Living in a Social World
Psy 324: Advanced Social Psychology
Spring, 1998

The Reality of Socioeconomic Status in American Society
Nathan Brown, Riki Evans & William Kramer


class8.jpg (41502 bytes)    Socioeconomic status is one of the most interesting and important issues in the social sciences. Social class is measured through socioeconomic indicators such as education, income, and occupation (Adler, Boyce, Chesney, Cohen, Folkman, Kahn, & Syme, 1994). There are many social problems that can be connected to SES such as crime (Reiman, 1997), ill-health (Pincus & Callahan, 1995), and poor education (Levine & Nidiffer, 1996). Until recently, most of the research done on socioeconomic status and classism has been done by sociologists, political scientists, and economists who leave out many psychological aspects. These psychological aspects are mostly negative for those with lower socioeconomic status.

    People in the United States strive to achieve the American Dream . For many people the American dream means, "a good job with plenty of opportunity for advancement, a good family, a nice house with at least one car (probably two) in the driveway, plenty of good food and frequent dining out with enough money left over for the kids’ education at good schools, a few luxuries, and an annual vacation" (Cyrus, 1980). Along with the American dream comes the Protestant work ethic which is the belief in the importance of hard work and productivity as behaviors that will be rewarded. However, the United States currently has the largest growing disparity between the high and low socioeconomic status classes in the world and it continues to grow. The poverty rates are higher and the lower classes have begun to grow in extreme disproportion to the upper classes. This can present a hardship for those of lower socioeconomic status since they, as well as other classes, may feel that their lower economic, educational, or employment conditions are solely a result of character rather than situational constraints.

    Class is more than just the amount of money one has; it’s also the presence of economic security. For the working class and the poor, working and eating are matters of survival, not taste. Class is also culture. "As a result of the class you are born into and raised in, class is your understanding of the world and where you fit in. It’s composed of ideas, behavior, attitudes, values, and language; class is how you think, feel, act, look, dress, talk, move, walk," (Langston, 1992) and is most often a contributing factor in where one goes as well as where one can go.

    Classism is widely recognized in the United States and people rely on a variety of cues to determine socioeconomic status. For instance, in a study by Allan Mazur (1993) college students were asked to assess the socioeconomic status of individuals pictured in bridal gowns. The study was meant to examine whether a woman's social class could be validly highseswithface.jpg (9683 bytes)lowsesbridewithface.jpg (6715 bytes)judged from her wedding portrait. The women in the portraits were black and white and of comparable size. The pictures were primarily formal and showed only the upper portion of the bride's body. The participants accurately identified the majority of the brides as either high or low socioeconomic status. Brides considered to have physically attractive facial features and those with particular hair and hat styles were most likely to be considered of higher socioeconomic status. Mazur later removed the women's facial features from the pictures. Most participants were still able to accurately guess the social class, based on hair and hat styles.

    Stereotypes are a kind of gossip about the world, a gossip that makes individuals prejudge people before they ever lay eyes on them. Hence, it is not surprising that stereotypes have something to do with the dark world of prejudice (Cyrus, 1997). People may be raised to stereotype or as Cyrus (1997) suggests, "we not grow up with standardized pictures forming inside of us, but as grown-ups we are constantly having them thrust upon us." Prejudice comes in all forms, from jokes to insults. People are bombarded with what to think about whom and what attitudes should be held on issues through advertisements and media. People tend to stereotype because it helps them make sense out of a highly confusing world (Cyrus, 1997). Stereotypes are one way in which people define the world in a more simplified manner. They classify the infinite variety of human beings into a convenient handful of "types" towards whom people learn to act in stereotyped fashion (Cyrus, 1997). Social class is one of those types. Cyrus goes on to explain that as impoverishing as stereotypes are, they are not easy to ignore or overcome. People do not suddenly drop their standardized pictures for a blinding vision of the truth. Sharp judgments about people often just substitute one stereotype for another (Cyrus, 1997). Thus, stereotypes about race and gender may be transferred to class.

class7.jpg (58145 bytes)   The stereotypes applied to woman and men differ somewhat according to their perceived social class (Cyrus, 1997). For example, one study found that among middle-class college students, the stereotype of lower-class women was significantly higher than that of middle-class women for the traits confused, dirty, hostile, illogical, impulsive, incoherent, inconsiderate, irresponsible, and superstitious. Working-class males, in the view of many middle-class social scientists, have been stereotyped asclass17.jpg (48749 bytes) exemplars of old-fashioned, defiant, aggressive masculinity (Cyrus, 1997).

    The people of the United States are reluctant to recognize class differences. The denial of class divisions functions to reinforce ruling class control and domination (Langston, 1992). America is after all the supposed land of equal opportunity where, if one works hard, one will succeed. If hard work were the sole determinant of a person’s ability to support him or herself and their family, then the United States would certainly have a different society now. Americans also believe in luck, but is seems to always be the unlucky that come from a certain race, sex, or background. People perpetuate the problem of racist, sexist, and classist outcomes by believing the current economic distribution is unchangeable and that it is natural (Langston, 1992). In the myth of the classless society, ambition and intelligence alone are responsible for success. That myth, though, conceals the existence of a class society that serves to keep the working class and the poor locked into their servitude by creating false hope. The myth of a classless society also keeps the middle class and upper class entrenched in the privileges awarded in a class-based system (Langston, 1992).

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     Attribution theories attempt to explain why people attribute actions and behaviors of others to either situational or dispositional factors. Attributions for socioeconomic status are one of the most common and important attributions people make. The ideologies held by individuals about the causality of disparities in socioeconomic status can have great impact on political and social policy formation (Forgas, Furnham, & Frey, 1989).

    Socioeconomic status has been shown to be a variable indicative of whether people will judge other people’s actions on the basis of the situation or the individual themselves. A study by Moghaddam, Taylor, Lambert, and Schmidt (1995) examined the self-protective role of social attributions by comparing attributions made by mothers varying by race and class. They included White lower and middle-class mothers, Black lower and middle-class mothers, and Cuban lower and middle-class mothers. The study suggested that the self, one's ethnic group, and factors external to oneself were the three primary attributions made by the participants. A scenario was provided that the mothers personally were successful in the employment realm. All the participant groups attributed that success to internal factors. However, when presented with a case scenario of failure only lower-class Whites continued to internally attribute the degree of success they experienced. The remaining groups attributed the failure to discrimination (middle-class Blacks, lower-class Blacks), and factors external to both individuals and groups (lower class Blacks, the middle-class Whites).

    Attributions for those who achieve wealth was examined by Forgas, Morris, and Furnham (1982). Attributions of the participants on reasons for wealth among socioeconomic groups included external or social, internal or individual, family background, and luck or risk factors. In determining these attributions, evidence for both class and ethnicity based judgments significantly influenced the attributions made by the participants. Socioeconomic background, demographic position, and voting preferences also significantly affected preferred attributions and estimates of income levels.

    Shepelak (1987) tested the hypothesis that individuals tend to believe that socioeconomic inequalities are legitimate to the extent that they attribute the cause of their position of high wealth or low wealth to themselves. Sense of worth is affected both by degree of rewards and by reasons for disparity in socioeconomic status. Explanations and evaluations played a minor role in moderating judgments of socioeconomic fairness.

    These attributions as well as social identity theory and biased attitudes and stereotypes based on socioeconomic status can have devastating effects. Stereotypes and attitudes as well as social identity theory can greatly influence the processes and policies within the criminal justice system as well as in educational institutions. Socioeconomic status can also have a dramatic effect on health as a result of psychological factors such as low social support and increased stress (Pincus & Callahan, 1995). Interactions often occur between gender, race, and socioeconomic class (Carter, 1997). For instance, ratios of people of color, as well as women, are often much lower in socioeconomic status. More women tend to be heads of single parent homes and thus, incur increased stress as well as lack of social support and financial strain. Jesse Jackson was quoted as saying during a television interview that race separates us far less than the growing disparity between the rich and the poor (WGN, 1998).

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    Adler, N. E., Boyce, B., Chesney, M. A., Cohen, S., Folkman, S., Kahn, R. L., Syme, S. L. (1994). Socioeconomic status and health: the challenge of the gradient. American Psychologist, 49, 15-24.

    Carter,G. L. (Ed.). (1997). Perspectives on current social problems. Massachusetts: Allyn and Bacon.

    Cyrus, V. (Ed.). (1997). Experiencing race, class, and gender in the United States. California: Mayfield Publishing Company.

    Forgas, J. P., Furnham, A., Frey, D. (1989). Cross-national differences in attributions of wealth and economic success. Journal of Social Psychology, 129, 643-657.

    Forgas, J. P., Morris, S. L., Furnham, A. (1982). Lay explanations of wealth: attributions for economic success. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 12, 381-397.

    Jackson, Jesse. (1993). Interview on WGN News, Chicago. Channel nine o’clock news, April 19, 1998..

    Langston, D. (1992). Race, class, and gender. California: Wadsworth Publishing.

    Levine, A., Nidiffer, J. (1996). Beating the odds: how the poor get to college. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

    Mazur, A. (1993). Signs of status in bridal portraits. Sociological Forum, 8, 273-283.

    Moghaddam, F. M., Taylor, D. M., Lambert, W. E., Schmidt, A. E. (1995) Attributions and discrimination: a study of attributions to the self, the group, and external factors among Whites, Blacks, and Cubans in Miami. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 26, 209-220.

     Pincus, T., Callahan, L. F. (1995). What explains the association between socioeconomic status and health: primarily access to medical care or mind-body variables. The Journal of Mind-Body Health, 11, 4-35.

    Reiman, J. (1997). The rich get richer and the poor get prison: ideology, class, and criminal justice. Massachusetts: Viacom Company.

     Shepelak, N. J. (1987). The role of self-explanations and self-evaluations in legitimating inequality. American Sociological Review, 52, 495-503.

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