Final Reflection

Since the end of the Civil War, the United States has grown tremendously into a diverse and powerfully industrialized country built on ideals that stress hard work and perseverance. However, the successful development of the country did not come without consequence. As the country grew more powerful and more cohesive, its diverse population became even more stratified. It is impossible to ignore the history of social class in America with regards to the history of the country in its entirety. The United States has an undeniable history of inequality. From the slave trade all the way up to the present-day “glass ceiling,” Americans have faced stratification on several levels. History demonstrates that America’s deep cultural diversity and the stereotypes and prejudices that come with it, mixed with a common ideology of the American Dream and the institutional involvement only serves to perpetuate the cycle of inequality in the United States. This trend emerges more specifically during large historical shifts like the periods following WWI and WWII.

Operating on the idea that all men are created equal, the American Dream is an ideology in the United States in which freedom includes the possibility of prosperity and success to all, regardless of social class or race. Rooted in the Protestant ethic of equating success with morality, the American Dream asserts that anyone can succeed so long as they work hard to exercise their own talents and capabilities. It emphasizes a direct link between individual effort and success in an open, merit-based system and attracts most people to this country in the first place. The American Dream is based on a system of meritocracy where individuals are rewarded based on their individual efforts and abilities. This system of meritocracy legitimizes the ranking of people and the unequal distribution of valued goods, services, and prestige. It categorizes people and implies that you get out of the system whatever you put into it. Regardless of America’s profound cultural diversity, all Americans share this principal of the “American Dream,” that creates a justification for social class in America by equating success and wealth with effort alone. However, to use the American Dream as the sole justification for stratification is to ignore the many prejudices and stereotypes that have been clearly present and institutionalized in American society throughout history, and how the government addressed them with legislation.

Although class divisions really started to take shape after the Civil War with the country’s industrialization, the post-WWI era more significantly addresses the issues of class based on cultural differences and institutional assistance. President Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation was created to address the consequences the Great Depression brought on the country. Although this legislation sought to provide relief for the poor and unemployed after a tremendous economic bust, it excluded many minority groups living at the center of the impoverished in America, solely benefiting whites and deepening the roots of inequality in the United States, especially for African Americans. Roosevelt’s Second New Deal established the National Housing Act of 1934 that attempted to make housing and home mortgages more affordable for GIs returning home after WWI. However, the Federal Housing Administration established the act of redlining basically racially segregating the larger cities in the United States. Redlining prevented African Americans from purchasing homes in higher-valued areas based entirely on prejudice and racism. Redlining represents the ways in which government officials institutionalized inequality through policy and legislation that subtly prohibited African Americans from accumulating wealth in the largest sense to be more successful by society’s standards.

After WWII, the government’s involvement in welfare legislation further perpetuated the cycle of inequality in America. Although the GI Bill passed in 1944 enabled millions of American veterans to purchase suburban homes and obtain a college education, racism was still a prominent factor in society and African American veterans did not benefit in the same way. Redlining established after WWI still prevented many African American veterans from receiving the same housing opportunities that their white counterparts were benefiting from. Furthermore, gaining admission to universities was no easy task as most universities had segregationist principles underlying their admissions policies. It is true the GI Bill helped jump-start the more modern middle-class we familiarize ourselves with today, however the black middle-class failed to keep pace with the white middle-class because blacks received fewer opportunities to earn college degrees and purchase property in higher-valued neighborhoods thanks again to the government’s institutionalization of discriminatory practices. Ultimately, class stratification in the United States dramatically changed between 1930 and 1950. It demonstrates how the United States, founded on democratic and individualist principles, maintained social and legal barriers that openly discriminated against a sizable portion of its citizens. It further illustrates how ideologies legitimize and sustain inequality by offering justifications for unequal treatment.

As America entered into the Cold War era, inequality had become a central issue in domestic politics with the rise of the Civil Rights Movement. Many citizens, aware of America’s diversity and its discriminatory practices, began to fight for equal rights across all fronts. President Lyndon B. Johnsons was dedicated to addressing issues of poverty with his “Great Society.” He believed that further expansion of the federal government into social welfare programs would address the rising poverty rates and inequality present throughout the country. He stressed the importance of government at the local level and encouraged citizens to have significant involvement in the politics within their region so that the people could decide where to spend federal money. As a result, government spending on social welfare doubled between 1964 and 1968.

However, as communism became more of a threat to the United States, the ideology shifted and the government began spending more money expanding the military, spending less money addressing issues of inequality and welfare. Homelessness became a real issue across the country, especially during the 80s, and more and more Americans became fully dependent on government welfare. By the mid 90s, millions of Americans relied on federal aid. President Clinton passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act in 1996 to encourage Americans to work themselves off welfare through governmental job search assistance. However, the bill restricted most immigrants from receiving welfare and simply pushed Americans towards “workfare” – working for federal aid. Many argue that this reform pressured low-income families to seek employment anywhere and be satisfied. Not only were certain minority groups kept from receiving equal benefits, but also many working-class families still lacked the opportunities to move upward on the societal ladder. Regardless, after the bill was passed, welfare participation dropped 60%, employment rose, and the child poverty rate was reduced. The New York Times called this reform “one of the few undisputed triumphs of American government in that decade.”

Although this is a very brief synopsis of some of the most important historical shifts in the history America, other student’s blogs helped me better understand my subject as well. Most if not all the blogs dealt with social class at some point in the development of their histories. Both DeCarlo’s and Saowalak’s blogs about the development of the media portrays how the media works as an institution separate from government whose involvement only strengthens inequality in the U.S. Throughout history, the media, run by a small group of wealthy, elite corporations, helped reiterate the stereotypes and prejudices about different people that children learn at a young age.  In their portrayals of the poor as a nuisance, or an eyesore, the media helps reinforce the belief in the “myths” of society: that we live in a classless society, that we all have an equal chance to succeed, that we are all part of the middle class, and that we are all getting richer. In perpetuating these myths, the media serves the need of the upper class to maintain the system of stratification that ensures continued wealth for the top 5%. The same idea can be applied to most blogs and the institutions they are writing about dealt with social class in America, making the subject extremely important to American history in its entirety.

History is repetitive. Every time the economy went through a boom-bust cycle (Roaring Twenties to the Great Depression, ends of both WWI and WWI, and the Cold War period), we saw America develop further into a powerfully stratified country and people really fell into their societal positions more obviously. Today’s recessions that were caused by consumer over-spending and over-lending by the banks shows how far our country has come. Technology keeps developing and the American lifestyle develops with it. The American Dream to succeed by making vast amounts of money through hard work and perseverance encourages all Americans from different cultural backgrounds to keep striving to achieve this goal. However, a system set up to reward values and upward mobility based on individual effort and capabilities ultimately work against low-income and minority groups because of the institutionalized stereotypes and prejudices held against them that children learn growing up. The American Dream was not meant for minorities and impoverished families, simply because they were historically kept from receiving the same advantages and opportunities that their white and wealthy counterparts have been benefiting from since the slave trade.

In addition to the fallacy of the American Dream, we are told to believe that certain individual characteristics will ultimately lead to success. Oscar Lewis’s culture of poverty thesis ultimately illustrates this argument. According to his thesis, the poor exist in their own culture of hedonism, fatalism, and impulsiveness. These “attitudes” make it impossible for the impoverished portion of society to become upwardly mobile because they adapt to living in poverty, and because it is a culture, it becomes a self-perpetuating cycle. However, this thesis was disproved in a study of a poor Mexican-American community. The study found that any culture that was specific to a poor community was only present in response to the need for survival. Individual values, in fact, mirrored those found in other, more economically successful classes. The study proves that no particular attitude is determined to the success of an individual, much less an entire group of people; rather, other more institutionalized factors ensure that stratification remains present in today’s society.

When we received this assignment, it was hard for me to grasp the idea as just a simple research assignment. I assumed that because it is a blog, how we feel about the subject is just as important as the history of the subject itself. It was at first difficult to subtly express my opinions, however I am happy to receive this opportunity of a final reflection. As I said above, it is impossible to look at the history of anything without taking social class into consideration. Society has placed people within categories in order to fit the status quo. It works to keep certain people down and bring certain people up. Societal institutions go a step further in implementing policies to uphold discriminatory practices that do not benefit those really in need. History demonstrates that inequality has become institutionalized as a result of the differences in how skills and behaviors are rewarded in different cultural settings. The differences can be subtle and often not recognized across cultural boundaries. History has made it clear that America’s cultural diversity in the United States mixed with a common ideology of the American Dream and institutional involvement only serves to perpetuate the cycle of inequality in the United Stat

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1950s to the Present

It is clear that the United States is a country built on a number of different cultures coming together to live as Americans. People come from diverse social backgrounds and learn ideologies specific to their culture. The government’s involvement in creating an economic system where potentially anyone can succeed only further complicates creating an equal society because not all legislations are passed with everyone’s welfare in mind, and certain groups of people do not always benefit.

Regardless of what background one may come from, all Americans share a primary ideology of the “American Dream” that teaches us perseverance and hard work will lead to a successful and comfortable American lifestyle. However, the American Dream is based on a system of meritocracy where individuals are rewarded based on their individual efforts and abilities. This system of meritocracy legitimizes the ranking of people and the unequal distribution of valued goods, services, and prestige. It categorizes people and implies that you get out of the system whatever you put into it. This justification that individuals should be rewarded based on their merit mixed with the various stereotypes and prejudices different cultures hold against one another only serve to emphasize and perpetuate the cycle of inequality in the United States.

From 1930 to 1950, the New Deal expanded welfare to the majority of Americans. However, the bill still excluded certain minority groups, maintaining social and legal barriers that openly discriminated against a sizable portion of American citizens. The 1960s marked the beginning of an era where individuals were prepared to fight for their rights as American citizens as well as fight the cycle of inequality perpetuated by American “ideals.”

Class Distinctions in the 1950s

Culture of Poverty Thesis

In 1959, American anthropologist Oscar Lewis struggled to render “the poor” as legitimate subjects whose lives were transformed by poverty. His culture of poverty thesis argued that although the burdens of poverty were systematic and therefore imposed upon these members of society, the poor formed an autonomous subculture as children were socialized into behaviors and attitudes that perpetuated their inability to escape the underclass. Ultimately, Lewis insisted that the poor remain in poverty because they learn to adapt to the burdens of poverty.

Affirmative Action

President John F. Kennedy first introduced the term “affirmative action” in 1961. President Kennedy sought to create welfare policies that take factors including race, religion, gender, or national origin into consideration in order to benefit minority groups and counter the effects of discrimination. After Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, President Lyndon B. Johnson issued Executive Order 11246 which required federal contractors to take “affirmative action” to hire without regard to race, religion, and national origin. In 1968, gender was added to the anti-discrimination list.

Check out America’s Modern POV on Affirmative Action

Negative View of Affirmative Action in Edward Norton’s American History X

The War on Poverty (1964)

President Lyndon B. Johnson first introduced the War on Poverty in his first State of the Union Address. President Johnson introduced this legislation in response to a national poverty rate of 19%, He believed in a “Great Society” where the expansion of the federal government into social welfare programs from education to healthcare, would address the rising poverty rates happening all over the country.

After the bill was passed, LBJ established the Economic Opportunity Act in 1964. The act included several social programs to promote the health, education, and general welfare of the poor. Within the act, the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) was responsible for administering most of the programs created by the War on Poverty.

Today, many programs still exist from this revolutionary piece of legislation. Programs like Head Start and Job Corps work to provide comprehensive welfare services to low-income families. Head Start, originally founded in 1965, served as a catch-up summer school program to teach children from low-income backgrounds everything they needed to learn in order to start kindergarten. Currently, Head Start provides education, healthcare, nutrition, and parental involvement services to lower class families. Job Corps was central to the War on Poverty. The program administered by the U.S. Department of Labor offers free of charge education and vocational training for 16 to 24 year olds. Since 1964, Job Corps has served more than 2 million young Americans.

Check out Job Corps activity today in Milwaukee, Wisconsin

The Moynihan Report (1965)

Daniel Patrick Moynihan was a sociologist and served as Assistant Secretary of Labor under LBJ. In response to Johnson’s War on Poverty, Moynihan published “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action” in 1965, better known as the Moynihan Report. Acknowledging the country’s profound cultural diversity, Moynihan focused on the deep roots of African American poverty. More specifically, Chapter IV of the Moynihan Report, The Tangle of Pathology, focuses on the rising rates of poverty in African American culture.

Moynihan concludes that poverty lies deeply rooted within the culture due to the absence of nuclear families, more specifically the absence of fathers. He demonstrates how, “the Negro community has been forced into a matriarchal structure which… retards the progress of the group as a whole, and imposes a crushing burden on the Negro male.” In a society centered on meritocracy, Moynihan observed that this deficiency is, “clearly a disadvantage for a minority group [because] the great majority of the population, and the one with the most advantages to begin with… presumes male leadership in private and public affairs. The arrangements of society facilitate such leadership and reward it.”

Moynihan argues that this hierarchical structure of American society perpetuates the cycle of poverty and deprivation for the African American community. Inevitably stuck in a matriarchal structure, African American males start at a disadvantage in a society that rewards success based on income and wealth. Moynihan stressed that without equal access to jobs and the means to contribute meaningful support to a family, African American males would become systematically alienated from their roles as husbands and fathers, increasing divorce rates that had already become a trend early in the 1960s. African American males would inevitably remain stuck in the cycle of poverty.

Homelessness in the 1980s

1980s PSA for Homelessness in America

Throughout the 80s, the federal government determined that somewhere between 200,000 to 500,000 American citizens were then homeless. In 1980, the government accounted for nearly 22% of big city budgets, but by 1989 the same federal aid dropped to only 6%. That breaks down to a 60% decrease in federal spending to support local governments and welfare in less than a decade.

More specifically, from 1980 to 1989, the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s budget dropped from $74 billion to $19 billion. This extreme decrease created an inadequate supply of affordable housing to meet the growing demand of the low-income population, leaving thousands of Americans homeless.

In response to this sudden increase in homelessness, the Reagan Administration passed the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act in 1987. The Act was to provide federal aid directly to homeless shelter programs. It also provided transportation for homeless school children to get to their school of origin regardless of their location in the city at the time. However, this was a “conditional funding act” meaning the federal government would offer grants to states, and a state could individually choose to accept the grant and participate in the program or not. This act still exists today and remains the only piece of federal legislation that allocates funding to the direct service of the homeless community. To learn more about President Reagan’s ideas for welfare reform in its entirety, check out the video below.

President Reagan’s Radio Address to the Nation on Welfare Reform (1987)

“Losing Ground” by Charles Murray (1984)

“Losing Ground: American Social Policy 1950-1980”, by Charles Murray expands on the counter-culture movement in the 1960s and how it contributed to the rising rates of poverty in America during the 1980s. President Johnson proposed his “Great Society” and his “war on poverty” which was designed to increase federal spending to address the welfare of American citizens. Although the program was a success, it still left minority groups in perpetual poverty with rising crime, lower education standards, rising illegitimacy and a glass ceiling beyond which the poor seemed unable to break through.

Charles Murray wrote “Losing Ground” in 1984. His book revealed that the welfare state so carefully built up in the 1960s and 1970s created a system of disincentives for people to better their own lives. By providing aid to single parents living in poverty, Murray argued that the government was encouraging pre-marital sex and as a result single parenthood became more attractive because the government would pay for that lifestyle. He further argued that by doling out dollars at a rate that could not be matched by the economy, the system encouraged the poor to stay home, lowered the value of education, and lowered the punishment for criminal activity.

Murray’s argument ties directly into the Oscar Lewis’s culture of poverty thesis by arguing that the poor remain poor because they adjusted to a lifestyle supported by the federal government. Some say Murray’s argument paved the way for Clinton’s welfare reform in 1996.

Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996

President Clinton’s welfare reform act in 1996 fundamentally shifted both the method and goal of federal assistance to the poor. The act added a workforce development component to welfare legislation, encouraging the poor to work themselves off welfare. The government gave control of the welfare system back to the states, giving each state an allocation based on population. The bill created Temporary Assistance for Needy Families that required each state to provide some sort of employment search program in exchange for providing federal aid to the impoverished. For example, today Michigan’s program requires an individual on welfare to find a job through their search program and work for one month prior to receiving federal aid. After the bill was passed, welfare participation dropped 60%, employment rose, and the child poverty rate was reduced. The New York Times called this reform “one of the few undisputed triumphs of American government in that decade.”

Conclusion

According the to the U.S. Census Bureau, approximately 43.6 million Americans were living in absolute poverty in 2009 (14.3% of the population). The number has only increased. Most Americans (approximately 58.5%) will spend at least one year below the poverty line between the ages of 25 and 75, making less than $22,350 a year.

History has shown that systematic forms of inequality can be found across categories of education, occupational prestige, and, most importantly, income. Through their institutionalization through government, common factors pressure members of society to uphold certain standards within each category, which adhere to the cultural norm in American society. The culture of poverty thesis attempts to explain the cycle of poverty based on the assumption that the poor are limited to an unchanging set of practices that contribute to creating a cycle of poverty. History demonstrates that inequality becomes institutionalized as a result of the differences in how skills and behaviors are rewarded in different cultural settings.  The differences can be subtle and often not recognized across cultural boundaries. History has made it clear that cultural diversity in the United States mixed with a common ideology of the American Dream and the government’s involvement only serves to perpetuate the cycle of inequality in the United States.

To check out why class matters brought to you by The New York Times, click here:

http://www.nytimes.com/packages/html/national/20050515_CLASS_GRAPHIC/index_03.html

Works Cited

  • McNamee, Stephen J., and Robert K. Miller. The Meritocracy Myth. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004. Print.
  • Gilbert, Dennis L. The American Class Structure in an Age of Growing Inequality. Los Angeles: Pine Forge, 2011. Print.
  • Rothman, Robert A. Inequality and Stratification: Race, Class, and Gender. 5th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2005. Print.
  • Murray, Charles A. Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980. New York: Basic, 1984.
  • Moynihan, Daniel Patrick. “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,Chapter IV. The Tangle of Pathology.” The U.S. Department of Labor, Oct. 1965. Web. 15 July 2011. <http://www.dol.gov/oasam/programs/history/moynchapter4.htm&gt;.

1930 to 1950

Operating on the idea that all men are created equal, the American Dream is an ideology in the United States in which freedom includes the possibility of prosperity and success to all, regardless of social class or race. It emphasizes a direct link between individual effort and success in an open, merit-based system and attracts most people to this country in the first place. However, America’s “dream” dramatically changed as the country’s definition of success applied primarily to white middle class men from the 1930s to the 1950s, creating a class structure fueled by discrimination.

Redlining

After the stock market crashed in 1929, America quickly spiraled into the Great Depression. President Roosevelt took office in 1932 promising a new deal for the American people that would include relief for the poor and unemployed, and economic recovery and reform to ensure a depression of this magnitude would never happen again. However, this new deal excluded minority groups in America, solely benefiting whites and deepening the roots of inequality in the United States, especially for African Americans.

With Roosevelt’s Second New Deal came the National Housing Act of 1934, which attempted to make housing and home mortgages more affordable for GIs returning home after World War I through the creation of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). People began to migrate just outside of large cities and develop suburban neighborhoods with affordable homes all over America. However, as African American GIs returned home with the same hopes of buying new homes and starting families, the housing market made it extremely difficult for them to receive the same advantages as whites.

In 1935, Redlining emerged as the FHA researched over 200 cities in order to create “residential security maps” to indicate the level of security for real-estate investments in each surveyed city. These maps defined many minority neighborhoods in cities as ineligible to receive financing based entirely on assumptions about the surrounding community. This meant that neighborhoods far away from urban, minority areas received a higher rating and were colored green. Minority neighborhoods in developing areas were awarded a much lesser value and labeled red. Prior to the creation of the redlining maps, many real-estate companies and banks entered into racially restrictive housing covenants which made them promise never to sell a house or loan to any African American person. Blacks were unwelcome in white neighborhoods. The FHA underwriters warned that the presence of even one or two non-white families could undermine real estate values in these new suburban areas. Real estate companies and banks privatized this scheme and, as a consequence, most of the mortgages went to racially suburbanizing America.

Redlining Philadelphia

Government officials institutionalized a new national appraisal system where race was as much a factor in real estate assessment as the condition of property. This innovation in the housing market demonstrates more specifically how the government aided in the perpetuation of racial inequality and class stratification in the United States. These institutional policies subtly prohibited African Americans from purchasing homes in higher valued neighborhoods, keeping them from accumulating wealth in the largest sense.

GI Bill

The 1944 GI Bill provided returning veterans with money for college, businesses and home mortgages. Suddenly, millions of servicemen were able to afford homes of their own for the first time. This enabled millions of American families to move out of urban apartments and into suburban homes much like the city of Levittown shown in the video above. Prior to the war, the suburbs tended to be the homes of the wealthy and upper class and now your average American could own a home in the suburbs. Within the following decade, approximately 8 million veterans received educational benefits. Of that number, approximately 2.3 million attended colleges and universities, 3.5 million received school training, and 3.4 million received on-the-job training. The GI Bill helped jump-start the modern middle-class we familiarize ourselves with today.

However, racism was still a prominent factor in American society and African Americans did not benefit from the provisions of the GI Bill nearly as much as their European American counterparts. Redlining from the National Housing Act of 1934 prevented many African American veterans from receiving the same housing opportunities that their white counterparts were benefiting from. Not only did blacks face discrimination once they returned home after the war, the poverty confronting most blacks during the 1940s and 1950s represented another barrier to harnessing the benefits of the bill. Gaining admission to universities was no easy task for African Americans on the GI Bill. Most universities had segregationist principles underlying their admissions policies, and by 1946, only one-fifth of the 100,000 blacks that had applied for educational benefits had been registered in college. The black middle class failed to keep pace with the white middle class because blacks had fewer opportunities to earn college degrees and purchase property in highly valued neighborhoods thanks again to the government’s institutionalization of discriminatory practices.

Woman’s Work

Women have always been in the paid labor force, but the most dramatic increases in female labor force participation in the United States dates back to the 1940s. With the start of WWII, many women were thrust into the paid labor force on a more or less full-time basis, often to supplement family incomes while the men were away fighting for democracy. Rural African American women did fieldwork, while urban black women, their options severely limited by overt discrimination, were typically relegated to domestic service. Factory work was largely the province of young, single white women, usually immigrants or the daughters of immigrants.

The War caused many women to discover a new sense of pride, dignity and independence in their work and their lives. During the war years, a number of women joined unions, gaining major new benefits from labor representation. But the fight for equal rights in the workplace and equal pay for women was just beginning.  Fewer than 1 million women belonged to unions at near the end of the 1940s. In the early 1950s, nearly 3 million women were union members.

Esther Eggertsen Peterson

Women in the 1940s first worked through the Women’s Trade Union League and through the federal Women’s Bureau, where they instigated and sustained the national alliance that emerged among labor feminists. Among these unionists were women whose labor feminism rested on American workers’ heightened sense of economic rights from the New Deal and their success in building permanent and influential labor institutions in the postwar era. Esther Eggertsen Peterson is one of the most influential of this generation. The Mormon daughter of Danish immigrants, Peterson traveled far from her home in Utah to become the first female lobbyist for the AFL-CIO Industrial Union Department in the 1950s and as assistant Secretary of Labor, the highest ranking woman official in the Kennedy administration.

Peterson began her work with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, worked as an organizer for American Federation of Teachers Union, and organized textile workers in the South for the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union. She well understood the needs of female wageworkers to organize against the discriminatory treatment of women in the workforce. These midcentury union feminists had long been on the frontlines, fighting to improve the workplace conditions of their sisters in the factories, plants and mills, educating a new generation of women in America to fight for their rights.

President Truman’s Fair Deal

Already in the 1940s, there was a spirit of new conservatism arising in America. Upon taking office, President Truman tried to continue FDR’s policies as he sent New Deal-style bills to Congress. Among these bills were policies to raise minimum wage, extend and expand Social Security coverage, and offer both a national housing plan and a national health insurance plan to American citizens. After being successfully elected after a battle against conservatism in Congress in 1948, Truman set out to prove that New Deal liberalism was not dead in America. The President supported New Deal relief and reform, and also believed that newer reforms were needed to solve the nation’s economic and social problems in the post-war era.

In September of 1946, Truman presented his Fair Deal program to Congress. He contended that the program would redistribute income among people of various classes – transfer money from the very rich to the very poor – and, in the process, assuage many of the nation’s most pressing social problems. Truman’s Fair Deal included six major federal initiatives: new civil rights legislation, federal housing programs, unemployment insurance benefits, new tax cuts for the poor, federal funding for education, and a federal health care and health insurance program.

In the end, Truman’s attempt to introduce his Fair Deal was largely a failure. Few of his initiatives became law. Congress refused to create a national health care program, did little to reform education (with the exception of the GI Bill), extended unemployment benefits only slightly, and put off new civil rights legislation. The federal government was expanding and helping specific groups of people while minorities were still heavily discriminated against. In the aftermath of World War II, many Americans began to really question the wisdom of federal economic and social legislation.

Conclusion

Class stratification in the United States changed dramatically between 1930 and 1950. President Roosevelt’s New Deal was an ideal way to help the country recover from the Great Depression. However, did the federal government’s involvement and expansion really help those who truly needed it? The National Housing Act helped white families establish homes in the suburbs outside of large cities and purposefully discriminated against blacks moving into their neighborhoods. Women began to realize their full potential however still fought to maintain their status positions when the men returned home from war. Congress was leaning far to the right and did not see Truman’s ideas of welfare reform as important issues at the time.

The United States had been founded on democratic and individualist principles, yet simultaneously maintained social and legal barriers that openly discriminated against a sizable portion of its citizens during this period.  This time period establishes that ideologies legitimize and sustain inequality by offering justifications for unequal treatment. Stereotypes help to explain the causes of poverty among minority groups. The American Middle Class was expanding, however minorities within and outside of the middle class would continue to encounter discriminations well into the present-day as the fight for modern equality and civil rights would take shape in the decades to follow.

Works Cited

  • McNamee, Stephen J., and Robert K. Miller. The Meritocracy Myth. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004. Print.
  • Gilbert, Dennis L. The American Class Structure in an Age of Growing Inequality. Los Angeles: Pine Forge, 2011. Print.
  • Rothman, Robert A. Inequality and Stratification: Race, Class, and Gender. 5th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2005. Print.
  • Adelman, Larry. “Race – The Power of an Illusion.” California Newsreel – Film and Video for Social Change Since 1968. California Newsreel, Nov. 2005. Web. 10 July 2011. <http://newsreel.org/transcripts/race3.htm&gt;.

1900 to 1930

By 1900, social class in the United States was apparent however was not a real topic of conversation until the Great Depression. However, between 1900 and 1930 America’s economy and social system would become even more socially stratified.

The Theory of the Leisure Class

In 1899, American economist and sociologist, Thorstein Veblen, published The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions. The theorist argued that beginning with primitive tribes, people began to adopt a division of labor system along certain lines. The “higher status” group monopolized war and hunting, while farming and cooking were considered inferior means of labor. Veblen coined the term “conspicuous consumption” in order to identify the habit of buying costly items that serve no other purpose than to demonstrate vast amounts of wealth and social status that were unnecessary to the socialist labor party. He established that this sort of consumption could only be accomplished by the American elite – the upper class of the period.

The Social-Democratic Party of the United States

Founded in 1901, the Social-Democratic Party emerged in Indianapolis as a result of the failure of the American Railway Union. Chairmen Eugene Debs sought to “organize the working class into a political party to conquer public powers now controlled by capitalists; abolish wage-slavery controlled by the establishment of a national cooperative industry based on social or common ownership of a means of production and distribution [that is] to be administered by society within the common interest; and the complete emancipation of the socially useful classes from the domination of capitalism.” Debs called for a socialist colonization across the United States. The idea spread nationally, and although colonies were never established, the Social-Democratic Party developed socialist thinking and advancement in the working class.

The Titanic

Third Class (Steerage) Ticket

The sinking of the Titanic in 1912 serves as a perfect reflection of the division of social classes in America during this period. Social class proved to be a key determinant of who survived and who perished. Passengers were literally put into their “proper” places from first class to steerage. Your social position determined who would receive a seat on a lifeboat. To put it in more perspective, overall only 3% of the first class passengers drowned compared to the 16% of second class and the 45% of the third class.

Henry Ford’s $5 Workday

In 1914, prominent industrialist Henry Ford revolutionized the labor force for the working class American. Ford pioneered welfare capitalism (a system where businesses provide welfare-like services to employees, like pensions and healthcare). He was more interested in the efficiency of his workers and created the $5 Workday designed to hire and keep the most skilled workers. Ford’s policy of doubling his employees’ salary not only enabled them to purchase the cars they were producing but also improve their work ethic. He also created the 40-hour workweek. Ford shaped the power prestige can have on social mobility in the United States.

Prohibition and Roaring Twenties

After World War I ended, a deep sense of materialism through the mass production of consumer goods generated an economic boom in America. A sustained increase in national wealth developed as Americans enjoyed immense prosperities during the 1920s.

In 1917, Congress passed the Eighteenth Amendment creating a prohibition on the manufacturing and the sale of alcohol. Immediately, a thriving underworld emerged to satisfy the massive demand for bootleg liquor for the rich and poor alike. People became millionaires overnight, creating a giant wealth gap and social tension between classes. By 1920, the richest 1% of Americans would own nearly 40% of the national wealth.

Both Presidents Harding and Coolidge established heavy immigration restrictions during the 1920s as an Anglo-Saxon effort to impose moral codes on the rest of the nation through Prohibition. The government sought to limit individual freedoms for the sake of higher morals and social responsibility. However, many Americans rejected those moral codes and continued to illegally manufacture and sell alcohol through the 1930s. Congress finally passed the Twenty-First Amendment in 1933, repealing the prohibition on alcohol and marking the end of an experiment in social engineering.

The promise of wealth for all by the government through its centralization had failed with the Stock Market Crash of 1929. By the beginning of the 1930s, one-third of Americans would be below the poverty line.

Works Cited

1865 to 1900

Social classes are economic and cultural arrangements of groups within a society. While there are many characteristics that could be used to describe a person’s class, among the most influential are a person’s occupation, education, income and wealth. The United States is the most highly stratified society in the industrialized world. Class distinctions in America operate in virtually every aspect of our lives, determining the nature of our work, the quality of our schooling, and even the health and safety of our citizens. The number of years a person spends in school, plus the prestige of his or her occupation, plus the amount of money he or she accumulates over time, determines one’s social class.

The United States has an undeniable history of inequality. It’s capitalist, consumer driven economy shaped the definition of personal success through financial reward and upward mobility, simultaneously creating inevitable and everlasting inequalities.  From the slave trade all the way up to the present-day “glass ceiling,” (unseen, yet unreachable barrier that keeps minorities from moving upward, regardless of their qualifications or achievements) Americans have faced stratification on several levels.

The American Dream

American society inevitably operates on a system of meritocracy; a social system wherein individuals succeed and earn rewards in direct proportion to their individual efforts and abilities – their “merits.”

James Truslow Adams

The term “American Dream” was first popularized in 1931 by historian James Truslow Adams in, The Epic of America. Adams defined it as “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement.” In general, Americans understand this ideology as the fulfillment of the promise of meritocracy – you get out of the system what you put into it.

Fundamentally, the American Dream is rooted in the historical experience of the United States as a nation of immigrants. Unlike European societies dominated by hereditary, aristocratic rule, the ideal in America was that its citizens were “free” to achieve their own merits. The American Dream was the hope of fulfillment of individual freedom and the chance to succeed in the New World.

However, the ideology of the American Dream in a meritocratic society implies some form of legitimation of the ranking of people and unequally distributing valued goods, services, and prestige.  The justification that individuals should be rewarded based on merit, the various stereotypes and prejudices held against specific groups of people, and the myths spun by the media only serve to emphasize and perpetuate the cycle of inequality present in American Society.

Check out how the American Dream works by the Provocateur Network:

(Contains Some Foul Language and Crude Jokes)

Social Class Before 1865

Stratification developed as society evolved from nomadic hunters and gatherers into an industrial powerhouse. Gradually, people were no longer grouped into hunters and gatherers and evolved into a much more complex social stratification based on factors such as race, profession, education, and many other characteristics.

Daniel R. Hundley, born in Alabama in 1832, was the son of a slave-owner. The farmer received his law degree from Harvard in 1853 and published Social Relations in Our Southern Society in 1860. Referenced as an important contemporary discussion of the social and political climate in the South just before the outbreak of the Civil War, Hundley defined the Southern middle class as “farmers, planters, traders, storekeepers, artisans, mechanics, a few manufacturers, a goodly number of country school teachers, and a host of half-fledged country lawyers, doctors, parsons, and the like.”

With the end of slavery, most southern states quickly put new legal barriers in place to limit social mobility of the newly freed slaves. Reconstruction gave birth to Jim Crow laws and segregation. Even in the North, where racism was carried out in less overt terms, prejudice still operated to place people into social castes.

1865 to 1900

Social class as we see it today was not obvious before industrialization. Before the country became industrialized, racism and bigotry fueled and perpetuated the cycle of inequality.

The North now had the responsibility of dealing with not only the reconstruction of the South, but it also dealt significantly with the status of the freed slaves. In response to questions about the legality of the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment that declared slavery illegal. In wake of the constitutional amendment, many Southerners began passing “Black Codes” which took property ownership and the franchise away from blacks. In response, Congress enacted the Fourteenth Amendment defining American citizenship. However, many Southerners argued that blacks were not in fact American citizens and Congress enacted the Fifteenth Amendment that gave African Americans the right to vote in 1870.

Fifteenth Amendment

After the Civil War, reconstruction of the South was funded primarily through the federal government and help from the North.  In the 1870s, Southerners recognized the need to present a new image of themselves to the world and to stimulate economic development. The idea of the “New South” emphasized that the United States was no longer two separate nations, the Southern economy had industrialized from plantation agriculture, and race relations had changed establishing that African Americans were now partners in the “New South.”

Three major industries emerged in the South after the Civil War: cotton, iron, and tobacco. Northeastern and foreign capitalists invested in these industries as they developed; yet racist-hiring practices dominated employment. Most factory jobs when to white workers while blacks were left with unskilled jobs if they were even employed at all. Mill owners and industrialists justified these discriminatory practices by arguing that whites had suffered in competition with blacks for jobs before the War and threatened to fire whites and hire blacks if whites did not cooperate.

The New South in a Nutshell:

Class in America

Between 1870 and 1890, industrial capitalism triumphed in America. Americans witnessed nationwide labor strikes and sustained price deflation with the economic panics in 1873 and 1893. The United States was on its way to becoming the leading capitalist nation in the world. However, industrialization would have never happened had it not been for immigration and the urbanization of American laborers.

Both women and children made their way into the workforce for a fraction of the wages men made. In 1870, an estimated 40,000 women in New York joined the workforce in a time when it was unacceptable for women to do so. About 700,000 children nationwide worked in factories and without child protection laws. The manufacturing and banking industries of the late 19th century produced businesses that were unprecedented in the U.S. “Big Business” generated wealth in staggering concentrations, making few very wealthy and many very poor. Social class became a reality as the gap between the business owners and employees became blatantly obvious.

Industrialization created the American Middle Class. It quickly separated the home from the workplace, and roles became more discernable for men and women. Men were expected to bring in an income while women were meant to stay home and care for the children. Education became extremely important to the American Middle Class family, paying more attention to the opportunities education brought with it.

The wealth that had accumulated by 1900 from industrialization raised the living standards for almost everyone. Yet, there still remained a wide gap between the rich and poor. The “Old Aristocracy” continued to thrive socially and economically. The “Middle Class” now consisted of industrial and factory managers, highly skilled experts in new industrial techniques, and college-educated professionals such as engineers, doctors, and lawyers. The “Working Class” consisted of white-collar workers, clerks, teachers, governesses that were all paid poorly, however were motivated by middle-class values and the American Dream. America was becoming more obviously divided by economic class.

Works Cited

  • Gilbert, Dennis L. The American Class Structure in an Age of Growing Inequality. Los Angeles: Pine Forge, 2011. Print.
  • Kerbo, Harold R. “Social Stratification.” 2010. Web. <http://digitalcommons.calpoly.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1064&context=ssci_fac&gt;.
  • McNamee, Stephen J., and Robert K. Miller. The Meritocracy Myth. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004. Print.
  • Lossing, Ben J., and Woodrow Wilson. “Social Democracy of America – Social Democratic Party.” Harper’s Encyclopedia of United States History. Michigan: University of Michigan, 1817.
  • Hundley, Daniel R., and William J. Cooper. Social Relations in Our Southern States. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1979. Print.