Social Class in the United States: A Brief Introduction
In the United States, social scientists have frequently debated over how to define class divisions within society. While some social scientists take a gradation approach in which inequality can be linked to certain patterns that are not social class-specific, others utilize a categorical analysis, grouping individuals with similar patterns into social classes. For this project’s purpose, I will use a categorical analysis, using the social classes proposed in Annette Lareau’s Unequal Childhoods: poor and working-class (low-income families) and middle-class (families with sufficient income). (Unequal Childhoods, Lareau)
Since the United States is an individualistic society, meaning people tend to prioritize individual needs over group needs, citizens often underestimate the potential for social structural location (social class) to affect an individual’s opportunities and educational outcomes. A common belief in the US is that determined people who take the initiative can access upward mobility; however, research has shown that this is not necessarily the case.
What is the Social Class Achievement Gap?
The social class achievement gap refers to the disparity in educational achievement between low-income students and middle-class students. It is important to note that this achievement gap is not a result of character but, as supported by research, results from systematic inequality. This systematic inequality prevents children from low-income families from obtaining college degrees, upward mobility and ultimately perpetuates the poverty cycle.
For some Fast Facts about the Social Class Achievement Gap visit this APA resource page
As represented in the image above the low-income students in the state of California had profoundly different educational outcomes than that of their non-low-income peers.
What causes the systematic inequality and its resulting social class achievement gap?
Many social scientists have hypothesized certain culprits of the expanding social class achievement gap. I believe the primary root of these causes deals with differences in culture and habitus (habits, skills, and tendencies resulting from exposure to one’s social context) between low-income families and middle-class families. It is important to emphasize that the culture of poor and working-class families is not inferior to that of middle-class families. However, most social institutions, especially the education system, accept the cultural repertoire (expectations for behavior and values) of the middle class as the standard, which leaves low-income families disadvantaged regarding engagement in their children’s schooling. For example, self-advocacy and individualized attention, accommodations, and exceptions are not considered as justifiable in poor and working-class culture, whereas these subjects are highly sought after in middle-class culture. Schools function under the assumption that, for young students, parents will advocate and engage on behalf of their children, and older students will seek out resources on their own. However, for poor and working-class families, parents and students do not value self-advocacy in the same way and thus are not as well-practiced at advocating for themselves or their children. Parents from poor and working-class communities may be unknowing of ways to interact with school faculty to ensure individual attention for their children. Additionally, high school and college students from poor and working-class families may not know to confront their teacher about extra assistance when they struggle in a class. (Unequal Childhoods, Lareau)
Based on research, it appears that three cultural practices exacerbating the social class achievement gap are child-rearing strategies, household use of language, and application of meaning to situations.
Strategies that parents use to raise their children strongly influence the values and skills that children obtain. Because parenting strategies vary by social class, the values and skills of children from low-income families differ from their middle-class counterparts. Although one strategy is not technically superior to the other, recall that the education system idolizes middle-class cultural norms, which include child-rearing strategies and their resulting values and skills.
In her book Unequal Childhoods, Lareau outlines two child-rearing strategies, one carried out by middle-class parents and one carried out by poor and working-class parents. She identified the middle-class child-rearing strategy as Concerted Cultivation, a more authoritative approach centered around organized daily activities, active intervention in the child’s life, and an emphasis on language use. With a concerted cultivation approach, parent’s foster their children’s individual talents through organized activities. The poor and working-class child-rearing strategy she termed Accomplishment of Natural Growth, in which parents provide children with strict directives, but children can self-govern schooling and free time. Concerted Cultivation leads children to develop a sense of entitlement, in which children feel deserving of special attention from authority figures and become comfortable with self-advocacy. Conversely, the Accomplishment of Natural Growth leads children to develop a sense of constraint, in which children develop an appreciation for life but feel unworthy of individualized attention from authority figures. While neither child-rearing strategy is inherently superior to the other, a Concerted Cultivation approach provides opportunities for practicing critical skills (self-advocacy, self-efficacy, social performance) to interact with social institutions like the education system, especially higher education, the workforce, and even the healthcare industry.
When parents follow the Accomplishment of Natural Growth, they rely on educators to provide their children with the opportunities to practice skills for navigating social institutions that middle-class parents can coach their children on. However, the education system aligns with a Concerted Cultivation approach, so programming is created with the expectation that parents will intervene and actively participate in their children’s schooling in addition to modeling social, institutional skills. The education system’s failure to acknowledge the cultural differences between low-income families and middle-class families, as well as its inability to accommodate the lack of experience with social institutions for low-income families, prevents poor and working-class children from performing as well as their middle-class counterparts.
Early language development lays the foundation for education outcomes from elementary school and beyond. Research in the 1990s by Risley and Hart determined that middle-class children will hear 30 million more words than low-income children by the age of 3, and, as a result, will attain a higher IQ score. In their observations, wealthier families spoke to and conversed with their children drastically more often than low-income families, leading to the “30-Million Word Gap,” as seen in the image below.
However, in recent years, social scientists have criticized Risely and Hart’s work, claiming that repetitions of their original study indicate that the word gap may be closer to 4 million words. Regardless, there is still a substantial disparity in the amount of language children are exposed to based on their social structural location. (The Talking Cure, Talbot)
Lareau’s findings from her ethnographic research on social class childhood outcomes corroborate the general findings of Hart and Risley, that low-income families use less language on average than middle-class families. Lareau hypothesized that the disparity in words spoken to the child had to do with the previously mentioned child-rearing strategies. Concerted cultivation requires more negotiation between parent and child versus the strict directives associated with accomplishment of natural growth; thus, middle-class parents converse more frequently with their children.
The conversational interaction and increased language use among middle-class families construct their children’s vocabularies and strengthen their reading capabilities. Because children from low-income families do not receive this degree of language exposure, they start school with weaker vocabularies, literacy skills, and verbal skills. In reality, low-income students fall behind their middle-class peers long before entering Kindergarten.
Interpretation of Circumstance
How we interpret our current circumstances and what we attribute the cause of an event to be can vary greatly based on our social context and habitus. Students from low-income families are more likely to jump to the conclusion that higher education, or strong performance in school, isn’t possible for them when they face setbacks due to an understanding that low-income students typically do not pursue higher education. In contrast, middle-class students would be more likely to perceive a setback as surmountable. (Interventions Aimed at Closing the Social Class Achievement Gap: changing individuals, structures, and construels, Stephens and Dittmann)
This difference in the way that low-income students and middle-class students interpret the same circumstance leaves students from low-income families particularly vulnerable to impostor syndrome, which is generally defined as consistently doubting one’s own abilities and viewing oneself as underserving or as phony. As mentioned above, the student from a low-income household may be deterred from pursuing education due to their susceptibility to imposter syndrome and the resulting fear that if they attempted higher education they might fail anyway. Research suggests that thinking processes like this are largely to blame for the higher dropout rates of students from low-income families compared to students from middle-class families.
In this video, college students and faculty from University of Texas explain first-hand how these challenges can manifest themselves in a students daily life:
Interview with Ms. Katie Carmichael
Ms. Carmichael is currently the director of Freedom School at Providence Day School. I spoke with her about the social class achievement gap to which she referenced systemic racism. She validated the findings of Lareau in that the systems in place restrict the resources available to certain races and cultures, largely based on socioeconomic status, as well as zoning in on the lack of experience low-income students have with seeking out available resources. She closed by mentioning that many privileged students fail to recognize their privilege, which exacerbates the issue. Overall, she is an extremely well-respected supporter of Freedom School Partners, continually strives to reduce all achievement gaps in Charlotte, and reinforces the previous points made by other social scientists.
How can social support help to close this gap?
Through the consideration of programs generated by others in the US and a clearly demonstrated need for increased support for low-income parents with young children and a better social support system for older students from low-income families, I present three different psychosocial interventions that could be implemented at regional underperforming schools. I also believe that in considering potential interventions, it is highly important to respect the culture of each class and diligently avoided forcing middle-class cultural norms on poor and low-income families. Therefore, the first two interventions I will present need to be well-advertised in terms of informing low-income families of the potential benefits resulting from participation; however, participation should not be required.
Early Language Development Program (ELD)
As mentioned earlier, there is a significant word gap between children from low-income families and children from non-low-income families that forms from ages 0-5. While cultural expectations play a notable role in the formation of this word gap, many low-income parents face daily stressors which are absent for middle-class parents. The chronic stress and anxiety that result from constant economic instability suck significant mental energy from low-income parents to the point where it may be more difficult to provide their children with consistent specialized attention. Getting dinner on the table is not typically a difficult task for middle-class parents, leaving them with more energy to converse with their children, especially those five and under. That extra mental energy is not as readily available for low-income parents; however, when their children are not exposed to as much language as their middle-class peers, they fall behind before even starting school. This is where social support for parents comes in.
I propose an Early Language Development Program that can be offered and advertised to low-income parents through local public schools and Head Start programs. The EDL would be executed similarly to the non-profit Providence Talks in Providence, Rhode Island, USA, but with a greater emphasis on supporting parents. It would entail assigning a caseworker to each family that opts into the program. This caseworker would provide each family with an electronically activated recorder (EAR) to track the number of conversations with and words spoken to their child, as well as obtaining basic information about each of the parent’s backgrounds and any concerns they may have. After obtaining data from the EAR and input from the parents, the caseworker can provide individualized guidance and advice to parents for fostering language development while managing their own stressors. The caseworker would continue to monitor the use of language in the house via the EAR and frequently check in with both parents to help parents through any challenges with their 0-5 year old children. A critical job of the caseworker would be to meet all parents with empathy and continue to validate their struggles, motivate movement towards language goals in the house, and praise parents for deliberately working to increase their children’s language exposure, despite challenging circumstances. Hopefully, by providing low-income parents with space for empathy and customized advice they will feel more supported and able to boost their children’s language exposure.
Here’s a quick video on the Non Profit Providence Talks
Parent-School Connection Intervention (PSCI)
Since the education institution gravitates heavily towards the culture of middle-class families and a concerted cultivation parenting approach, low-income parents often feel disconnected from and unsupported in navigating their child’s elementary education, which, as previously highlighted, puts children from low-income families at a great disadvantage. It’s not that low-income parents never wish to intervene with and engage in their child’s education, but they are understandably not as comfortable interacting with the system.
The preceding program (the ELD) aimed to increase individualized social support for parents in order to nurture language development. The PSCI will continue to build the social support network for parents as their child ages into elementary school and will be designed to educate low-income parents about the social class achievement gap and opportunities to help their children succeed in obtaining foundational skills for interacting with social institutions. The PSCI will acknowledge the cultural differences between each class and offer additional support for and acceptance of low-income families at underperforming schools. This program involves multiple school counselors; each will be assigned to a certain number of families. The school counselor will stay in close contact with each of the parents and offer encouragement, validation, and advice when warranted. As part of the PSCI, parents can have an opportunity to attend information sessions that address the cultural differences, the expectations of social institutions, and actions that parents can take to ensure their elementary students leave with a strong foundation of skills necessary to integrate into social institutions successfully. As I stressed earlier, these information sessions can be advertised strongly, but they must remain optional out of respect for and inclusion of cultural variety. These sessions would also need to be held after work hours, and childcare would need to be provided. The topics covered would be:
- Importance of Reading and Conversation
- Importance of Self-Advocacy in Social Institutions
- Troubleshooting Educational Differences
- How to Teach Children Self-Advocacy and Self-Confidence
- Emotional Intelligence
- Information on Future Education Opportunities (middle school, high school, and college) and How to Look Ahead
Narrative Identity Guidance Intervention (NGI)
The tendency of high school and college students with low-income backgrounds to drop out results from stereotype threat and the way low-income students apply meaning to setbacks and challenges. During adolescence, we begin to develop a sense of temporal continuity (an understanding of ourselves and how we came to be), which turns into a more refined Narrative Identity (a reflexive story encompassing our journey from past to present). Since both our sense of temporal continuity and our Narrative Identity forms in adolescence, this developmental time period will have lasting effects on how we perceive and interpret our circumstances. Therefore, I recommend a simple intervention for high school students that schools in low-income areas can implement.
The creation of this intervention stems from the research of Nicole Stephens, MarYam Hamedani, and Mesmin Destin on interventions aimed at closing the social-class achievement gap. They found that first-generation college freshmen who listened to a panel of college seniors with varying social class backgrounds share how their social structural location affected their experience had improvements in grades, psychosocial outcomes, and self-advocacy. Essentially their study found that helping students from low-income backgrounds understand how their social structural location can impact their experience with education improve overall health and reduce the number of dropouts. To encourage high school students from low-income families to seek out higher education if they so desire, high schools in low-income areas can host an assembly at the beginning of the year for upper school students to listen to the experience of college seniors with similar social class backgrounds. The added social support from the college seniors could help mitigate feelings of helplessness navigating higher education and feelings of isolation. This will hopefully allow adolescents to factor social class into their narrative identity, develop more self-compassion, and as a result, feel less uncomfortable self-advocating and pursuing academic challenges.
Limitations to these Interventions
The issue of the social class achievement gap has been one social scientists have recently begun to direct their attention since the early 2000s. Many non-profits, such as Providence Talks, or the program I volunteer with, Freedom School, have attempted to close this gap, and have done so successfully in many cases. Other psychologists have begun to explore the effects of sense of mattering and belonging on the social class achievement gap. Ultimately, resolving an issue as deep as the social class achievement gap requires input from low-income families, sociologists, economists, and psychologists, as well as responsiveness from politicians. To secure all of the above is extremely tricky, and I realize that while the interventions others have tested and the ones I have recommended have potential they require input and response from the prior individuals listed.
What can you do now?
Education inequity, especially in the US is a daunting issue, and when you take the time to consider how much reform truly needs to happen before we close this gap it is easy to get overwhelmed. However, there are things you can do right now to help this reform move along. I have always been a believer in the power of education to enact change, so already by reading this wordpress page you have taken a step to close the social achievement gap. Here are some additional things to consider:
- I challenge you to continue inquiring about your perception of the education system, evaluating your experience, and listening to that of others.
- Think about how your social structural location has impacted your educational experience, the advantages or struggles it may yield.
- Accept the shortcomings of the education system and cultivate empathy for those affected by it.
- Have compassion for yourself when challenging social injustices such as education inequity feels impossible, and know that each of us matters when it comes to combatting societal issues such as the social class achievement gap.
- Finally, share this knowledge with others and, if the opportunity presents itself, volunteer with non-profits such as Freedom School that work to close this gap.
Thank you for taking the time to read this page!
Take this quick quiz to reflect on your social class privilege and answer a couple of follow-up questions (email addresses will not be collected).
- A score between 8-11 indicates a high amount of social class privilege.
- A score between 5-7 indicates a moderate amount of social class privilege.
- A score between 0-4 indicates a low amount of social class privilege.
If you are interested, here is a quick video sharing a little about what Freedom School Partners is (the organization I currently volunteer with) and a quick video where Annette Lareau shares about her research process.
Click this link to access my Works Cited
I would love to hear about your reactions to the contributing factors that were discussed and whether you think the interventions could be applicable in your community. Please feel free to leave a comment!