February 21st, 2008

ponies cufflink

Economic class in America

A few of you have talked with me about class in America and the difference between class perception and identity in the US and the UK. I've found it a very intersting topic: for example, no one in the US ever uses the phrase "middle class guilt," as far as I know, and I think if I tried to explain it, my American friends would dissolve in giggles.

A report has come out that's generated two major news stories in the last week and addresses some of the assertions I've made rather directly. First, do Americans really feel like they can "work their way out of poverty?" Per this report, 60 percent of people born to what I think they call the "working class" here (but we call "the poor" in America, or more often these days "the working poor") move into the middle class. To me, that means there is in fact a great deal of mobility, so my belief that people think they can go up if they want to is not so much based on being fed a line but on actual reality.

The sad thing is that one of the very best ways of pulling your butt out of the trailer park is education, and a college degree is becoming increasingly difficult for the poorest people to get. (Is there a correlation between rise in the cost of college prices here?) The study also showed a strong correlation between your race and your ability to graduate from college, or, for that matter, start going in the first place. The good news is if you're [white] trash like me and graduate from college, you have "a 19 percent chance of joining the highest fifth of earners in adulthood and a 62 percent chance of joining the middle class or better." (BTW a big callout to my sister for joining me in clawing our way out.)

So good public education can make a difference, but ... hearing that "[t]he small fraction of poor children who earn college degrees are likely to rise well above their parents’ status" is not much consolation when so many other people are out there who won't. And head in the sand morons are saying that the poor aren't really poor because they are able to spend beyond their means. I still say class identity in the US is weak, but reading this article makes me want to quit my job and go work as a high school guidance counselor. "Studies show that many poor but bright children do not receive good advice about applying for college and scholarships, or do not receive help after starting college," and I think that has a lot to do with why they don't graduate. I wonder how I could make a difference?