Class in the United States

Learning Outcomes

  • Describe social classes in the United States
Below, we will explore the major divisions of social class in the United States and their key subcategories.

Upper Class

A luxurious house with a personal golf range
Figure 1. Members of the upper class can afford to live, work, and play in exclusive places designed for luxury and comfort. (Photo courtesy of

The upper class is considered the top, and only the elite get to see the view from there. Money provides not just access to material goods, but also access to power and status, as Max Weber described. As corporate leaders, members of the upper class make decisions that affect the job status and security of millions of people. As media owners, they influence the collective identity of the nation. They run the major network television stations, radio broadcasts, newspapers, magazines, multi-media publishing companies, and sports franchises. As board members of the most prestigious colleges and universities, they influence cultural attitudes and values. As philanthropists, they establish foundations to support social causes. As campaign contributors, they sway politicians, sometimes to protect their own economic interests.

The “Middle” Class

A group of formally dressed women talking and eating at an event
Figure 2. These members of a club likely consider themselves middle class. (Photo courtesy of United Way Canada-Centraide Canada/flickr)

Many people, including a majority of Americans, consider themselves middle class, but there are differing ideas about what that means. People with annual incomes of $150,000 call themselves middle class, as do people who annually earn $30,000. That helps explain why, in the United States, the middle class is broken into upper and lower subcategories.

The Upper Middle Class

Upper-middle-class people tend to hold bachelor’s and postgraduate degrees. They’ve studied subjects such as business, management, law, or medicine.

Comfort is a key concept for this group, as they work hard and live materially secure lives. Upper-middle-class people tend to pursue careers that earn higher incomes. They provide their families with large homes and nice cars. They may go skiing or boating on vacation, and their children receive high-quality education and healthcare (Gilbert 2010).

The Average Middle Class

In the average middle class, people hold jobs supervised by members of the upper middle class. They fill administrative support positions, or work as teachers, as office or bank clerks and assistants, and are often in lower-level “white collar” jobs. Average middle class members generally hold bachelor’s degrees from four-year colleges or associate’s degrees from two-year community or technical colleges.

Compared to lower class work, average middle class jobs carry more prestige and come with slightly higher paychecks. With these incomes, people can afford a decent, mainstream lifestyle, but may struggle to maintain it. They generally don’t have enough income to build significant savings. In addition, their grip on class status is more precarious than in the upper tiers of the class system. They tend to own their own homes but the mortgages are often more cumbersome, leaving less money for travel, investments, and private schools. 

Watch It

Watch this video to learn about how the middle class in America has shrunk in recent years.

The Lower Middle Class or Working Class

Working-class people often hold jobs in manual labor, or so called “blue collar” work. These jobs are often hands-on and might include physically demanding occupations such as factory work, machine maintenance, or construction. These people work jobs that may initially require little prior skill or experience and they often perform routine tasks under close supervision. At the more advanced level, these workers may hold certifications and be qualified as better paid “skilled” workers. These jobs are sensitive to recessions and other economic downturns, as well as to global movement of production overseas and the automation of factory work. When budgets are tight, this group is often the most likely to lose their jobs.

Most often working class people have less formal education and earn less money compared to the average middle class individual.

A man is shown scrubbing floors and walls beneath a group of sinks in a restaurant kitchen.
Figure 3. This man is a custodian at a restaurant. His job, which is crucial to the business, is considered lower class. (Photo courtesy of Frederick Md Publicity/flickr)

The Lower Class

The lower class is comprised of the working poor. Like some members of the working class, they often have unskilled, low-paying employment with hourly wages. However, their jobs rarely offer benefits such as healthcare or retirement planning, and their positions are often seasonal or temporary. They work as sharecroppers, migrant farm workers, housecleaners, entry-level retail and service staff, and day laborers. Some are high school dropouts. Some are illiterate, unable to read job ads.

How can people work full-time and still be poor? Even working full-time, millions of the working poor earn incomes too meager to support a family. While the federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, the actual minimum wage varies from state to state, with a 2018 maximum, for example, of $11.50 in Washington. However, in many states the average is about $8.00 per hour (Department of Labor 2014). At that rate, working 40 hours a week earns $320. That comes to $16,640 a year, before tax and deductions. Even for a single person, the pay is low. A married couple with children would have a very hard time covering expenses.

The underclass is the United States’ lowest tier. Members of the underclass live mainly in inner cities and many are unemployed or underemployed. Those who do hold jobs typically perform menial tasks (i.e., picking up plastic bottles) for little pay. Some of the underclass are homeless. For many, welfare systems provide a much-needed support through food assistance, medical care, housing, and the like.

Watch It

Watch the selected clip from this CrashCourse video to review the social classes in the United States: upper class, upper middle class, average middle class, working class, and lower class.

Status Consistency

Social stratification systems determine social position based on factors like income, education, and occupation. Sociologists use the term status consistency to describe the consistency, or lack thereof, of an individual’s rank across these factors. Caste systems correlate with high status consistency, whereas the more flexible meritocracy class system has lower status consistency.

To illustrate, let’s consider Susan. Susan earned her high school degree but did not go to college. That factor is a trait of the lower-middle class. She began doing landscaping work, which as manual labor is also a trait of the lower-middle class or even of the lower class. However, over time, Susan started her own company. She hired employees. She won larger contracts. She became a business owner and earned a lot of money. Those traits represent the upper-middle class. There are inconsistencies between Susan’s educational level, her occupation, and her income. In a class system, a person can work hard and have little education and still be middle or upper class, whereas in a caste system that mobility would not be possible. In a class system, low status consistency correlates with having more choices and opportunities.

Try It

Think It Over

  • Why do you think so many Americans describe themselves “middle class”? 
  • What could be problematic with the way middle class status is calculated? In the documentary, the range for middle class inclusion for a single person is $24,000-$73,000. What factors are not being taken into account? 


status consistency:
the consistency, or lack thereof, of an individual’s rank across social categories like income, education, and occupation

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