"There are the poor and the rich, and then there are you and I...neither poor nor rich." Sociologists have no clear-cut, agreed-on definition of social class. Most sociologists have adopted Weber's definition of social class as a large group of people who rank closely to one another in terms of wealth, power, and prestige. Wealth consists of property and income. Power is defined as the ability to carry out one's will despite the resistance of others. Prestige is a measure of the regard or respect accorded an individual or social position. Most people are status consistent, meaning that they rank high or low on all three dimensions of social class. People who rank high on some dimensions and low on others are status inconsistent. The frustration of status inconsistency tends to produce political radicalism.
Many Americans are wealth conscious. Wealth is composed of two dimensions, ownership of property and income. Overall, Americans are worth about $33 trillion. But this wealth is far from being evenly distributed. For example, the super rich, the richest one percent of U.S. families, are worth more than the entire bottom 90 percent of Americans. In terms of power, a similar divided distribution exists in American society. C. Wright Mills used the term power elite to refer to a very small group of industrialists, military officers, and politicians who make the major decisions in U.S. society. Supporting this concept is the fact that most United States presidents come from "old money" families. Occupational prestige is also highly stratified in American society.
Although sociologists have proposed several models to illustrate social class, they rely on two main models. One of these builds on the theories of Karl Marx and the other on the theories of Max Weber. Erik Wright developed a four class model based on the ideas of Karl Marx. Marx originally claimed there were only two classes, the capitalists who own the means of production and the workers who work for the capitalists. All other members of society were inconsequential. Wright modified Marx's view into a four tier class model that included capitalists, the petty bourgeoisie, managers, and workers. Dennis Gilbert and Joseph Kahl developed a six class model based on the ideas of Max Weber. The Gilbert and Kahl model lists the capitalist class, the upper middle class, the lower middle class, the working class, the working poor, and the underclass. The capitalist class is composed of the top one percent of the population with incomes in excess of one million dollars. The upper middle class is the class most shaped by academic achievement. The lower middle class shares many of the same qualities of the upper middle class but do not have advanced degrees, have jobs with less prestige, and usually make less money. The working class is composed of unskilled blue-collar and white-collar workers. They often pride themselves as having "real jobs" and regard people in "suits" as being paper pushers. The working poor work at unskilled, low-paying, seasonal and temporary jobs. Many of the working poor are functionally illiterate and depend on government assistance and aid from food pantries and other community resources to survive. The underclass is the lowest rung of the social class ladder. Members of this class have little or no connection with the job market and feel they have little chance of improving their lives.
Social class leaves no aspect of life untouched. Class membership affects one's choice of spouse, their likelihood of suffering a divorce, child rearing, educational attainment, religious affiliation, political participation and contact with crime and the criminal justice system. One's physical and mental health is also greatly affected. The lower a person's class, the more likely that individual will die before the average expected age. Because class position gives a person greater control over their lives, greater mental problems are part of a stress package that comes with poverty. Although many believe that money cannot buy happiness, studies do show that the middle class are happier than the poor, and the rich are happier than the middle class.
In studying the mobility of individuals within society, sociologists look at three types of social mobility. Intergenerational mobility occurs when individuals change in social class from one generation to the next. Exchange mobility is the movement of large numbers of people from one class to another. Structural mobility refers to the social and economic changes that affect the social class position of large numbers of people.
As wealth is unevenly distributed in America, so is poverty. Minorities, children, female-headed households, and people who live in isolated rural areas are more likely to be poor. To determine who is poor, the U.S. government draws a poverty line. The formula to be classified as being in poverty is based on a low-cost food budget for the corresponding family size. When multiplied by three, if this amount is less than the family's combined income the family if officially classified as being in poverty. Many poor people become trapped in a culture of poverty, a feeling of hopelessness that they will always be poor.
Sociologists generally focus on structural factors, such as employment opportunities, in explaining poverty. There is also an ideology of personal responsibility in explaining poverty. This individual ideology was the impetus for the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, a federal law that requires states to place a lifetime cap on welfare assistance. The law also requires welfare recipients to look for work and to take available jobs. Although some sociologists place a major emphasis on either the social structure of society or the characteristics of individuals, other sociologists view poverty as more complicated and difficult to explain. In the late 1800s the Horatio Alger myth encouraged people to strive to get ahead, and blamed failures on individual shortcomings. Although Horatio Alger's characters have disappeared from U.S. literature they remain alive and well in the psyche of Americans.