Social Problems

Chapter 7

Summary by Russ Long
July 25, 2017

I.     Basics of Social Stratification

A.     Social Stratification

Stratification is the hierarchical arrangement of large social groups on the basis of their control over basic resources (Kendall, 1998:24).

B.     Social Class

A class system is a system of social inequality based on the ownership and control of resources and on the type of work people do.  A primary characteristic of the class system is social mobility.  In other words an individual can move up, or down, the class structure (Kendall, 1998:24).   Presumably, social movement is based on merit.  One, therefore, earns their position in society.

C.     Meritocracy

Meritocracy is a system of social inequality in which social standing corresponds to personal ability or effort.

D.     Underclass

The underclass refers to poor people who live in areas with high concentrations of poverty and few opportunities to improve their lives.

E.     Wealth

Wealth is the value of all economic assets, including income, personal property, and income-producing property (Kendall, 1998:24).

F.     Income

Income is the economic gain derived from wages, salaries, income transfers (governmental aid such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children), or ownership of property (Kendall, 1998:27).

G.     Assets

Wolff (in Skolnick and Currie, 1997:99) describes assets as consisting of all forms of "financial wealth such as bank accounts, stocks, bonds, life insurance savings, mutual fund shares and unincorporated business; consumer durables like cares and major appliances; and the value of pension rights."

Wolff (1997:99) continues to say that from these sources, one should subtract liabilities such as "consumer debt, mortgage balances, and other outstanding debt."

The upper classes control a much greater percentage of valuable assets than income. Robertson (1989:180) points out that in 1973 the bottom fifth of Americans controlled only 0.2% of all assets while the top fifth control 76% of all assets.

Further, the assets controlled by the poor tend to depreciate (household items) over time while those of the rich tend to appreciate (real estate and stocks).

Note:  The most significant factor determining access to mortgage credit is the race of the applicant.

II.     Poverty in the United States

A.     What is Poverty and How Is It Measured?

Poverty in the United States "officially" refers to people who fall below the "official poverty line."  In general, however, poverty is a complex subject that depends on not only official definitions, but on the perspectives of people as well as the physical location of people.

One common perspective on poverty is to compare the percentage (or rate) of people in poverty from one group or another.  When one explores rates of poverty, one is often directed toward the high poverty rates of women with children (no husband present) or the high poverty rates experienced by people of color.

When one explores the actual numbers of poor people, one finds that the race of the majority of poor people is white. Whites have a lower proportion of people in poverty than other racial groups, but because there are so many more whites in U.S. society, their lower poverty rate still translates into larger numbers of poor people.

When one investigates poverty by age, one learns that children (under age 18) are most likely to be poor.  On the other hand, people who are 65 years old and older are least likely to be poor.  (At least this is the perspective based on the "official definition of poverty."  Many of the elderly live slightly above the poverty line so they are technically not poor, but they are still in need.)

B.     The Extent of Poverty

1.     The Poverty Rate

The poverty rate is an absolute measure of poverty.  The poverty rate is the proportion of the population whose income falls below the government's official poverty line.

Poverty Rates, 2010

  U.S. Texas Austin Metro Corpus Christi Metro San Antonio Metro
Total Population 15.3 17.9 15.9 20.5 16.3


The United States Office of Management and Budget (OMB) defines metropolitan areas (MAs) according to published standards that are applied to Census Bureau data. The general concept of an MA is that of a core area containing a large population nucleus, together with adjacent communities having a high degree of economic and social integration with that core. See:

Tables compiled by Russ Long.  Revised on June 11, 2012

Sources for Poverty data:  U.S. Census Bureau, 2010 American Community Survey. One-year estimates. Table S1701.

2.     Determining the "Official" Poverty Line

The official poverty line is based on a minimum family market basket – a low-cost food budget that contains a minimum level of nutrition for a family – multiplied by 3 to allow for nonfood costs (Eitzen, 2000:178).

3.     Problems With The Official Definition of Poverty

There are some serious problems with the "official poverty rate."

a.     Poverty is Unique depending on the Social and Physical Environment

Any number of social and geographic factors are going to mean that poverty in one region is not the same as poverty in another region (rural vs. urban poverty for example).

b.     The Cost of Food Declined

The definition of official poverty may have made more sense in 1965 when it was created than it does in 2001. The cost of food, as a proportion of the family budget, has declined.

c.     Fails to Keep Up with Inflation

see Eitzen (2003:181)

Extreme Poverty

The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is the poorest census tract in the United States with a poverty rate of 73%

Source:  Newsweek, July 19, 1999, p 34.

4.     Alternatives to the Official Poverty Rate

a.     Relative Measures (Fifty percent of the Median)

Fifty percent of the median income is a relative measure of poverty.  Kendall (1998:33) describes relative poverty as a  condition that exists when people may be able to afford basic necessities such as food, clothing, and shelter but cannot maintain an average standard of living for members of their society or group.

b.     Subjective Measures (Ask the individual)

C.     Portrait of the Poor. (Race & Ethnicity, Gender,  Class, Age)

Portrait of the Poor

Graph 1:  Historic Poverty Trends in the U.S.:   Poverty Rates & Poverty Population -- 1959 to 2010
Graph 2:  Historic Poverty Trends in the U.S.:   Race, Ethnicity, & Female Householder -- 1959 to 2010
Graph 3:  Historic Poverty Trends in the U.S.:   Age -- 1959 to 2010
Graph 4:  Median Family Income by Race and Ethnicity: 2010
Graph 5:  Per Capita Income by Race and Ethnicity: 2010

1.     Feminization of Poverty

Feminization of poverty refers to the trend whereby women are disproportionately represented among individuals living in poverty (Kendall, 1998:34-35).  (also see Eitzen, 2000:181)

The feminization of poverty is the most important explanation for a child living their life in poverty.

2.Child Poverty

Eitzen (2003:184) notes that children living in poverty come from female-headed families, they are rural, and they are mostly white.

Eitzen (2000:183) points out that one in five children are poor in the United States. He further notes that child-poverty can be reduced because it has happened in other industrial countries. He shows that America’s wealthy children do better than wealthy kids in other countries but the kids of poor people in America have less to live on than kids in any other industrial country except for Ireland and Israel. Other countries reduce child poverty through government programs. The offer broader child tax credit than does the U.S. They have guaranteed child care, health care, and child support when fathers won’t pay.

3.     The Old-Poor, The New Poor, and The Poor-Poor (Severely Poor)

a.     The Old Poor

Eitzen (2003:188) contends that the old poor (of previous generations) are different than today's poor because the old poor had hopes of escaping poverty.  Even if the old-poor did not escape poverty, they had hopes that their children would escape poverty.  There was work that the unskilled and uneducated   could do to earning a living.

b.     The New Poor

Eitzen (2003:188) argues that the new-poor are much more trapped by poverty than the poor in previous generations.  The is little need for hard physical labor. 

The new poor are the poor who are displaced by new technologies or whose jobs have moved away to the suburbs, to other regions of the country, or out of the country.  The new poor have little hope of breaking out of poverty.

c.     The Severely Poor (The Poor-Poor)

Eitzen (2003:189) contends that people who have incomes below half the poverty line are severely poor.  Eitzen argues that 39% of the poor fall into this category.

III.     Myths About Poverty

A.     Refusal To Work

(Eitzen, 2003:190)

B.     Welfare Dependency

(Eitzen, 2003:190-191)

1.     Welfare

Welfare is government monies or services provided to the poor.

2.     Wealthfare

Wealthfare describes a situation in the U.S. where the greatest amount of government aid goes to the nonpoor (Eitzen, 2000:188-189).

a.     Funding for Social Service:

Most government expenditures for human resource programs go to the nonpoor. This includes moneys spent on public education for children and Social Security and Medicare for the elderly.

b.     Tax Expenditures and Tax Loopholes:

There are two hidden welfare systems that benefit the wealthy as well.

Many wealthy individuals and corporations often pay lower taxes or no taxes at all. For example, the government allows homeowners to deduct from their taxes estate taxes and interest on mortgages. The money saved via tax breaks is four times larger than all funding for low income housing. Only about a quarter of Americans in the top income bracket receive these tax breaks (Eitzen, 2000:188).

c.     Corporate Assistance:

The second form of hidden welfare to the wealthy comes in the form of direct subsidies and credit assistance to corporations, banks, agribusiness, defense, etc.

C.     Do the Poor Get Special Advantages?

No, the poor do not get special advantages. In fact, the poor pay more than the nonpoor for many services.  Eitzen (2003:193) notes that the poor pay more for day to day products like milk.  They also have a harder time getting insurance and obtaining loans.

1.     High-cost Commodities

The inner-city poor have to pay more for food and commodities. The large "club-stores," which are often associated with discount shopping, are often located in the suburbs. The poor must buy from stores located in their immediate neighborhood. This gives the neighborhood stores a near-monopoly advantage.

2.     Inflated Interest Rates

The poor are not generally offered the kinds of financial services which are provided to people in the middle class. This includes bank loans. The financial services which the poor have access to charge extremely high interest rates. These services include rent-to-own companies, loans from pawnbrokers, finance company loans, and quick payday loans from check cashing services.

3.     Regressive Taxes

When the poor pay taxes on items they purchase, they pay a much greater amount of their resources on those items than do the wealthy. Sales taxes are, therefore, regressive (Eitzen, 2000:190).

IV.     Deficiency Theory #1:
Innate Inferiority - Social Darwinism


I normally would not include a disclaimer in a sociological inquiry, but in this case one is in order. The reader should be fully aware that as I present the material on deficiency theories I do not subscribe to any of their tenets. It is my contention that poverty is an economic issue rooted in the structure of society. Solutions to poverty are political. Biology plays a very minor role in determining who is poor. I present material on deficiency theories, not because I think they are valid explanations of poverty, but rather as a forum from which to critique deficiency theories.

A.     The Role of Biology

Biology obviously plays a role in deciding who we are (see Charon, 1987:70-78). Biology is responsible for our helplessness at birth, it's responsible for providing us with a brain that can accommodate complex conceptual tasks (e.g., language and math). Biology is responsible for physical differences between men and women. Biological explanations, in part, account for men being physically stronger than women and women living longer than men. Women are less susceptible to disease. Biology determines that women mature faster than men.

B.     The Rise of Sociobiology

Does biology influence the kind of social relationships that people have with one another? Many contend that it does. Edward Wilson has called for the "systematic study of the biological basis of all forms of social behavior in all kinds of organisms including man." Sociobiologists contend that biological approaches are valid attempts to explain human behavior because ultimately all social life is traceable to our biological heritage and not social interaction. Biology is, therefore, seen as the ultimate determinant of human behavior.

C.     Biological Models As Social Models: The Homeostatic Model

The Homeostatic model is a sociological model whose origins are found in biology. Remember that the use of biological models (or any other particular model for that matter) has significant influence on how we perceive social relationships. Note that within a biological system, dramatic change can cause the death of the organism. For Biology this is a literal description of a living system. When biological models are applied to social systems, societies are seen as like a human organism. It is assumed that all parts of the system function to support the greater organism. All parts are perceived as necessary -- despite unequal arrangements. One tends to forget, however, that biological descriptions of society are merely metaphors. Often they do not accurately describe human systems. Furthermore, biological models assume that if something exists, then it must contribute to the preservation of the larger system (i.e., it must be necessary). Biological models provide justification for the existing status quo (whatever the status quo may be).

D.     Social Darwinism of the 19th and Early 20th Century

The discoveries of Charles Darwin had a profound impact on other branches of scientific inquiry. Charles Darwin, of course, is famous for his Theory of Evolution. In the world of biology the species most fit survived while those less fit eventually became extinct. Many social scientists, most notably Herbert Spencer, attempted to apply the logic of Charles Darwin to the social world. The essence of the social Darwinist perspective is that races or cultures, who occupied a "superior position" in the social world, deserved that position because they were the most socially fit (Eitzen and Baca-Zinn, 1994:170). According to Spencer "the poor are poor because they are unfit." Spencer argued that "poverty is nature's way of 'excreting ... unhealthy, imbecile, slow, vacillating, faithless members' of society in order to make room for the fit" (Eitzen and Baca-Zinn, 1994:170).

E.     A Modern Example of Social Darwinism: IQ Tests

Murray and Herrnstein (1994) along with Arthur Jensen (1969, 1980) employ Social Darwinist type explanations in their interpretation of IQ scores. IQ scores, of course, are viewed as a measure of intelligence and it is assumed that intellectual ability is inherited. Murray and Herrnstein imply that low IQ scores associated with people of color are the result of a deficient gene pool.

Intellectual ability, according to Murray and Herrnstein, is inherited. Since, according to sociobiologists, social position is based on merit, those who occupy high ranking positions in society are biologically "fit." On the other hand, those individuals who occupy low ranking positions are least fit socially.

Some portion of IQ is inherited. On the other hand, some intellectual ability is gained through social interaction (e.g., through parental interaction or the school system). To assume that IQ is all biological is simple wrong. Furthermore, the impact such beliefs (i.e., that social position is based on genetics) can have catastrophic effect on the self-concept of poor people who are already stigmatized by poverty.

Self-fulfilling Prophecy and I.Q.

Henslin (481:1999) contends that a self-fulfilling prophecy refers to a false assumption of what is going on that happens to come true simply because it was predicted.

Eitzen (2000:196) argues that IQ testing promotes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  He contends that knowledge of IQ scores can determine how people respond to one-another. 

For example:

A teacher learns that a pupil has a low IQ score.   This knowledge prompts the teacher to assume the student is a slow learner and lowers his/her expectations of the student.  The lowered expectations lead to less access to knowledge and ultimately to even lower IQ scores on future tests.

F.     IQ and the Environment

Is IQ largely a function of biology? Does IQ measure intelligence? Much research on IQ exists that documents that variations in IQ scores are due to genetic factors less than half the time. The rest of the variation in intelligence is the result of social context. The following five items are social factors that influence IQ scores:

  1. Prenatal Care: The impact of parental neglect in the development of the fetus is well documented. Parents who abuse substances while conceiving and carrying unborn children may produce offspring with lower IQs. Similarly poor diet and inadequate health care can lead to lower IQ.
  2. Differences in Socialization: The type of interaction that children have with others can influence intellectual development. One might expect that parents who read to their children will produce children with higher IQ scores as compared to parents who do not read to their children.
  3. Disadvantages Associated with Poverty: Poverty has negative impact on intellectual development on a variety of avenues. The poor in the United States have long been frustrated with "separate and unequal schools." Poor classroom conditions can negatively affect IQ scores. Poor nutrition and health can continue to have negative influence intellectual development.
  4. Importance of IQ Scores to the Person Taking the Test: If passing a standardized test is unimportant, the individual probably will not put his or her full effort into performing satisfactorily on such a test. In fact, poor children might perform poorly on tests of all kinds out of fear of being ridiculed by his or her class mates if they perform well.
  5. Cultural Bias of the IQ Test. IQ tests are typically written by middle-class people. They test knowledge of middle-class values. Many argue that performance on IQ tests measures, not innate intelligence and ability, but rather knowledge of middle-class conditions.

G.     The Hidden Agenda Behind the Bell Curve

From the time of Thomas Malthus there have been those opponents of social welfare who contend that welfare is simple a means of using the wealth of the advantaged to perpetuate and increased the population of the disadvantaged.

Social welfare is condemned because, it is argued, social welfare is the source of poverty rather than the solution. Many argue that assistance to the poor encourages a state of dependence. Social Darwinism advocates withholding aid from the poor. Social welfare programs would interfere with nature's way of getting rid of the weak.

Following through on this logic, in order to eliminate poverty, the poor have to be encouraged to rectify their own situation. Malthus argued that the poor should feel "the great pain of poverty" before they would take steps to limit their birth rates. Murray and Herrnstein (1994) 200 years later use the same logic to lash out against social welfare spending. They argue that poverty, welfare dependency, illegitimacy, and crime are all correlated with low IQ and that the correlation is due to genetics.

At the least one might argue that what is, in fact, occurring is an effort to substitute IQ scores for moral worth. IQ scores provide an easy explanation for complex social interactions that lead to poverty. Some even contend that IQ scores are an ideological tool. IQ can help maintain the social position of people who do well on IQ tests. It can foster a particular social view (a middle-class view) of what constitutes intelligence.

H.     A Critique of Biological Models

Granted, biology plays a large part in who we are, but no matter what the biological differences may be, what becomes important is how we socially respond to those differences. An over-reliance on biological explanations for social behavior may cause observers to overlook the importance of the social definition superimposed on biologically determined characteristics.

Of major importance here are the potentially catastrophic consequences that a reliance on biology models might have on psychological issues such as self-esteem. Poor people are already stigmatized. An over-reliance on the biological model might drive many already disadvantaged into believing that attempting to achieve success is useless.

1.The Flynn Effect

Other material should be considered in the IQ debate. Note the "Flynn Effect" which was first noticed in 1930 that shows that all groups show a steady rise in IQ scores from 1930 regardless of social class or race. The Flynn Effect demonstrates that IQ does improve -- even for the poor. Contrast this with William Shockley's (1966) call for the sterilization of people with low IQs.

V.     Deficiency Theory #2:
Cultural Inferiority - The Culture of Poverty

Oscar Lewis, author of La Vita (1965), coined the term "Culture of Poverty" (also see Edward C. Banfield, The Unheavenly City Revisited, 1974). The essence of Culture of Poverty theory holds that poor people share deviant cultural characteristics. The poor have lifestyles that differ from the rest of society and that these characteristics perpetuate their life of poverty. According to the Culture of Poverty thesis (in Eitzen and Baca-Zinn, 1994:173) "the poor are qualitatively different in values and that these cultural differences explain continued poverty."

Eitzen and Baca-Zinn (1994:173) maintain that there is a strong implication embedded in the Culture of Poverty that defects in the lifestyle of the poor [cultural deprivation] perpetuate poverty. Such defects are passed from one generation to the next. Under these circumstances it is extremely difficult for people, once trapped by the Culture of Poverty, to escape poverty.

Characteristics that typify the Culture of Poverty exist across a variety of racial and ethnic groups. While these characteristics (see below) are certainly present in poverty populations, Culture of Poverty Theory leaves the impression that they typify all poor people. THAT IS A FALLACY!

The following characteristics typify the culture of poverty. Some may be accurate in some settings. Some may have had explanatory powers a few decades ago, but today are no longer accurate. Some are contradictory. They all tend to present negative connotations. All are highly stereotypical.

A.     Characteristics of the Culture of Poverty

  1. Parents are more permissive in raising their children. They are less verbal with their children. Family-heads display a strong disposition toward authoritarianism.
  2. Children raised in poverty also have drastically different orientations in life when compared to middle-class children. There is an absence of childhood. Children experience an early initiation to sex.
  3. Families often form based upon free unions or consensual marriage. This partially explains the trend toward female-headed homes.
  4. The poor are more fatalistic. One might expect that a poor person would believe the following idea: "What will be will be and I can't change it."
  5. The poor are less apt to defer gratification. Banfield argues that the essence of the poor subculture is its present-time orientation. He asserts that the poor do not know how to defer gratification (see Eitzen and Baca-Zinn, 1994:173).
  6. The poor are less interested in formal education.

Source: Eitzen and Baca-Zinn, 1994, and Farley, 1988

The Culture of Poverty theory argues that the characteristics presented above enable the poor to adapt to poverty. For example, the lack of childhood happens because sometimes poor children have to begin working at an early age. Moreover, poor children have to "hustle" to survive. There is no time to be young. To act young is a sign of weakness. The absences of privacy and competition for limited goods are self-explanatory characteristics of poverty. Perhaps the strong disposition toward authoritarianism is necessary because of the hard choices that poverty provides.

B.     The Moynihan Report

The Culture of Poverty is a functionalist approach to poverty. It assumes a "right" or "correct" culture and a deviant culture. The poor are poor and are likely to remain poor because their culture deviates from the norm. The Moynihan Report (1965) is an example of a study that (perhaps inadvertently) borrows aspects of the Culture of Poverty to explain African-American poverty. Its goal was to explain continued poverty in the 1960s.

The Moynihan Study accurately pointed out that much of the poverty associated with the Black community was due to a history of slavery and economic oppression (unemployment). It also called attention to the necessity of altering one's lifestyle as a means to cope with poverty. Moynihan, however, ultimately came to concentrate on the characteristics of the Black family that required changing, rather than the system of oppression that needed changing.

C.     A Critique of the Moynihan Report and the Culture of Poverty

1.     It Blames the Victim

The most important criticism of the report is that it put the blame for poverty on the victim. Blaming the victim places the burden of change on the victim and removes it from society. From the Culture of Poverty perspective, poverty is viewed as the fault of the poor in that, their culture, not social injustice, causes and perpetuates poverty. The implied assumption is that until the poor changes their "culture," no amount of government intervention will solve the problem of poverty.

2.     Negative Emphasis on Female-headed Families

Another objection to the Culture of Poverty thesis revolves around the negative emphasis placed upon female-headed families. Female-headed families do not ensure a life of poverty. Children of single-parent family perform well in school. They do not have greater problems with mental health. Poverty, of course, affects both. Poverty, not single-parenting, generates social problems like illiteracy.   Furthermore, single-parents are usually women and women are placed in economically disadvantaged positions due to the structure of the economy that pays women only 68 percent the salary that it pays men. THIS IS NOT CULTURAL. It's SYSTEMIC.

3.     The Attack on Divorce

There appears, imbedded in culture of poverty theory, an attack on divorce. There is no evidence that divorce, itself, causes poverty. Sometimes divorce can lead to better social adjustment. Since 1957, as the number of divorces has risen, the percentage of people saying they are happy with their marriage has also risen from 67 percent to 80 percent (footnote missing!). People who focus on the problems associated with single-parent families also forget the positive impact of the extended family. The extended family supports single-parent families by providing grandparents, aunts, and even friends.

4.     Most Black Families are Not Poor

Other problems with the Moynihan Report pertain to the implied image that the majority of Black families are typically from broken homes. The poverty rate for Blacks is about 30 percent. That means that 70 percent of Black families are above the poverty line. Furthermore, while focusing on the characteristics of the Black family, the Moynihan Report does not attack aspects of the social structure that put one group at a disadvantage when compared to another. With the Black family, the disadvantage flows from historically based discrimination (which included forced breakups of families while under slavery), high levels of unemployment, and welfare laws that encourage one parent families.

5.     Poor People Do Not Have Radically Different Lifestyles

Finally, the culture of poverty contains the assumption that families living in poverty have radically different outlooks than middle-class families. Elliot Liebow in Street Corner Man (as referenced in Eitzen and Baca-Zinn, 1994:173) suggests that most poor people, in fact, attempt to live by society's values. Their struggle is frustrated by externally imposed failures. Most people who are poor would prefer to escape poverty via a good job. Good jobs that poor people are eligible for are rare. Liebow suggests that the characteristics associated with the culture of poverty are those that appear when individuals try to achieve goals defined by society, but who fail to achieve society's goals because society has not provided means to achieve those goals. These are the proverbial blocked opportunities.

6.     One-Way Adaptation?

Culture of Poverty proponents argue that the poor adapt to a lifestyle which allows them to deal with poverty. They tend to assume that one these lifestyles have been adopted, they become institutionalized with poor culture making it very difficult for the poor to escape the culture of poverty. One might ask that if it is so easy to adopt to poverty lifestyles, that it might be just as easy to adopt to a middle class lifestyle once that lifestyle is provided.

VI.     Structural Theories

Structural explanations for poverty explore the effect of social arrangements that create poverty.  Included in structural explanations would be things like institution discrimination and the political economy that may encourage inequality.

A.     Institutional Discrimination

Eitzen (2000:200) contends that "the real explanation of why the poor are poor is that they made the mistake of being born to the wrong parents, in the wrong section of town, in the wrong industry, or in the wrong racial or ethnic group." The poor encounter structural conditions in society which, in part, are to blame for poverty. They experience Institutional discrimination. Institutional discrimination is embedded in the customary ways of doing things, prevailing attitudes and expectations, and accepted structural arrangements. Such arrangements work to the disadvantage of the poor. Examples follow:

1.     Education

Most good jobs require a college education, but the poor cannot afford to send their children to college. Scholarships are available, but only to the best performing students. Poor students tend to not score high on assessments tests because of, among other things, lower expectations of teachers and administrators.

2.     Health Care

The poor get sick more and stay sick longer than people in the middle class. This happens, in part, because they cannot afford preventive medicine, they have improper diets, and they don’t get proper medical care when they get sick.

B.     The Political Economy of Society

Eitzen (2000:201) argues that a basic tenet of capitalism promotes poverty. That basic tenet is that who gets what is determined by private profit rather than collective need.

1.     Employers are constrained to pay their employees at little as possible in wages and benefits.

2.     By maintaining a surplus of labor, wages are depressed.

3.     Employers make investment decisions without regard for employees.

VII.     Consequences of Class Position

A.     Life Chances

Life chances refer to one's access to resources.  Life chances can refer to one's ability to get food and shelter.  It also refers to access to social institution such as health care, education, the government, and the law (to mention a few).  Social class affects one's life chances across a broad spectrum of social phenomenon from health care, to educational attainment, to participation in the political process, to contact with the criminal justice system.

B.     Dating and Marriage

Children tend to seek out those who act, speak, and have the same cultural values as themselves. The upper class also arranges social events such that upper class children meet only upper class children.

C.     Socialization

Class also shapes values and norms and these norms and values in turn determine how people act in social settings like school and occupation. Middle-class children grow up valuing independence more than working-class people while working-class people prefer conformity.

D.     Health

In general the higher the social class, the greater the life expectancy. The poor are subject to more infant deaths and disease than the upper classes. Rates of mental illness also go up as social class goes down and the poor are less likely to receive treatment. The higher level of stress is one explanation for higher rates of mental illness.

E.     Formal Education

Class correlates with education in a number of ways. Since education is community based, class determines the quality of teachers and curriculum. Teachers have middle class backgrounds and, therefore, work better with students "like themselves." The importance of education receives greater emphasis in upper classes, therefore, children of the upper classes are more likely to attend college.

F.     Political Behavior and Attitudes

People who occupy higher class positions tend to act in their class interests by voting while people from lower levels of society do not. The following material on voting patterns addresses the 1972 Presidential election (see Charon, 333:1986).

G.     Crime and law enforcement

People from the lower classes do not commit crimes. However, the crimes committed by the poor receive more attention. Poor people, who commit crimes, are more likely to receive punishment. Nowhere is the power differential between classes more obvious than in the criminal justice system.

H.     Perspective

The higher ones class, the greater is ones optimism about the economy and political order. The greater is the hope for personal success. People who live in poverty, even though schools and parents teach them that they should strive to rise above poverty, face schools that can't teach them. They encounter employers that won't hire them. They live near stores that can't sell to them. The poor, after all, have different class backgrounds than their teachers. They have no skills to sell employers. They have no money with which to buy things.


Banfield, Edward C.

1974  The Unheavenly City Revisited.   Boston, Little, Brown

Charon, Joel

1987 The Meaning of Sociology: A Reader. Englewood, CA: Prentice hall.

Eitzen, D. Stanley and Maxine Baca-Zinn

1994  Social Problems. (6th Ed.) Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

2000  Social Problems. (8th Ed.) Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

2003  Social Problems. (9th Ed.) Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Farley, John E.

1988 Majority - Minority Relations. (2nd Ed.) Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall.

2000 Majority - Minority Relations. (4th Ed.)  Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall

Jensen, Arthur R.

1969  "How Much Can We Boost IQ and Scholastic Achievement?"  Harvard Educational Review, 39 (Winter):1-123.

1980 Bias in Mental Testing.  New York:  Free Press

Kendall, Diana

1998 Social Problems in a Diverse Society. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Lewis, Oscar

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Liebow, Elliott

1967 Tally’s Corner: A Study of Negro Street Corner Men. Boston: Little Brown & Company.

Malthus, Thomas

1809  An essay on the principle of population, or, A view of its past and present effects on human happiness with an inquiry into our prospects respecting the future removal on mitigation of the evils which it occasions.  Washington : Roger Chew Weightman,

Murray, Charles and  Richard J. Herrnstein

1994  The Bell Curve : Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life.   New York : Free Press,

Shockley, William

1966  Mechanics.  Columbus, Ohio, C. E. Merrill Books

U.S. Bureau of the Census

1990  US Census Look-up, 1990,   []

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1997 "Top Heavy." in Crisis in American Institutions. (10th Ed.) by Jerome H. Skolnick and Elliott Currie. New York: Longman.