Socialist Worker

Inside the US class system

Issue No. 1956

America’s dirty little secret is class — something that simply cannot exist in the land of unlimited opportunity.

The establishment’s success in persuading many Americans to repress the realities of class is indicated by a 2000 poll in which 39 percent said they believed they are either in the wealthiest 1 percent of the population or will be there “soon”.

Rarely does the truth — that such beliefs are purest fantasy — penetrate the mainstream media. So it’s remarkable that the New York Times has been running a major series — 11 instalments as of last weekend — called Class Matters.

The Times is reputedly America’s greatest newspaper, though in my experience it’s more usually a cautious middle of the road bore. It’s all the more impressive then that the Times should acknowledge, as Janny Scott and David Leonhardt put it in the opening piece of the series, that class is “still a powerful force in American life”.

The article continues, “Over the past three decades, it [class] has come to play a greater, not lesser, role in important ways. At a time when education matters more than ever, success in school remains linked tightly to class.

“At a time when the country is increasingly integrated racially, the rich are isolating themselves more and more. At a time of extraordinary advances in medicine, class differences in health and lifespan are wide and appear to be widening.”

The most powerful single piece so far tracks the different effects of a heart attack on three people—a wealthy architect, a white collar worker, and an immigrant maid. The architect’s heart attack “left him better off”—with lavish medical care and strong family support, he ended up adopting a healthier lifestyle and taking lucrative early retirement.

Medical bills

For the office worker, the attack was a “setback” that had him longing for retirement, while the maid was left with a badly damaged heart, struggling with medical bills, and fighting a losing battle to live more healthily.

“Class is a potent force in health and longevity in the US,” Scott observes. “Upper middle class Americans live longer and in better health than middle class Americans, who live longer and better than those at the bottom. And the gaps are widening, say people who have researched social factors in health.”

It’s true that, as the writer Chris Lehman points out in a critique of the series, this article, like others, is ambiguous about whether the sufferings of the poor are caused more by economic disadvantages or by their own behaviour.

This is a deep seated problem with mainstream understandings of class, which tend to treat it as a resultant of income, education, wealth, culture and lifestyle. Thinking about class this way makes it very hard to distinguish what’s important from what’s merely superficial.

In the Marxist tradition, by contrast, class is determined by a person’s relationship to the means of production. But there’s plenty of grist in the Times series to the Marxist mill.

It documents, for example, how the super-rich are outdistancing everyone else. In 2002, for example, the average income of the top 0.1 percent was $3 million. This was more than two and half times this group’s income in 1980. Its share of national income also doubled over the same period to 7.4 percent. Income after tax of the top 1 percent of households rose 139 percent between 1979 and 2001, those of the middle fifth only 17 percent, of the poorest fifth 9 percent.

As David Cay Johnston puts it, “The hyper-rich have emerged in the past three decades as the biggest winners in a remarkable transformation of the American economy.”

Their dominance leaves others aspiring to the lifestyles of the rich. One piece in the series notes how poorer households are encouraged to go into debt to buy luxury goods the rich take for granted.

But various studies also suggest that social mobility — the chance to rise to a higher social position than one was born in — has actually declined over the past generation. The US rich aren’t just getting richer — they’re slamming the door behind them. Yes, class really does matter.

For the New York Times series go to: www.nytimes.com/pages/national/class/?8dpc


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Alex Callinicos
Sat 18 Jun 2005, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1956
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