Does Achieving Wealth Make You “Upper Class”? Facts About Class

by Silicon Valley Blogger on 2007-07-1222

When you come across a belligerent person in a fur coat, waving bejeweled hands in the air, cussing out the person behind the counter and holding up the line — your line — you know there’s something wrong with the picture. It just means that money doesn’t necessarily equate automatically with breeding. What am I driving at? As I’ve heard it said often, “those rich #$@%^ ain’t got any class!” Unfortunately, many of those who acquire wealth tend to grow their ego in proportion to their riches. There’s nothing more unsightly than those who engage in power tripping as a sport. They dare declare themselves part of the “upper crust” and we normally don’t argue with that.

But when social scientists talk about economic or social class or standing in society, it’s not just all about the money, which clearly explains why some rich people can still behave like brutes. To explain this further, I dug up this cool piece from the New York Times expounding on the subject through an interactive tool. I decided I would deconstruct the tool and here’s what I found:

What Is Class? Some Facts And Figures

Class issues can be controversial. It means different things in different countries and is definitely much more emphasized in certain nations much more so than in others. I picked up some of these general facts from the Wikipedia and the New York Time polls.

Simpler and more primitive societies use physical power to determine pecking order while larger, more complex societies use economic power to determine “who rules”.

Our advanced (e.g. developed) societies therefore use the following components as the basis for class:

  • Occupation
  • Education and qualifications
  • Income, personal, household and per capita
  • Wealth or net worth, including the ownership of land, property, means of production, et cetera

Additionally, other factors that influence class distinctions include:

  • Level of prestige
  • Lifestyle
  • Costume and grooming
  • Manners and cultural refinement
  • Political standing vis-à-vis the church, government, and/or social clubs, as well as the use of honorary titles
  • Reputation of honor or disgrace
  • Language, style of speaking

What is the class breakdown in America? Here’s one of the more detailed configurations I’ve seen.

Upper Americans
o Upper-upper class; (ca. 1%) Old money stemming from inherited wealth. Persons in this class typically have an “Ivy league college degree.”
o Lower-upper class; (ca. 1%) This is the “Success elite” consisting of “Top professionals [and] senior corporate executives.” People in this class have degrees from “Good colleges.”
o Upper-middle class; (ca. 19%) Also called the “Professional and Managerial” class, it consists of “Middle professionals and managers” with a college and often graduate degrees.

Middle Americans
o Middle-class; (ca. 31%) This class consists of “Lower-level managers; small-business owners; lower-status professionals (pharmacists, teachers); sales and clerical” workers. Middle class persons had a high school and some college education.
o Working class; (ca. 35%) This class consists of “Higher blue collar (craftsman, truck drivers); lowest-paid sales and clerical” workers. Younger individuals in 1978 who were members of this class had a high school education.

Lower Americans (ca. 13%)
o Semipoor; This class had a partial high school education and consisted of “Unskilled labor and service” workers.
o The bottom; Those who are “Often unemployed” or rely on welfare payments. These individuals typically lack a high school education.

Class Mobility: Getting Richer or Poorer By The Generation

Ugly Rich

Class mobility describes the movement or shifting across socio-economic classes. A comparison between the U.S. population in 1988 and 1989 showed that in the span of 10 years, some amount of class shifting went on. Class mobility, which is the core of the American Dream, reflects how households find themselves on the economic ladder. It looks like the top and bottom most classes tend to get stuck at their levels more so than those in the middle classes. For the top fifth and bottom fifth of society, a little over half remained at the same levels over the length of a decade. Goes to show that class mobility happens most easily for the folks in the middle 60% of the population.

Class mobility is “stickiest” when children are most like their parents and ancestors. The more similar you are to your kin, the less likely it is that things change for you in your generation. A typical poor family making around 20% of the average income can take up to 4 generations to reach the average income level.

Something I didn’t want to hear: we live at a time when class mobility may not be occurring as much as it used to. It looks to be slowing throughout the decades.

I was terribly surprised to find that in a study involving households in 5 developed nations followed through 4 generations: the United Kingdom, United States, France, Canada and Denmark — the U.S. scored almost the lowest in terms of class mobility. Though the U.K. had the lowest standing, its scores weren’t that far off from the U.S. This just means that it was easier to get out of poverty in France, Canada and Denmark than it was in the U.S. and the U.K.

Other Findings About Class

  • Most respondents (most participants) to a recent Times poll believe that it takes an income of $100,000 – $299,999 to be recognized as wealthy in America. Sounds like it doesn’t take considerable wealth to be considered rich!
  • Those with lower incomes have a greater tendency to recognize or admit that tension exists between the rich and the poor.
  • More than half of respondents believe that the rich have too much power, but those who primarily think so have less money.
  • More wealth means better or improved health. This makes total sense to me.
  • Those with higher income spend more time with their family. This also makes a lot of sense since money can buy time.
  • Respondents with less money portray a greater faith in God.
  • Most people, regardless of their social class, think that they can achieve the American Dream in their lifetime, if they haven’t done so already. This just shows that hope springs eternal no matter what our financial situation happens to be.

All these findings I find tremendously interesting. Some things I already knew about, while other facts were news to me! These dispel some presumptions people make that wealth and becoming rich automatically gives you a free pass into the exclusive world of high class society since other factors such as reputation, manners, carriage, education and occupation are also components. More intriguing still is what happens when people become suddenly wealthy like when they win the lottery or receive a massive inheritance out of nowhere. What happens when their new situation inflates their ego and causes them to behave badly? They find themselves between two worlds — the world of old friends and family lost and estranged and the world of the elite who won’t give them the time of day because they just don’t fit in. So a message to all the “classless” rich… get a grip: with money comes tremendous responsibility (and not just power or influence) that we only hope you wield in positive ways.

Image Credit: The Ugly Duchess by Massys

Copyright © 2007 The Digerati Life. All Rights Reserved.

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Madame X July 12, 2007 at 9:02 am

Always a fascinating topic, and always one where there are over-generalizations. Where is that breakdown of Upper/Middle/Lower and sub-groups from? It seems a bit simplistic in how it correlates education and sources of wealth.
also, though I haven’t gone back to the Times article, “Most respondents (most participants) to a recent Times poll believe that it takes $100,000 – $299,999 to be recognized as wealthy in America.”– presumably they are talking about household income, not net worth for those numbers? Either way it represents a fairly small percentile of the population, but yes, you’d think people would aim higher!

PiggyBank Raider July 12, 2007 at 10:18 pm

(Sort of related.) Oprah had a “social policy & class” expert who said there are three common indicators of class: weight, teeth and dialect. These things are, of course, directly related to income and education. I thought it was an interesting observation, and possibly true on a very general level.

Silicon Valley Blogger July 12, 2007 at 11:05 pm

@Madame X,
The breakdown for the class groups actually comes from the Wikipedia where descriptions of various social and economic models from sociologists and academics are covered. This model was just one of them and it’s called the “Metropolitan Class Structure”, conceived by 1978 sociologists Coleman and Rainwater. Also, I checked the polls and you are correct in assuming that most people believed that EARNERS who brought home $100,000 – $299,999 are considered “rich”. Certainly the use of income as a measure of wealth here is quite misleading. Net worth or some variant measure thereof would be much more useful.

@PiggyBank Raider,
Interesting that Oprah’s expert describe class as something tightly bound to physical appearance and impression. This would suggest that money here would be considered “secondary” to appearance in determining class. The implications here are quite intriguing.

plonkee July 13, 2007 at 1:13 am

I’m not surprised that the UK has lower levels of class mobility. We have a smaller social net than France and Denmark (I wonder its the same size as Canada) which means that the poor tend to stay poor.

In addition the best way to move up a class (even in this limited job/income way) is to be well educated and University is generally perceived by the working class as a middle class thing to do – which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Before (in the 50s, 60s and 70s) there was a growth in the numbers of middle class jobs so many bright people with working class backgrounds (like my parents) got the opportunity to move up.

Finally, England (the most populous country in the union) is an historically class bound society, your social class is apparent by the vocabulary you use, the car you drive, the style of clothes you wear and how you socialise. I imagine none of this helps.

Silicon Valley Blogger July 13, 2007 at 6:15 am

Looking into world history and culture, particularly into the U.K.’s it sure would seem apparent how the social class system would be much more impenetrable there than it is anywhere else. In many countries, the more deeply rooted class becomes to society, the more challenging, if not impossible, it would be for someone to move up or down the class ladder. I suppose India is an example of such a class-based society — if you’re born to X class, you’re most likely going to die in X class. I even wonder if it’s possible to get out of your stratum once you’re designated there. It becomes a catch-22 then — no shift in class, no money, no breaks, no money, no class mobility…. so on and so forth, and generations are stuck where they are.

I’m just quite shocked how the U.S. didn’t fare as well in the class mobility scoring. You’d think as a “newer” country there wouldn’t be much of a “class” concept here — in fact, it’s not that apparent, relatively speaking — but I expected class mobility to be much higher and more fluid than it’s been suggested.

plonkee July 13, 2007 at 9:19 am

I wonder if some of the fossilisation of class in the US is to do with the tendency of the upper and middle classes to subsidise their young – maybe its happening to such an extent that people in the poorer classes find it incredibly difficult to overcome.

Also, despite the immigrant history of the US, its has a relatively low proportion of the population that is first-generation immigrants. Its certainly a lot lower than Canada and even some countries in the EU. Maybe thats making the population more settled and less class mobile.

MoneyNing July 13, 2007 at 10:07 pm

Achieving wealth (assuming enough wealth) pretty much puts you in upper class. If not, then at least your children will be when they grow up with the wealth you have accumulated since they will be in a rich environment.

Lisa P November 16, 2008 at 10:40 pm

Kids should learn how to become thrifty. Even at an early age, they should know how to spend their money wisely.

With the way the economy is going, I have been so focused on my own budget and credit repair that I’ve completely forgotten my responsibility to teach my kids money management. Although the economy is currently on the edge, this can be a great opportunity to train the kids on financial responsibility.

Check out articles about how to teach kids to use money responsibly; they are great reminders for parents everywhere, including myself. If my kids can be trained to use money responsibly during a recession, I am certain they will do well if, or when the economy decides to make a drastic fall.

I used to have major credit problems, and if I could somehow prevent that from happening to my children, I would feel like an accomplished parent. Too many kids begin their independent lives with no clue about how to manage money wisely and to lessen or prevent any financial fall backs. I refuse to let my kids out from under my roof without the required skills and knowledge to properly conduct their everyday lives productively. Children must learn the consequences of misusing money, like using credit cards irresponsibly. Personally, I have stumbled upon many rocks and stones on the journey to credit repair. We can save our children from many financial hardships in the future. Let’s hope credit issues will not be the starting point as they mature into their adult lives.

Annie July 13, 2009 at 6:35 pm

Yes! “Money comes tremendous responsibility”. That is why while are kids are still young we should teach them how to handle money wisely. Just like my mom when I was on my teens age. She use to tell me that if I want something I should work hard to get it. Now I understand why she said that…. I have learned how to value money and spend it wisely.

Rob Bennett November 16, 2009 at 4:35 am

Respondents with less money portray a greater faith in God.

I’m going to take a chance and talk about the God thing.

I believe in God. I of course accept that lots of smart and good people do not. But I do.

Is that because I was raised in a family that did not have a lot of money and in a neighborhood where the other families did not have a lot of money? It’s easy for me to see how it could have been a factor. If you have money, there’s all sorts of exciting stuff you could be doing with your time. You could go on vacation or shop for a new car or go to a great school or whatever. If you have no money, you might be left stuck considering the grand questions re the meaning of life. There’s no admission fee for that one, right?

So poor folk are a bit more likely to end up believing in God (there are of course lots and lots of exceptions to the general rule on both sides of the question). Now say that it turns out that there really is a God. That means that being poor turned out to be an edge! Is that not cool?

I am not generally the sort to willingly give up money just because it might help me figure out what I need to do to get to heaven. But when I am feeling bummed about my meager (in relative terms — pretty much everyone reading these words is rich by relative standards) financial resources, it makes me feel a tiny bit better to consider that maybe (just maybe) God is denying me those financial resources because He loves me so much that he wants to be sure that I engage in the contemplation necessary for me to find my way to heaven.

I’m kidding around a little bit (as indicated in the tone employed). But not entirely. I do think that it is possible that there are ways that the scales are balanced in the end. Rich is good. But it might turn out that poor is good in ways we cannot see so easily. I’m just enough of a 60s guy to believe that “in the end, the love you make is equal to the love you make.” And that not having lots of money (in some cases, certainly not in all or even in most) can steer us away from developing our capacity to feel and give love.

Don’t ask me to give all my money to the poor, however. This post is being put forward as a thought experiment, not as a statement of intent.


CHY December 28, 2009 at 8:45 pm

Rob Bennett,

to add to your post, I also believe that people of the working class and middle class puts their faith in a greater being who will do them justice when society seems to forget them, while the people of the upper class have a stronger grip on life and have greater control and do not rely on an entity that only judges what kind of person we are inside, something that society regrettably does not do very often. of course, this is an extreme generalization and in no way am i trying to incite a religious argument.

Jake June 23, 2010 at 11:37 am

To add even further to the religious argument, I could see people at the top of society closing themselves off to God. People nearer to the bottom are more open to receiving/believing in God since they aren’t as clouded by the “great things” they’ve done. It seems that if you believe that YOU have a hand in everything that ever happened to you, like many wealthy people do, you are less likely to see a “need” for a belief in God. Wait until you bottom out, let go of your airs, and just see if you don’t believe!

Silicon Valley Blogger June 23, 2010 at 1:08 pm

I don’t necessarily want to simplify the argument, but I think that believing in God may have something to do with your culture and how you were raised. It has a lot to with exposure to the spiritual and to religion. But there are those who have been exposed to religion and a lot of these teachings who turn their back to them over time — for a variety of reasons. They say that those who are wealthier may tend to do this…. why? Sad to say, there are people who just don’t believe in a higher power and who demonstrate arrogance and hubris once they meet with success. Also why do you think that many people become more spiritual, religious and conservative when they grow older? Just some interesting musings…

Adelynn Grace Van Rensselaer September 3, 2010 at 3:04 pm

You are still making too much of a conflation between economic and social class. The Buffets, Gateses and most of the millionaires and billionaires you see – the politicians, banking elite, Ivy League University professors, top-level bureaucrats – these are all upper-middle class. The upper class is a different breed entirely – you don’t know who we are, you never see us, because we’re not social climbers and we’re not perpetually anxious about being politically correct. The current ruling class – the upper-middle class – despise us, both for our lack of political correctness and because of our relaxed social superiority.

When I went to University it amazed me, I’ve never been condescending towards people who didn’t happen to inherit money (it’s not their doing), but the upper-middle class were totally spiteful towards myself and my cousins. The upper-middle are wedded at the hip to Progressive politics and the state bureaucracy.

Silicon Valley Blogger September 3, 2010 at 3:19 pm

I have no qualms with upper class people, or any class for that matter. If you’re a down to earth individual, I will get along with you. Unfortunately, Adelynn, you are right. Lots of people who have money (upper middle class types?) have agendas. I actually grew up with many members of my family in politics (not in the U.S.) and relationships are often made complex and even crazy, thanks to these leanings.

However, I notice a snoot and I shun them. 😉 Simple enough?

Adelynn Grace Van Rensselaer September 3, 2010 at 3:44 pm

“I have no qualms with upper class people, or any class for that matter.”
I didn’t mean to imply you, or the upper-middle universally, have a problem with the upper class. But – as a class – the upper-middle class in America display a frightening hostility towards the upper-class, when they pretend it doesn’t exist altogether. This has always been a factor in America, especially since the central banks came around, but it has been more pronounced since the counter-culture took over the upper middle class.

“Lots of people who have money (upper middle class types?) have agendas.”
Yes, most of the upper-middle class kids I met in school were politically motivated, either through activism, ideology or some family member(s) involved in political work.

“I actually grew up with many members of my family in politics”
Mine was precisely the opposite, my family despised politics (as a profession) and ideologically leaned either soft-left (the women and younger people, generally) or hard-right (somewhat elitist libertarian, mostly – the men and older people, generally). I always tended towards the latter, which invoked a kind of fury, not just from my fellow students but from my professors (I have an econ Masters from CMU). It took me a while to put it all together as a sort of gestalt psychology and class interest of the upper-middle class; and to understand that although some of these students came from backgrounds with more money than me they were – for various reasons – not interested in associating with or joining the ‘upper crust’; because they were basically born out of the counter-culture and the political-banking alliance.

Silicon Valley Blogger September 3, 2010 at 4:05 pm

The stereotype I see is that new money is uptight, sometimes even paranoid, while old money tends to be indolent, but seemingly more generous. Is it just me or does new money seem more politically motivated, while old money is more charitable? Does how we happen onto money dictate how we use our wealth during our lifetimes? Lottery winners spend it all, while those of us who work for it are more careful and more deliberate with how we spend it.

Culturally, it’s also different depending on where you live in America. The West Coast wealthy are different from those in the East. Then again, the differences exist regardless of your financial status, but seem to be more pronounced the higher up the ladder you are.

Once more, just random musings here… and random observations. Thanks for the interesting comments Adelynn.

Lalauni January 17, 2011 at 10:05 pm

RE: Religious Argument,

Remember that in all three gospels, there is a reference as follows:

“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

I agree with Jake. The wealthier you are, the more that you begin to think that works will get you into the kingdom of Heaven. Also, when people gain a certain status, they are able to solve many problems through the use of their wealth and the cease relying on God to get them through the trials and tribulations of life. People without the means to do this rely on God to get us through when we see no other way.

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