Class in America: Two Elite Newspapers Tackle The Big Taboo Print
Class? In America?

Two of our country's most elite newspapers are each publishing a series of ground-breaking articles about the changing nature of social class in America.

On Friday, May 13, 2005, The Wall Street Journal published the first in a series of articles called ?Moving Up: The Challenges to the American Dream.? The lead article was a sobering review of data chronicling declining mobility and opportunity in the U.S. As the Journal observed, ?As the gap between rich and poor has widened since 1970s, the odds that a child born to poverty will climb to wealth -or a rich children will fall into the middle class -remain stuck.?

On Sunday, May 15, 2005, The New York Times began their ?Class Matters? series declaring ?class is still a powerful force in American life.? The month-long series has examined class disparities in marriage, educational opportunities, religious life and comparative immigration experiences.

In a journalistic tour de force, the second Times article chronicles three New York City individuals who suffer heart attacks within several weeks of one another. The health and longevity prognosis for each of them varies widely and is largely dictated by their class differences: working poor, middle class, and wealthy.

Class? There is no word or concept that is more off-limits in our boundless tell-all culture right now than class. As a society, we have rapidly progressed over several generations in developing a common language to talk about differences of gender, race, and sexual orientation. Newspapers and TV interview shows explore every nook and cranny of American life through the lens of diverse forms of oppression and difference such as aging, disability, and mental illness. Almost everything?but class.

When it comes to talking about class, it's as if we stumble and go speechless when confronted with the most basic of American divides. Of course class differences exist. And people talk about them, but often in code and euphemism. Our discourse on class is in arrested development compared to our conversations about the other ways we differ from one another. One indicator: put the words ?racism?, ?sexism,? ?homophobia? and ?classism? in your computer spell-checker and see which one is underlined as a misspelled.

Class is more than money. As the Times observes, class ?influences destiny in a society that likes to think of itself as a land of unbounded opportunity.? In a wonderful journalistic image, the Times writes ?One way to think of a person's position in society is to imagine a hand of cards. Everyone is dealt four cards, one from each suit: education, income, occupation and wealth, the four commonly used criteria for gauging class. Face cards in a few categories may land a player in the upper middle class.?

?At first, a person's class is his parents' class. Later, he may pick up a new hand of his own; it is likely to resemble that of his parents, but not always.? They describe Bill Clinton as someone who traded a hand of low cards for some education face cards. Bill Gates was dealt a very good opening hand, dropped out of college, but then drew three Aces.

These feature stories are not news to many close observers of U.S. culture and economics. In the last three decades, we've become a vastly more unequal society. The rungs of the ladder of opportunity are weakening, threatening our national self-image as a meritocratic opportunity society. Three years ago, British commentator Will Hutton observed that ?U.S. society is polarizing and its social arteries are hardening. The sumptuousness and bleakness of the respective lifestyle of the rich and poor represent a scale of difference in opportunity and wealth that is also medieval - and a standing offence to the American expectation that everyone has the opportunity for life, liberty, and happiness.? But these current articles sound a cultural and economic policy alarm bell. One important finding is that inequality matters.

Many progressives have argued that these inequality trends are bad for the economy, our democracy and culture. But many conservatives and some liberals, while expressing discomfort with the accelerating income and wealth gap of the last three decades, believe that inequality is the price we pay to maintain a dynamic, growing, and opportunity-creating society. As long as there is mobility, they argue, we should tolerate high levels of inequality. Indeed, the culture has celebrated the rising number of millionaires and billionaires as a harbinger of broader prosperity.

But if mobility is indeed stalling out -and one's opportunity is tied increasingly to inherited privilege or born disadvantage, then the defense of inequality vanishes. Too much inequality can lead to worsened opportunity.

It is unlikely that either newspaper series will expose the ways in which wealthy families and corporate CEOs use their money and power to rewrite the rules of the game, contributing to the erosion of opportunity. Efforts to abolish the inheritance tax and shift the tax burden off of investors and onto wage-earners directly undermine mobility. Tax cuts lead to budget cuts, leading many states to cut education spending and financial aid for higher education. At a time when advancing up the economic ladder is increasingly tied to attending a four-year college program, the opportunity is more out of reach for poor and working class young adults. Meanwhile, elected officials are reluctant to pass legislation or make the educational investments that contribute to a level playing field. So as we hard-wire inequality into the rules of the economy, addressing our collective confusion about class becomes all the more important.

One of the dramatic findings in the first Times article is the glaring disparity between the public perception of mobility in American and the reality. Americans overwhelmingly believe that we live in a mobile society. Half of those polled believe they have a chance to become financially wealthy. But the data now shows that the U.S. has less mobility than the countries of Europe, which we always thought of as having rigid class and caste systems.

The Times perpetuates this confusion in the same article. In discussing class mobility, the newspaper uncritically cites the bootstrap boosterism of Forbes Magazine, reporting that only 37 members of Forbes 400 inherited their wealth, significantly down from almost 200 in the mid-1980s. Indeed, while 37 people may have directly inherited their way onto the list, how many of the Forbes 400 were born into privileged families already in the top quintile or top 5 percent? How many were dealt four face cards?

Forbes classifies Philip Anschutz, net worth of $5.2 billion, as ?self made,? not as an inheritor. But Mr. Anschutz inherited an oil and gas field worth $500 million. Regardless of how much sweat and toil he may have contributed to his enterprise, he is hardly a rags to riches story. How many more ?self-made? fortunes on the Forbes list had inheritances and robust opportunities provided to them as young adults? This is just one way the Times fails to apply its own broader framing of class privilege and opportunity that it brings to the overall series.

One positive element of both series is that class is understood to be more than economics. It is a deeply personal imprint. Our stereotypes about class hold everyone back. And classism wounds everyone, albeit in very different ways. For poor and working class people, class divisions contribute to what sociologist Lillian Rubin described three decades ago as a ?world of pain,? inflicting real physical and emotional damage to people.

Those who are raised poor and working class are different because people are more likely to die from the manifestations of class oppression: poor health care and food, stress, overwork, etc. Our classist system provides real material rewards and benefits for owning class and upper middle class people at the expense of poor and working class people. But even owning class people frequently suffer alienation and isolation that deprives them of meaningful connections with all of humanity. The premise of a meritocratic society is that people earn and get what they deserve, based on their effort, drive and intelligence. But if a society advertises itself as a meritocracy, but in practice allocates success based on hereditary advantage, how are those who are not winners supposed to respond? Such a bind leads many poor and working people to internalize their shame and blame, instead of demanding that the society live up to its promise of opportunity.

This internalized oppression plays itself out in violence, put-downs, and ways we might hold our children back from their potential. This dynamic limits each of our potential, our sense of self worth and our ability to bring forward our gifts to the world.

The fact that these two newspapers have taken up the topic of class is important. The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times have given their stamp of approval to the topic of class as elite gatekeepers of American discourse. Now university presidents, foundation officials, legislators and journalists have the green light to explore themes of opportunity, mobility and class.

It's about time we had a talk about class.

Felice Yeskel, Ed.D, and Jennifer Ladd, Ed.D, are founders and co-directors of Class Action, a national organization working to bridge the class divide. They come from opposite ends of the class divide: Yeskel is working class and Ladd is owning class. Yeskel is co-author of Economic Apartheid in America: A Primer on Growing Inequality and Insecurity.