[OPE-L:8358] NYTimes.com Article: Does Class Count in Today's Land of Opportunity?

From: Rakesh Bhandari (rakeshb@stanford.edu)
Date: Sat Jan 18 2003 - 13:49:20 EST

Does Class Count in Today's Land of Opportunity?

January 18, 2003

As the maid Marisa Ventura in the new film "Maid in
Manhattan," Jennifer Lopez uses charm and hard work to
vault the growing chasms between the rich, the poor and the
getting-by (managing to snag the cute, rich guy along the

Popular culture has always embraced the notion of America
as a nation of porous class lines. But as one of the most
prosperous 20-year periods in American history ends, the
question of just how important class has become has gained
a new immediacy. Critics accuse President Bush of skewing
his $64 billion, 10-year economic plan to help the rich,
while he counters that opponents are engaging in
un-American "class warfare."

Sociologists, of course, have argued for decades about how
to define "social class." Yet even the latest research has
produced contradictory conclusions.

When it comes to class, is income all that matters? Is your
college alma mater important? Or knowing how to use a
fingerbowl? And where does race fit in?

"There is a big academic debate on social class as opposed
to income," said David B. Grusky, director of the Center
for the Study of Inequality at Cornell and a professor of
sociology. "There are sociologists who argue that social
class is in decline in regard to lifestyle, consumption
factors and politics as coherent, meaningful groups."

Searching for answers, Professor Grusky and Kim Weeden, an
assistant professor of sociology at Cornell, turned to 30
years of data collected by the federal government and the
National Opinion Research Center, affiliated with the
University of Chicago. Together, the two surveys contained
information on a representative group of about 760,000
Americans, from their political attitudes to their reading
and television habits.

The professors concluded that lumping people into big
groups like the "working" or "middle" class on the basis of
their incomes ultimately had little to do with what they
bought, what they watched or whom they voted for. Rather,
cultural and political similarities are more likely to be
found among people who are in the same profession or do the
same type of work, reinforced first by educational training
and then by work experiences.

Sociologists, for instance, are mostly politically liberal
while economists are mostly conservative, they said.

Even big occupation groupings can hide differences,
Professor Grusky said. Consider an issue like abortion.
Among service workers, bartenders tended to support
legalized abortion while cooks and cleaners tended to
oppose it.

"Classes are as weak as they ever were," Professor Grusky
said. "There is nothing shared in the big classes. Social
scientists were always off the mark in talking about these
big classes."

Paul W. Kingston, a professor of sociology at the
University of Virginia and the author of "The Classless
Society: Studies in Social Inequality" (Stanford University
Press, 2000), agrees. He says that people who share a
common economic position "do not significantly share
distinct, life-defining experiences." And he further argues
that economic inequality alone does not imply the existence
of classes.

"The empirical issue is how would you recognize a class
when you saw one," Professor Kingston said in an interview.
"Does a blue-collar worker have a certain outlook,
background, cultural disposition? The general impression
is, there was a greater class structure 50 years ago. There
is a lot of generational class mobility."

Professor Kingston says his research shows that habits in
voting and tastes in music, television and recreation fail
to correlate significantly with income. Class in the
old-fashioned sense is arbitrary, he declares.

"Lots of people play golf, lots of people play tennis," he
said, referring to two sports once seen as the province of
the affluent. "Very few people go to the opera, and very
few people discuss modern art. There are few of these
things that speak to class."

The public's readiness to swallow Ms. Lopez's glamorous
ascent from maid to mogul is just a small indicator of how
deeply ingrained the idea of social mobility is in America.
Charges of class warfare often fail to resonate because
many people believe they have the chance to occupy the rich
end of the income scale - despite the ever-widening income

Robert Perrucci, a sociologist at Purdue University,
explains this attitude by saying, "People accept inequality
if they think there is opportunity." But he, like a number
of other sociologists, maintains that class counts for more
now than ever.

"Paul Kingston views class in cultural terms," Professor
Perrucci said. "I look at it in economic terms. As a
sociologist, I am concerned about the volatility of a
society where 80 percent of the people are frozen out of
possibilities. No one is saying we all have to be equal."

The average annual salary in America, expressed in 1998
dollars, went from $32,522 in 1970 to $35,864 in 1999. In
the same period, according to Fortune magazine, the average
real annual compensation of the top 100 C.E.O.'s went from
$1.3 million - 40 times the pay of an average worker - to
$37.5 million, or over 1,000 times the average worker's

Professor Perrucci, along with Earl Wysong, at Indiana
University of Kokomo and David W. Wright at Wichita State
University, compared the incomes and occupations of 2,749
fathers and sons from the 1970's to the late 1990's. Their
conclusion? That class mobility has decreased.

 From the upper to the lower levels, the researchers found
that sons retained the same levels of income and
occupational prestige as their fathers. At the upper level,
affluent sons gained prestigious positions - like doctors
and lawyers - even more frequently than their fathers did
30 years ago.

"What has happened in the last 25 years is that a large
segment of American society has become more vulnerable,"
said Professor Perrucci, who is co-author of "The New Class
Society: Goodbye American Dream?" (Rowman & Littlefield,
2002) with Professor Wysong. "Twenty years ago, going to
college was enough. Now, it has to be an elite school. The
American dream is being sorely tested."

The new reality, he said, is a society in which one-fifth
of Americans are privileged, with job security, high wages
and strong skills. The other 80 percent belong to a "new
working class," he said, that despite great variability
within the group lacks the same security and high wages.

Professor Perrucci and his colleagues proposed four
measures to determine where one lands on the class scale.
They are: social capital (whom you know); credential
capital (like where you received your degree); income or
consumption capital; and investment capital (stocks and
bonds). The last category is the one most affected by Mr.
Bush's new economic program and tax laws.

Minorities, Professor Perrucci added, are far more likely
than whites, especially white males, to lack elite
educational credentials and social capital.

Although the black middle class roughly doubled in the last
20 years, about 30 percent of blacks (compared with 8
percent of whites) are poor by government standards.
Numerous studies also show that continued discrimination in
housing and jobs stymies black economic mobility, as does
the perception that minorities have different values and
behavior from whites.

Erik Olin Wright, a sociology professor at the University
of Wisconsin in Madison, argues that race is one of the
factors that mute the expression of class conflict.

"To say there's no class is to imply that the workers at
Enron and the owners at Enron have no built-in conflict, no
different outcomes," said Professor Wright, who is also the
author of "Class Counts: Comparative Studies in Class
Analysis" (Cambridge University Press, 1997).

But it is "simple-minded," he said, to argue, as some
sociologists have done, that the absence of open
hostilities means there are no real social classes with
similar interests.

Race divisions, for example, could discourage people from
similar classes to come together and push for better health
care or schools, Professor Wright said. Or people may be
too "demoralized and resigned," he added, to organize
movements that pit working people against rich people.

"It may be the triumph of one class," he said, "one class
that is so hegemonic that people feel defeated."


Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company

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