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American upper class

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The American upper class is a social group within the United States consisting of people who have the highest social rank, primarily due to the use of their wealth to achieve social status.[1][2] These criteria differ from those of the traditional "upper class" in Britain and Europe which favor landed gentry and aristocracy (although such class distinctions have been deteriorating in recent times).

The American upper class is seen by some as simply being composed of the wealthiest individuals and families in the country. Some would add that people within this social class need to make themselves socioeconomically distinguishable from other classes by demonstrating their greater wealth, influence and power. The American upper class can also be broken down into two groups: people of substantial means with a history of family wealth going back centuries (called "old money"); and those who have acquired their wealth more recently (e.g. since 1900), often referred to as "Nouveau riche" (borrowed from the European aristocratic system, though often without its derogatory historical connotation).[3][4][5] In a CNBC Millionaire Survey it can be observed that a majority of millionaires polled, representing the wealthiest 10 percent of Americans, described themselves as middle class (44%) or upper middle class (40%).[6][7][8]

Many politicians, heirs to fortunes, top business executives, CEOs, successful venture capitalists, those born into high society, and some celebrities may be considered members of this class. Some prominent and high-rung professionals may also be included if they attain great influence and wealth. The main distinguishing feature of this class, which is estimated to constitute roughly 1% of the population, is the source of income. While the vast majority of people and households derive their income from wages or salaries, those in the upper class derive their income from investments and capital gains.[5] Estimates for the size of this group commonly vary from 1% to 2%,[4] while some surveys have indicated that as many as 6% of Americans identify as "upper class." Sociologist Leonard Beeghley sees wealth as the only significant distinguishing feature of this class and, therefore, refers to this group simply as "the rich."[1]

The members of the tiny capitalist class at the top of the hierarchy have an influence on economy and society far beyond their numbers. They make investment decisions that open or close employment opportunities for millions of others. They contribute money to political parties, and they often own media enterprises that allow them influence over the thinking of other classes... The capitalist class strives to perpetuate itself: Assets, lifestyles, values and social networks... are all passed from one generation to the next. –Dennis Gilbert, The American Class Structure, 1998[4]

Sociologists such as W. Lloyd Warner, William Thompson and Joseph Hickey recognize prestige differences between members of the upper class. Established families, prominent professionals and politicians may be deemed to have more prestige than some entertainment celebrities who in turn may have more prestige than the members of local elites.[5] Yet, contemporary sociologists argue that all members of the upper class share such great wealth, influence and assets as their main source of income as to be recognized as members of the same social class.[4] As great financial fortune is the main distinguishing feature of this class, sociologist Leonard Beeghley at the University of Florida identifies all "rich" households, those with incomes in the top 1% or so, as upper class.[1]

In 1998, Bob Herbert of The New York Times referred to modern American plutocrats as "The Donor Class"[9][10] (list of top donors)[11] and defined the class, for the first time,[12] as "a tiny group – just one-quarter of 1 percent of the population – and it is not representative of the rest of the nation. But its money buys plenty of access."[9]

YouTube Encyclopedic

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  • ✪ Social Class & Poverty in the US: Crash Course Sociology #24
  • ✪ Do You Really Know what Upper Class Means?
  • ✪ The Rich in America: Power, Control, Wealth and the Elite Upper Class in the United States
  • ✪ How the Elite Control the World: The Rich Getting Richer, the Upper Class & Money in America (1996)
  • ✪ Inside the Wealthiest Black Families in America: Social Clubs, Elites, History (1999)


Social Class in America can be hard to talk about. And not just because you may find it awkward to discuss who’s poor and who’s rich, or who has more power and who has less. As sociologists, the difficulty for us is in pinning down exactly what we mean by social class. There isn’t just one definition of it, and the definition you use will depend on what society you’re interested in. If we go by Marx’s definition, we have two classes: the bourgeoisie, who own the means of production, and the proletariat, who do the labor. But this might be too simplistic for our world. If you own a small store, and you work there, which category do you belong in? Your day-to-day life probably looks more like that of a retail employee than that of a CEO. But Marx would put you in the bourgeoisie, because you own a business and hire workers. So let’s try another definition, one that’s more in the tradition of our old friend Max Weber. His theories were more about what kinds of opportunities a person’s class gives them. The owner of a big company has different opportunities than the owner of a small shop. But they’ll both have different resources available to them than someone who manages an office, or somebody who works at a factory. So in this case, a social class can be defined as a group that’s fairly similar in terms of income, education, power, and prestige in society. And we can use this definition to better understand the social classes that make up society in the United States, and it can help us to answer some of the questions they raise. Like, is there more than one kind of upper class? How can the middle class fit everyone who thinks they belong in it? And what does poverty in America really look like? [Theme Music] Broadly speaking, American society can be split into five social classes: upper class, upper middle class, average middle class, working class, and lower class The upper class consists essentially of the capitalists in Marx’s system. This is the top of the income and wealth distribution – those who earn at least $250,000/year and control much of the country’s wealth. And as we learned last week – money talks. This group tends to wield a lot of political and social power. But within the upper class, there are sub classes that distinguish, by and large, between old money and new money. The upper-upper class includes those who derive their wealth from inheritance rather than work. People in this class may have jobs, but usually they take on more honorary positions such as board members or heading up philanthropic organizations. But there’s also a large part of the upper class whose wealth came from work. Most of those we think of as wealthy – the Bill Gates, Oprah Winfreys, and Kanye West’s of the world – fall into this group. After upper class comes the middle class. Remember awhile back when we talked about how almost every American thinks that they’re middle class? That’s way too many people to fit into the middle, which is why sociologists split the mid-range of the income distribution into three groups. Upper middle class families typically have incomes between $115,000 and $250,000 per year and make up about 15% of income earners. About 2/3 of the adults here have college degrees – and many have post-graduate degrees. It’s almost a given that their kids will attend college when they grow up. Adults in this sector tend to have jobs that are considered prestigious – doctors, lawyers, engineers, and the like. Their families typically own homes in good school districts, and are able to afford luxuries, like travel and multiple vehicles. And it may not surprise you to learn that they’re wealthy, at least compared to most Americans. This group is likely to have wealth from their home, strong 401Ks, and financial investments. Now, families in the so-called average middle class make between $50,000 and $115,000 and make up about 35% of income earners. Keep in mind, the median family income in the US is $70,700. So families in this group still tend to own their own homes, but the mortgages might be more cumbersome. And they have some wealth, usually tied up in their home or a modest retirement savings account. About half of this group is college-educated, though they’re more likely to have attended public universities than private schools. And average middle class jobs are typically so-called white collar jobs – think office workers, teachers, middle-managers. In contrast, most blue-collar workers, or those whose work is primarily based in manual labor, fall into the lower-middle class. About 30 percent of Americans are in this category, with incomes ranging from about 25 to 50 thousand dollars a year. Lower middle class families are less likely to own their own homes and typically hold little to no wealth. The most defining feature of this social class is the type of jobs that are associated with it – namely, manual labor, which is why it’s often referred to as the working class. Factory work, construction, manufacturing, maintenance work – all of these jobs generally fall under working class occupations. And while some working class jobs require technical skills, they don’t usually require a college education. It’s important to note that working class jobs are more sensitive to how the economy is doing, because these jobs tend to be built around making stuff. When a recession hits, factories need fewer workers to meet demands. Or the plant’s owners might decide that it’s cheaper to use machines rather than workers to produce their goods. And just as vulnerable to economic downturns, if not more so, is the lower class. Lower class Americans are blue-collar workers at the bottom of the income distribution. They make less than $25,000 a year and tend to work hourly jobs that are part-time, with unpredictable schedules and no benefits, like health insurance or pensions. About 20% of Americans, or the bottom quintile, fall into this group. The majority of these families don’t own their own homes and are more likely to live in neighborhoods with higher rates of poverty, lower quality school districts, and higher crime rates. In contrast to an upper-middle class family, whose children are likely to go to college, only 9% of children born in the bottom income quartile complete a four-year college degree. And the lower class also includes many Americans who are living in poverty. The US government sets an income benchmark called the federal poverty level, a threshold that’s used, in part, to determine who’s eligible for public assistance programs, like food stamps or help with health care. As of 2017, the federal poverty level for a family of four is $24,600. And 13.5% of Americans live in households below that. The government arrives at this figure by estimating the minimum annual pre-tax income that’s needed to pay food, shelter, transportation, and clothing costs for a given household size. Of course, what’s poor in the United States won’t be the same as in another country – the US federal poverty line is a measure of relative poverty, based on a standard of living in the US. Relative poverty is used to describe a lack of resources compared to others who have more. But absolute poverty is a lack of resources that threatens your ability to survive. The federal poverty level gives us an indicator for which Americans have the fewest resources and lets us examine trends in groups that are the most economically vulnerable. For example, groups that can’t work, like children, the severely disabled, and the frail elderly, are particularly vulnerable to poverty. But many working Americans are vulnerable to poverty, too – 12% of working-age adults in poverty work full-time, and another 29% work part time. These are the working poor. You can see how it’s quite possible to work full time and still live in poverty, when you do the math. The federal minimum wage in the United States is $7.25 per hour. A 40 hour work week for 50 weeks a year would net an income of $14,500, which is well below the poverty line for a family of four. It’s hard enough to pull yourself out of poverty on a low-wage income, which is partly why more than half of families in poverty are headed by single mothers. Higher rates of poverty among women, known as the feminization of poverty, is related to the increasing number of women who are raising children on their own, and who work low-wage jobs. But in addition to gender, you can also can look at poverty by race. Contrary to popular belief, most poor Americans are not Black; in fact, two-thirds of the poor in the US are white. Black Americans are, however, more likely to be poor than white Americans: 24.1% of Black Americans, who make up about 13% of the total American population, were living in poverty in 2015. Compare that to 11.6% of white Americans, who make up about 77% of the total population. Now, the causes of poverty are many. And it’s not easy to understand why some groups are more vulnerable than others. America likes to think of itself as a nation that values self-reliance, where anyone can succeed. And this view is partly why some argue that poverty is the result of an individual’s own failings, or of certain cultural attitudes. One of the most famous proponents of this idea was Daniel Patrick Moynihan – former US senator, ambassador to the United Nations, and, by trade, a sociologist. A report he wrote while Secretary of Labor in the Kennedy administration, known as the Moynihan report, blamed high rates of poverty among African Americans not on a lack of economic opportunity, but on cultural factors in the Black community, like high rates of birth outside of marriage. By contrast, American sociologist William Julius Wilson – who you might remember from episode 7 – has provided a counter to this idea. Wilson has documented how Black Americans are much more likely to face institutional barriers to achieving economic success, and are more likely to live in areas where jobs are scarce. He argues that in order to understand poverty, we have to look at wider economic and social structures, as well as the history and culture of racism in the U.S. Next week, we’ll talk more about how social class structures affects how Americans live their lives. But for now, you learned about the five different social classes in the United States: the upper class, the upper middle class, the average middle class, the working class, and the lower class. And we discussed what poverty looks like in the United States. Crash Course Sociology is filmed in the Dr. Cheryl C. Kinney Studio in Missoula, MT, and it's made with the help of all these nice people. Our Animation Team is Thought Cafe and Crash Course is made with Adobe Creative Cloud. If you'd like to keep Crash Course free for everyone, forever, you can support the series at Patreon, a crowdfunding platform that allows you to support the content you love. Speaking of Patreon, we'd like to thank all of our patrons in general, and we'd like to specifically thank our Headmaster of Learning Ben Holden-Crowther. Thank you so much for your support.


Social class and income

Functional theorists in sociology and economics assert that the existence of social classes is necessary[5] in order to distribute persons so that only the most qualified are able to acquire positions of power, and so that all persons fulfill their occupational duties to the greatest extent of their ability. Notably, this view does not address wealth, which plays an important role in allocating status and power (see Affluence in the United States for more).

In order to make sure that important and complex tasks are handled by qualified and motivated personnel, society offers incentives such as income and prestige. The more scarce qualified applicants are and the more essential the given task is, the larger the incentive will be. Income and prestige which are often used to tell a person's social class, are merely the incentives given to that person for meeting all qualifications to complete an important task that is of high standing in society due to its functional value.[13]

It should be stressed... that a position does not bring power and prestige because it draws a high income. Rather, it draws a high income because it is functionally important and the available personnel is for one reason or another scarce. It is therefore superficial and erroneous to regard high income as the cause of a man's power and prestige, just as it is erroneous to think that a man's fever is the cause of his disease... The economic source of power and prestige is not income primarily, but the ownership of capital goods (including patents, good will, and professional reputation). Such ownership should be distinguished from the possession of consumers' goods, which is an index rather than a cause of social standing. – Kingsley Davis and Wilbert E. Moore, Principles of Stratification.

As mentioned above, income is one of the most prominent features of social class, but not necessarily one of its causes. In other words, income does not determine the status of an individual or household but rather reflects upon that status. Income and prestige are the incentives in order to fill all positions with the most qualified and motivated personnel possible.[13]

If... money and wealth [alone] determine class ranking... a cocaine dealer, a lottery winner, a rock star, and a member of the Rockefeller family-are all on the same rung of the social ladder... [yet most] Americans would be unwilling to accord equal rank to a lottery winner or rock star and a member of one of America's most distinguished families... wealth is not the only factor that determines a person's rank. – William Thompson, Joseph Hickey; Society in Focus, 2005.[5]


Members of the upper class in American society are typically knowledgeable and have been educated in "elite" settings.[14] Wealthy parents go above and beyond to ensure their children will also be a member of the upper class when they grow up. Upper class parents enroll their children in prestigious preschools and elementary schools leading to private middle schools and high schools, and finally elite, private colleges.[14] Often graduating from schools such as those in the Ivy League, upper class members have traditionally joined exclusive clubs or fraternities. Students at Yale University created the Skull and Bones social club. The Skull and Bones was a secret society that had members such as George H. W. Bush and John Kerry. These members obtained valuable social capital by joining the club.[14]


Individuals of a broad variety of religious backgrounds have become wealthy in America. However, the majority of these individuals follow Mainline Protestant denominations; Episcopalians[15] and Presbyterians are most prevalent,[16]

Empirical distribution of income

One 2009 empirical analysis analyzed an estimated 15–27% of the individuals in the top 0.1% of adjusted gross income (AGI), including top executives, asset managers, law firm partners, professional athletes and celebrities, and highly compensated employees of investment banks.[17] Among other results, the analysis found that individuals in the financial (Wall Street) sector constitute a greater percent of the top income earners in the United States than individuals from the non-financial sector, after adjusting for the relative sizes of the sectors.


A study by Larry Bartels found a positive correlation between Senate votes and opinions of high income people, conversely, low income people's opinions had a negative correlation with senate votes.[18]
A study by Larry Bartels found a positive correlation between Senate votes and opinions of high income people, conversely, low income people's opinions had a negative correlation with senate votes.[18]

Households with net worths of $1 million or more may be identified as members of the upper-most socio-economic demographic, depending on the class model used. While most sociologists estimate that only 1% of households are members of the upper class, sociologist Leonard Beeghley asserts that all households with a net worth of $1 million or more are considered "rich." He divides "the rich" into two sub-groups: the rich and the super-rich. The rich constitute roughly 5% of U.S. households and their wealth is largely in the form of home equity. Other contemporary sociologists, such as Dennis Gilbert, argue that this group is not part of the upper class but rather part of the upper middle class, as its standard of living is largely derived from occupation-generated income and its affluence falls far short of that attained by the top percentile. The super-rich, according to Beeghley, are those able to live off their wealth without depending on occupation-derived income. This demographic constitutes roughly 0.9% of American households. Beeghley's definition of the super-rich is congruent with the definition of upper class employed by most other sociologists. The top 0.01% of the population, with an annual income of $9.5 million or more, received 5% of the income of the United States in 2007. These 15,000 families have been characterized as the "richest of the rich".[19]

Top 5 states by HNWIs (more than $1 million, in 2009)[20]
State Percentage of millionaire households Number of millionaire households
Hawaii 6.4% 28,363
Maryland 6.3% 133,299
New Jersey 6.2% 197,694
Connecticut 6.2% 82,837
Virginia 5.5% 166,596
Bottom 5 states by HNWIs (more than $1 million, in 2009)[20]
State Percentage of millionaire households Number of millionaire households
South Dakota 3.4% 10,646
Kentucky 3.3% 57,059
West Virginia 3.3% 24,941
Arkansas 3.1% 35,286
Mississippi 3.1% 33,792

See also

Notes and references

  1. ^ a b c Beeghley, Leonard (2004). The Structure of Social Stratification in the United States. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon. ISBN 0-205-37558-8.
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^ a b c d Gilbert, Dennis (1998). The American Class Structure. New York: Wadsworth Publishing. ISBN 0-534-50520-1.
  5. ^ a b c d e Thompson, William; Joseph Hickey (2005). Society in Focus. Boston, MA: Pearson. ISBN 0-205-41365-X.
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^ a b Herbert, Bob (July 19, 1998). "The Donor Class". The New York Times. Retrieved March 10, 2016.
  10. ^ Confessore, Nicholas; Cohen, Sarah; Yourish, Karen (October 10, 2015). "The Families Funding the 2016 Presidential Election". The New York Times. Retrieved March 10, 2016.
  11. ^ Lichtblau, Eric; Confessore, Nicholas (October 10, 2015). "From Fracking to Finance, a Torrent of Campaign Cash – Top Donors List". The New York Times. Retrieved March 11, 2016.
  12. ^ McCutcheon, Chuck (December 26, 2014). "Why the 'donor class' matters, especially in the GOP presidential scrum". "The Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved March 10, 2016.
  13. ^ a b Levine, Rhonda (1998). Social Class and Stratification. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 0-8476-8543-8.
  14. ^ a b c Doob, B. Christopher (2013). Social Inequality and Social Stratification in US Society (1st ed.). Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education. ISBN 0-205-79241-3.
  15. ^ B. Drummond Ayres Jr. (2011-12-19). "The Episcopalians: An American Elite with Roots Going Back to Jamestown". The New York Times. Retrieved 2012-08-17.
  16. ^ Davidson, James D.; Pyle, Ralph E.; Reyes, David V. (1995). "Persistence and Change in the Protestant Establishment, 1930–1992". Social Forces. 74 (1): 157–75 [p. 164]. doi:10.1093/sf/74.1.157. JSTOR 2580627.
  17. ^ Kaplan SN, Rauh J. (2009). Wall Street and Main Street: What Contributes to the Rise in the Highest Incomes?. Review of Financial Studies.
  18. ^ Based on Larry Bartels's study Economic Inequality and Political Representation Archived 2011-09-15 at the Wayback Machine., Table 1: Differential Responsiveness of Senators to Constituency Opinion.
  19. ^ "The Richest of the Rich, Proud of a New Gilded Age", article by Louis Uchitelle, The New York Times, July 15, 2007.
  20. ^ a b Phoenix Marketing International Research Shows Steep Decline In Millionaires in U.S.

Further reading

  • Baltzell, E. Digby. Philadelphia Gentlemen: The Making of a New Upper Class (1958).
  • Beckert, Sven. The monied metropolis: New York City and the consolidation of the American bourgeoisie, 1850-1896 (2003).
  • Brooks, David. Bobos in paradise: The new upper class and how they got there (2010)
  • Burt, Nathaniel. The Perennial Philadelphians: The Anatomy of an American Aristocracy (1999).
  • Cookson, Peter W. and Caroline Hodges Persell: Preparing for Power: America's Elite Boarding Schools, Basic Books, 1989, ISBN 0-465-06269-5
  • Davis, Donald F. "The Price of Conspicious Production: The Detroit Elite and the Automobile Industry, 1900-1933." Journal of Social History 16.1 (1982): 21-46. online
  • Farnum, Richard. "Prestige in the Ivy League: Democratization and discrimination at Penn and Columbia, 1890-1970." in Paul W. Kingston and Lionel S. Lewis, eds. The high-status track: Studies of elite schools and stratification (1990).
  • Foulkes, Nick. High Society – The History of America's Upper Class, (Assouline, 2008) ISBN 2759402886
  • Fraser, Steve and Gary Gerstle, eds. Ruling America: A History of Wealth and Power in a Democracy, Harvard UP, 2005, ISBN 0-674-01747-1
  • Ghent, Jocelyn Maynard, and Frederic Cople Jaher. "The Chicago Business Elite: 1830–1930. A Collective Biography." Business History Review 50.3 (1976): 288-328. online
  • Hood. Clifton. In Pursuit of Privilege: A History of New York City's Upper Class and the Making of a Metropolis (2016). covers 1760-1970.
  • Ingham, John N. The Iron Barons: A Social Analysis of an American Urban Elite, 1874-1965 (1978)
  • Jaher, Frederic Cople, ed. The Rich, the Well Born, and the Powerful: Elites and Upper Classes in History (1973), essays by scholars
  • Jaher, Frederick Cople. The Urban Establishment: Upper Strata in Boston, New York, Chicago, Charleston, and Los Angeles (1982).
  • Jensen, Richard. "Family, Career, and Reform: Women Leaders of the Progressive Era." in Michael Gordon, ed., The American Family in Social-Historical Perspective,(1973): 267-80.
  • Lundberg, Ferdinand: The Rich and the Super-Rich: A Study in the Power of Money Today (1968)
  • McConachie, Bruce A. "New York operagoing, 1825-50: creating an elite social ritual." American Music (1988): 181-192. online
  • Ostrander, Susan A. (1986). Women of the Upper Class. Temple University Press. ISBN 978-0-87722-475-4.
  • Phillips, Kevin P. Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich, Broadway Books 2003, ISBN 0-7679-0534-2
  • Story, Ronald. (1980) The forging of an aristocracy: Harvard & the Boston upper class, 1800-1870
  • Synnott, Marcia. The half-opened door: Discrimination and admissions at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, 1900-1970 (2010).
  • Williams, Peter W. Religion, Art, and Money: Episcopalians and American Culture from the Civil War to the Great Depression (2016), especially in New York City

This page was last edited on 8 January 2019, at 18:04
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