious but requires a long and expensive education, very long hours, and unpredictable lawsuits from litigious patients. Electricians also spend years in specialized training before they can become licensed. Electricians generally have reliable, steady income. They don’t have to work the 24-hour shifts that doctors do. Unionized electricians have additional job security and receive benefits that physicians in private practice must provide for themselves. Still, physicians enjoy a higher prestige.
Despite the cautions detailed below, occupation tells us the most about a person. Knowing what somebody does for a living gives us an approximate idea of the extent of his or her education and provides us with a very rough estimate of how much money he or she makes.
Using one’s occupation as a partial measure of social class has another pitfall: it assumes that people are doing the kinds of work they prefer and for which they are best prepared. In a full market employment economy, people can generally find the kinds of work they want, but in a weak economy, people sometimes have to take jobs that do not reflect their interests, education, or experience.
Using occupation to place people in a certain social class reflects our society’s bias. As mentioned earlier, American society automatically accords some jobs more prestige than others. This does not mean that they are better occupations or that the people who do them are more worthy individuals.
Of the three variables, income is perhaps the least reliable as a predictor of SES. Assuming that a person’s income is derived mostly from his or her job, the salary he or she receives is subject to influence by a variety of factors:
Example: Being vice president of a company could mean many different things. In a small company in the rural South, the vice president of a company might make $30,000 a year, whereas the vice president of a Fortune 500 company would very likely have a six-figure salary. In the banking industry, vice president is a common term. It’s often given to people who make a certain salary, regardless of their actual position or level of responsibility.