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