Class in the US (was Covid-19 Discussion)

I’m not an economist so I can’t answer all of these questions. I’m just saying that I think looking at income and/or assets (or a combination) does provide a decent picture of someone’s “place” in our country regardless of how that person feels. Economists do gather loads of data on both income and net worth (separately) and I think looking at them in tandem is valuable. For non-working people I would think looking at assets would be the approach taken, but I’m not certain.

I also think there is enormous push-back to this economics approach, which does not exist when talking about the social approach, even though the social approach is far less defined. I think this is why so many of us describe ourselves as middle income when we aren’t. I find the reticence to put any stock into economic class is more prevalent the higher income you go. I think there’s a reason for that.

I personally would not view someone who makes $100k a year but chose to go $300k into debt as being in an identical situation to someone making $25k a year who chose to take on zero debt. But then again, there are plenty of people who live the majority of their lives as high income people and end up destitute due to spending. When they end up destitute and on public assistance, with a very low income and no assets, then I would consider them low income. They are different in their life trajectory, though, which is why I mentioned that your way of seeing things (social class) is still important.

I think both types of class (social and economic) are important and valid, but I think when you tell people social class is important they agree almost immediately and when you tell them economic class is important there is enormous pushback. I think that dynamic is due to the appeal of self-identification and I think it hurts people on both ends of the income/wealth/assets spectrum.

I suppose I’m drawing from my own experiences and thinking about people I know who always feel poor and believe they can’t get ahead even when they’ve quadrupled their income and are statistically in the top 10% of earners. There is some pride element to that too, I think, in feeling like the underdog. I’m also thinking of people who were born middle income or + and continually minimize what they have, which I think can also be harmful. If you feel scarcity (even if it’s false) are you less likely to donate money? If you feel you have less than you have does that impact gratitude? Perspective? I don’t know. Just thoughts.


Doesn’t anyone thing that the enormous political divide in our country is a great example of how social class is stratified along access to education?

I’m not saying that Republicans aren’t rich or educated. This is not a Dems vs. Republican thing. I mean more liberal vs conservative, specifically Trump brand of populism.

I do think the swing to the right and the rise of populist narratives is definitely influenced by the perception of a higher class of higher educated, ivory tower urban elites.


I am not a scholar of this so I don’t want to say that my opinion is definitive on this, but the server I have gotten is class is not the same as income level, though often misused as such by financial journalism especially, and this misunderstood by the public.

The way I internalize it myself… the out of place feeling I get a very snazzy restaurants. First time was when my HS sweethearts parents treated me to dinner at their club. I wasn’t dressed right (I didn’t have the clothes to dress right), and it felt like please, thank you, and sit up straight weren’t enough manners. I wasn’t sure how to act. I would do better today, but there are still settings where I would feel this way. Where even if I can afford the monetary bill, I feel like I lack social capital.

Similarly, while I relate to people’s stories of growing up without much money, I know I do not relate to poverty. Our income was low but stable, education was prioritized, food was cooked from scratch, parents were caring and emotionally stable. We were 100% middle class culturally. (My mom grew up in a lower class rural environment but in another country which makes it weird to draw parallels. )

I would not be surprised if 80-90% of the US population his fit a middle class definition by some standard, eg:

  • work for (most) life needs/wants/costs (vs trust/investment or govt benefits)
  • have to watch /limit spending, save for big purchases (but have choices)
  • family help none/low to medium (no big trust/inheritance, but likely not having to support parents from young age, some help often offered, even if just safety net, gifts)

I personally tend to interpret “upper middle” vs “lower middle” as income modifiers on the class groups… Like, “upper middle” is someone with more income and/or wealth but still culturally middle class.

Also, even if class was income specific, coming up with income cutoffs is hard in the US given the geographic disparity. 100k is a very different lifestyle when your housing is 1k vs 3k… Class divisions/norms are more universal, I think.


Ho hum. I am reflecting on this. There is definitely social class in my personal experience that exists. A lot of it dovetails with race and economic class, but it that is the way it is.

I don’t think there is an exact definition. But there’s old money and new money clashes, for sure, yeah? People want to look old money, usually, and it is terribly embarrassing when they look new money, like the Trumps of our world (unless they’re too classless to understand their misstep). This is very obvious in my personal life, since our family came from a 1 room hut on a tropical island to a mansion lined town where governmental dignitaries live. It is not easy for my family to navigate the same social spaces, there are huge cultural gaps and tells even though we all grew up or were born in the US for a generation in a half.

Even if the kids of the people who own these mansions all make as much as me, they have a whole world of social mores that I have never been exposed to. They have access to cultural cues and experiences that I never had maybe never will. :woman_shrugging:


I’m torn on this issue and see value in both sides of the argument (basing on economics/basing on social/educational markers).
Before my family immigrated to the US we were upper middle class in Brazil. 3 homes(but fairly modest ones), all kids in private school, live-in domestic workers. Then we moved to the US and based on income, lower middle class would be generous. But we still had all the middle class markers: both parents had multiple degrees, we travelled internationally (mostly to see family, but most of our economic class cohorts don’t even have a passport), went to well ranked public schools.

My parents now are straight up poverty level, living on their social security benefits(with cash infusions from me and my sister), receiving food stamps . But their lifestyle is still a middle class one of international trips (1 or 2 a year, bought on sale) nice clothes, well decorated house that they own.

Husband and my income right now is solidly middle class (around 80k). But we have almost half a million in the bank/investments. Seems facetious as hell to call us middle class same as my old coworker and his wife who make $95k, but have debt in the lower 5 figures and live paycheck to paycheck.


Interesting (to me) thought that occurred to me while I was writing my bit.

I think there are overlaps in white people lower and upper class norms. Like, emphasis on individualism to the point of selfishness, focus on female beauty/objectification, conspicuous consumption…

There is also definitely a split in the upper class, and I know little about true old money behaviors, but get the sense that business/finance upper class behaves differently than tech billionaires. Maybe I’m wrong though.


That’s interesting. I haven’t found that to be true, personally (I grew up in a low income area and moved to a high income area, both were white majority towns). I would describe the move as a complete and total culture shock. I wonder if some of this is regionally related too, though. Perhaps “middle class” and “upper class” sensibilities are more similar to one another if they’re in the same region than “middle class” sensibilities in two different regions. I found the individualism and selfishness shocking in the rich town. In my poorer town things were very collective out of necessity, real “it takes a village” vibe about things. Lack of hospitality of the type I was used to was also surprising, manners were different, etc.

I was also absolutely amazed by the pure lavishness of the surroundings. It was incredible. I felt like I was in a movie. I remember telling a new friend that and she laughed and said something like, “it’s just an average town!” I could barely keep up in the rich school my first year, I had to get tutors to catch up, whereas I’d practically slept through classes and gotten a 4.0 in my low income school. I think this speaks to @Meowkins observation about social class and education. Both schools were public but they were worlds apart, thanks to property taxes (i.e. economic class).

I was absolutely astonished when I heard kids in the rich town refer to themselves as middle class. I recall having some very tense conversations around this stuff, which almost always got derailed from being about money and economics to being about lifestyle. Lifestyle (eating at home, not living in a mansion, going to a public school, having a parent who had to work) was seen as evidence of averageness or normalcy and resulted in a true blindness to income and wealth inequity. Sure, we all went to “public” school, but when property taxes are like $25k a year…is it really fair to compare it to a “public” school where property taxes are $1,200 a year? There were lots of old money vs new money discussions but very little discussion on poverty or average income life and what that actually looks like for most people. Other lifestyle factors (like the expectation that your parents will pay for college, or the prevalence of young people going into the military) were largely unacknowledged or seen as very niche issues that didn’t relate to the bigger picture.

It’s all very interesting. I guess another question is: which is more important? Social class or economic class? When we talk about inequity and gaps are we talking about social identification or money? Are we more comfortable talking about one of these than the other and why? How might that impact the way we view public policies, and even each other?


On upper class habits/norms… Not sure I finished the article, it might have closed itself:


It’s all very interesting. I guess another question is: which is more important? Social class or economic class? When we talk about inequity and gaps are we talking about social identification or money?

I think social class can often preclude access to economic class.

I found the individualism and selfishness shocking in the rich town. In my poorer town things were very collective out of necessity, real “it takes a village” vibe about things.

This was something I remember coming up in my class. The upper class sees it irresponsible to not save part of a windfall. The lower class cannot fathom setting savings aside when they can buy their great-uncle’s cousin a new a/c unit. Because to them, money comes and goes, and you have to help others so they help you when you are in need.

OOH! I found the “Hidden Rules” social class quiz from one of my classes. This might interest people.


I work with kids coming out of foster care, and “Hidden Rules” is a big part of one of the training/orientation sessions


I found the class to be SUPER helpful. It was part of one of the required diversity classes for my education degree.


I agree in terms of cultural things preventing the building of economic wealth and acceptance in certain spaces. Do you think economic class can also preclude access to social class?

I feel like when my family increased our economic class it gave me the opportunity to increase my social class. I’d say my sensibilities now are more aligned with the rich town than the poor town, but without money we wouldn’t have even gotten in the door.


Totally relate to this.


Do you think economic class can also preclude access to social class?

In my opinion, because I do buy into the idea of learned behaviors of the classes, I think the correlation is stronger in the other direction. I have no data to back this up.

When generationally rich people lose their assets, say in a court case that freezes them all, they do not know how to function as “lower class”. And it’s the whole idea of thumbing your nose at “new money”, or even the phrase “money doesn’t buy class”. While the middle class is probably more likely to get into the spending habits of the upper class if they come into money, much of those “upper class behaviors” won’t come without the money being there for quite some time.

I feel like when my family increased our economic class it gave me the opportunity to increase my social class

Edit: Since this is your personal experience, I don’t want to discount it. Do you feel like YOUR social class increased to the same manner your parent’s did? (Assuming family increased means your parents increased their standing)

I think my husband’s social and economic class are different from his parent’s. I don’t think we break into the “upper class” social sphere, but we check many of the boxes on that list. His parents would check many on the lower list. (I only would through volunteer work, so I know about social services.) He used the military to gain access to education.

(I also think this is one reason that scholarships, affordable government funded university, or trade, education, and helping poverty-class students not under-match the type of college they go to is so important. Because access to that education helps them learn the behaviors of the social class that goes to college while also giving them more opportunity to move to the higher income classes.)

Edit, again: Keep thinking of new things to say. I think also, one of the reasons that I don’t feel like class is well structured is that it seems to be changing all the time. I think the economic-social and social-economic correlation is probably different for zoomers than it was for boomers. The time they were born into, and the state of the US allowed many boomers to have access to economic ability to increase their social standing. But now, and maybe it will change over their lifetime, it seems that social ability limits your access to the economic standing. (And I feel like a lot of that comes down to education.)

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I would say yes, mostly. It may be that our new class is less intuitive to them than it is to me, since I was able to learn at a younger age (teenaged versus middle aged, or whatever). That wouldn’t surprise me. I might be a bit more comfortable selecting an outfit to go to a 5 star restaurant, because it’s more intuitive for me, but they’ll show up well dressed and enjoy it as well. They don’t feel like they “shouldn’t” be there, more like “hell yeah, we’re here!”

We’ve talked about it a lot and they both describe themselves as upper class at this point, partly because of the comparison to the past, I think. I don’t think they see the difference in social vs economic as being as large as you do. Now, there is a point where we wouldn’t fit in, for sure. No one would ever think I went to boarding school in Switzerland or that I’ve flown private. I have some different opinions on things because of my initial background, I think, especially in terms of wealth and poverty. I think the way I view people from diverse backgrounds is shaped by moving classes too.

I think in some ways I benefit hugely from being able to fit into more spaces. My comfort zone is pretty large. I think we’re all still comfortable in lower income type settings and among that set but we also feel fine in a higher income settings. Now maybe other people don’t see us that way! Maybe we stick out like a sore thumb, lol, but I don’t think that really matters so much. If you’re able to achieve the level of comfort we have then who cares if some even more privileged people scoff at you ordering your steak well done?

ETA: I would add, I think we have maintained the collectivism of our past class. That and hospitality are probably the two most unchanged areas, and I have gotten comments on it from lifelong middle+ friends. I could change my behavior to fit in, but I won’t because I think it’s a better way to be. I think the biggest challenge is actually not finding other people rude who don’t have that background. I have to remind myself sometimes that to them, they aren’t being rude.

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Also I couldn’t agree more with this. That was something drilled into us constantly: education, education, education.


I think this can depend on the specific transition. Like access to the upper class (not upper middle, True Upper) will be hugely dependent on social capital. Rubbing elbows with the right people, getting and/or making appropriate investments, etc. The social dimension immensely impacts the economic growth potential. Going from lower to middle isn’t gated quite the same way… A successful business (let’s say something simple, retail or landlording or housecleaning) will get you there financially (there = steady middle income, even if you give it to your great uncles cousin and end up broke!)


Wow, this was really interesting. I haven’t read the whole thing now but I sent it to Mr. Meer so we can hopefully talk about it at some point.


That’s a really good point! Barrier to entry is so different depending on the transition.

Following with interest. I come from a very interesting family- my dad comes from generational wealth and education, my mom comes from absolute poverty. Growing up walking between both these worlds always has made me unsure where exactly I “fit”. So I always watch discussions with interest, what indicators make us fit where and so on.

Nothing useful, just appreciating the conversation.