Class in the US (was Covid-19 Discussion)

Why is class decided by degree and not income? Is it just cause it’s easier to track? Or is that how class is usually done in the usa?


So to be clear that quote is from the NY Times not from me, but I’ve seen class separated in all sorts of ways for US data. I’m not sure why they chose to do it that way but I suspect it’s because of how they are choosing to define class.


My guess (seriously just guessing) is that they wanted to group people who are high education rather than just go by income alone because there are high income blue collar jobs (like trucking, oil jobs, etc.). There are also low income people who are more upper class (think stay at home parents with ivy league degrees, academics, artists, people with trust funds and degrees who choose to work service jobs, etc.). I think class definitions are less agreed upon in the USA in general since we don’t have a historical caste system/serfdom here, so different people mean different things when they say class.

I think “social class” (compared to "socioeconomic class) to most Americans means not just money but also background. So, for example, these two people might not be considered the same social class despite making the same amount of money:

Person A: From a blue collar house that lived paycheck to paycheck, parents have no degrees, person has no degrees but gets first job at 13, person grows up and buys a truck route and makes $90k a year. Person gets married young and saves up themselves to buy land and eventually builds a nice house for family. Person lives in the same area their entire life, as do most of their friends and family. Person attends religious services every week. Person knows many people who served in the military, work in factories, etc. Hunting is a way of life and starts around age 10. Vacations are usually domestic with a strong focus on “family and friends”. Person is expected to financially support their parents as adults.

Person B: From an upper middle class house, parents have masters degrees, person has a master’s degree, person gets first professional job well into their twenties and makes $90k a year. Person gets married in their early 30s and buys home in suburbs using downpayment from family. Most of person’s friends have master’s degrees and come from all over the country/world. Person lives in a few different areas in their life, including going away to school, and their friends and family are scattered. Person has never met anyone their own age who was in the military and has never even seen a factory floor. Vacations are usually international with a strong focus on “culture”. Person receives financial support from their parents into adulthood.

I’m just rambling off ideas here, this isn’t a well thought out theory but it’s my best random guess. I have seen other places that do it solely by income and I’ve seen some that do both. I saw one place that did it by education and parental education as well.


Class is not really a formal thing in the US.
Which is one reason that I think like 90% of the US calls themselves “middle class”.


Sorry to go way off topic, but: would love to hear more about your thinking about this! I think of class as highly structured and formalized in the US.


Yeah middle class is relatively well defined IMO, though there is some mild debate. I think we have pretty clear lines for socio economic class, but that most people think of themselves as middle class more as a coping mechanism (i.e. they don’t want to think of themselves as upper or lower). Being in the “middle” feels better emotionally for people.

How dare you believe in stratification in the new world!

Also a really good guardian long read/audio which kind of makes me vomit:


Hahaha, going to read that article now! :wink:


So what I’m going with is things I learned in sociology, though admittedly that was nearly 20 years ago and the field has likely changed.

The idea of class by income doesn’t necessarily take into account that class is in many countries is a long term social structure, and a way of acting. So class in the US, and the behaviors associated with them, are not firmly defined. Because the US often thinks of people in income, rather than the behaviors of the class, I can be middle class in my 20s and then upper class in my 40s. Class in the US is mobile- (though I am not saying it is easy to break out of poverty, so don’t misinterpret this). That mobility makes it a bit undefined of what a class really is. If people think of themselves as middle class as a coping mechanism, it says that the middle class is not well defined in society. It might be by researchers, but not by the people themselves. If both rich people and poor people call themselves middle (and I made 90% up- so let’s go with data, 58% say middle or upper-middle, but another 30% in “working class”, and I’ve always thought middle class WAS working class, so for me I’d call that 88%. Whereas 3% say upper and 8% say lower. then the middle class is not well defined.

Income also doesn’t equate the assets.

Another thing the sociology classes really focused on is that class in many countries is seen more as the behavior of the individuals in it, rather than just the money of those. I don’t know enough about England to speak knowledgably, but what I’m thinking of is someone who is a hereditary peer who has since gone broke. They may still be considered upper class because of the learned behaviors/culture of their family. Or in cultures with caste systems, it doesn’t matter how much money you’ve come across- if you are in a low class, you stay in that class.

So I can see using education as a proxy for class rather than just income, because it also correlates heavily to what moves your among the classes in the US. In many societies that think heavily of class, movement among them is almost impossible, the systems of class are hereditary.

I found this on pretty interesting too about how class is defined, and it also gets into the idea of competing models, so that it’s not completely well defined of what makes someone be a member of a certain class.

I think this sentence is what I was most going for when I say that class in the US is not well defined.

According to the “American Dream,” American society is meritocratic and class is achievement-based. In other words, one’s membership in a particular social class is based on educational and career accomplishments.

This one is a great link about the ‘culture’ connotations of class:

That might have been long and rambly, but hopefully it somewhat explained what I mean when I say it’s not well defined. And I’m absolutely one of the people who call myself “upper middle class” because I mean that I’m not part of the jet set, we have to save for big vacations, I don’t purchase “art” or have a collection of jewelry, my kids won’t attend private schools, I was not a ‘legacy’ college admission; behaviors I associate with the upper class. But by almost any financial standard, assets or income I’m “upper class” (including the calculator you linked).

I would hazard to guess no one in my neighborhood (ungated community, no HOA) would call themselves upper class, yet by financial standards we all are. Researchers have defined class for their purposes, but the populace hasn’t necessarily bought into that.


I’ll read what you shared too! I think this might be where we disagree:

I disagree that buy-in or understanding is necessary for establishing a metric, but I see what you’re saying about attitudes and behaviors associated with class. I think when you’re talking about class you’re talking more about social class (i.e. behaviors) whereas when I said that the middle class is very well defined I meant in pure numbers. I am middle class not based on feelings or behaviors, but literally, my income (and assets) fall in the middle. Perhaps middle income would be a better term than middle class since people do have so many non-monetary associations, which also dovetails with what Elle shared. Cool stuff!

From the article @Elle shared, italics are mine:

“The hierarchy of caste is not about feelings or morality. It is about power: which groups have it and which do not. It is about resources: which caste is seen as worthy of them, and which are not; who gets to acquire and control them, and who does not. It is about respect, authority and assumptions of competence: who is accorded these, and who is not.”


I posted a huge post, but wonder if we should actually take it to another thread.
Can @anomalily move them?

I’m also interested to hear about ‘highly structured and formalized’, and what leads you to that.
Because even if we take Pew’s income levels as class, because you can so easily move up and down in income, it doesn’t seem like they are formalized. Does my class change if I get a small promotion at work?

I don’t know if it’s accurate at all, but I think of class in say, India, or maybe even England as structured. But the US seems very fluid, except at the very extreme ends.


I guess when I hear “class” I do think we are talking about social class.
And income is heavily aligned with social class, but often isn’t the only hallmark of it.

(Merriam Webster didn’t help: “the system of ordering a society in which people are divided into sets based on perceived social or economic status.”)

So is class solely economic status? (And is it really income? Or also assets?) or is it also a social status, that income may or may not be enough to buy. (That brings into the whole ‘new money’. New money does not make one “upper class” in the Eliza Doolittle sense.)


I moved this to a new thread!


Here’s another good article about what I was thinking.

And I guess I should say, I do not think social mobility is high in the US. So if we are talking about class in that form, maybe it is formalized because the booststrap myth is just that, a myth. You are unlikely to truly be able to change where you started, anymore.

But I think class is not formalized because of how we think about it. So often it’s defined by income, but it becomes so much more than that, and income isn’t likely to change it. So even if I’m “upper class” by income, my behaviors are still not that of the upper class.

This is actually an area where a lot of prejudices come in, often racially oriented. If people don’t “act upper class”, they aren’t respected by their peers at that level, regardless if they’ve managed to move their income and education to the class, if they don’t conform to the expectations of the class, are they a member of it? To those in the class, likely not.

Another interesting look at class:,behaviours%20of%20higher‐class%20individuals.


Here is a really good Pew research article about class differences.

One of the reasons I highlighted it is that the report is based solely on self-reporting of class. So class buy-in is needed.

Based on self reports in that article they had 2% upper, 15% upper-middle - which Pew then classified as upper; 49% middle, 25% lower-middle, 7% lower, which pew then classified as lower. I find it super interesting how they grouped the hyphenated with the extremes; because I think those modifiers are there because those people see themselves as on the higher or lower end of the middle, but pew moved them to the other classes.
The footnotes for this article say that the self-reported middle class and the middle income group are nearly identical in size, but that is using Pew’s assumption that “upper-middle” and “lower-middle” are not part of the middle class.


Sorry to contribute to a whole thing and then have to step away! I have an away-from-computer day and am in an overwhelmed phase of life, so I don’t want to say I’ll come back and respond thoughtfully but then never do it.

Here are my thoughts, which aren’t that different from what’s been shared so far, but here is my high-level, why I think class in the US is very formal and structured:

  • Agree with @AllHat that US class isn’t based on how much money you earn.
  • At the same time, there is little social mobility in the US.
  • Part of why that occurs is that elite educational institutions are designed for + overwhelmingly serve the wealthy.
  • What I would argue creates class stratification is about tastes (shout out to Bourdieu), what kinds of people you know, what kind of job you have, etc. Anecdotally, the people who I know who have made big socioeconomic class jumps have had to do a lot of work to pass in that class, or have made being a fish out of water a big part of their personality. I’d expect to see that backed up by data - one thing that comes to mind right away is the research about the importance of fostering a sense of belonging for first generation college students to combat the idea that “college isn’t for people like me.” (Obviously not all first gen college students feel this way, but it’s enough of a thing to show up compellingly in the data).

That’s so interesting to me- because we essentially agree the same thing, but you see it as a highly formalized structure, where I see it as “it’s not formal”, because it is so hard to pin down exactly where the lines are.


Sorry for the delay. I’m trying to read all the articles you posted. I thought this was interesting from the brookings article you shared:

“Sociologists typically emphasize occupational status and/or education. Philosophers and anthropologists tend to focus on culture, education, and power. Economists largely rely on definitions related to wealth or income.”

I suppose I’m uncomfortable with tossing out the economists’ POV entirely in favor of focusing solely on the sociologist/anthro view because it feels less objective to me and also allows people to self-define themselves out of their own privilege. This seems terrible for two reasons. First, it allows people with enormous power and privilege to feel like they don’t have that much and aren’t really rich. Second, it stops people who do have some power and privilege (especially those who have worked their way up from one income level to another) from knowing that they have power and being empowered by it.

The Pew article, for example, was all about feelings and identification and how people think about the rich. People who felt they were upper middle class were happier than people who felt they were middle class. I see value in this sociological approach for explaining behaviors and attitudes, but I also think the economics approach is important to consider.

I agree with you entirely that the sociological approach to class is not fully defined or consistent because it takes so many factors into consideration. I think the economics approach (which certainly lacks some nuance) still provides a lot of information about relative power, comfort, access, etc. I think generally economists (are increasingly) sticking to “middle income” and leaving “middle class” to sociologists and anthropologists. I believe class mobility in the US is part of why this is all so hard to define, because we do move up and down (especially at different ages).

I found this interesting from the npr article you shared:

Nonetheless, the overall trend is upward: The middle class may be shrinking, but two-thirds of those who leave have moved up, while one-third have dropped to a lower income group.

“There is actually more progress than regression,” says Rakesh Kochhar, who studies the middle class and is associate director of research at the Pew Research Center.

And here’s an interesting look at class mobility internationally:

Really enjoying this discussion! I seriously needed some distraction today :slight_smile: so thanks!


Agree, but I think this is part of why I interpret class in the US as not very formal, is there are too many ways to slot people into classes.

Whereas, my understanding of, say, pre-colonial India’s caste system, you knew exactly what social class you were in; there was no question about it. That is what I think of when I think of formal classes.


I agree. I don’t think we have a formal caste or social class system here. We have way more mobility than that and I think that’s why it’s so hard to define, and why economic class still matters. I do not think economic class is hard to define because you can base it on assets and income.

Would you say someone with a $100k income, but $300k non-mortgage debt is in a same or different class as someone with $25k in income but no debt? What about $100k in income, $300k non-mortgage debt and someone with $100k income with a million dollars in assets?

I’ve never seen a “class calculator” that uses assets, though it seems they should- do you know how economists do this?

How do economists take into account people not working? Do they use last income before retirement?
Does involuntary unemployment affect class since you no longer have income? Or is there a period of time where they assume you’ll resume your income level before your class drops?

We didn’t cover any of this in any of my economics class, it was all just income level across the board to define quartiles of income. But it was never ‘class’ just income.