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Social Stratification and Inequality

Social Classes in the United States

The Stratification System of the United States

Social Classes in the United States, page 2

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Socioeconomic status is just a way of describing the stratification system of the United States. The class system, also imperfect in classifying all Americans, nonetheless offers a general understanding of American social stratification. The United States has roughly six social classes:

  1. Upper class
  2. New money
  3. Middle class
  4. Working class
  5. Working poor
  6. Poverty level

The Upper Class or Old Money

The upper class, which makes up about one percent of the U.S. population, generally consists of those with vast inherited wealth (sometimes called “old money”). Members of the upper class may also have a recognizable family name, such as Rockefeller, DuPont, or Kennedy. Some members of the upper class work, but their salaries are not their primary sources of income. Most members of this strata have attended college, most likely at some of the most prestigious educational institutions in the country.

Example: The Kennedy family is a prime example of an upper-class family. Joseph P. Kennedy made his fortune during the 1920s and passed it down to succeeding generations.

New Money

The category called new money is a relatively new rung on the social ladder and makes up about 15 percent of the population. New money includes people whose wealth has been around only for a generation or two. Also referred to as the nouveaux riches (French for “newly rich”), they have earned their money rather than inheriting it. Unlike the members of the upper class, they do not have a family associated with old money.

Example: Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan, Bill Gates, and other celebrities, athletes, and business people fit into this category.

The nouveaux riches merit their own category because they make so much money that they lead very different lives from those in subsequent SES groupings. The newly rich simply do not have the day-to-day financial concerns that often plague the rest of society.