With the rise of technological advancements, globalization, and relative political stability, the world population has experienced a significant increase in wealth over the last several decades. Nevertheless, this wealth is concentrated in the pockets of the world’s tiniest portion, while the rest still struggle everyday to make ends meet. This income and wealth inequality is no exception in the case of the United States, despite being the most economically prosperous country globally. Although some progress has been made over the last several decades, economic inequality derived from race, gender, and other factors, remains one of the most pressing issues in the United States of America.
The Extent of Economic Inequality
The extent of economic inequality in the United States is one of the most concerning issues the American public currently faces. Compared to other developed countries, the United States has the highest economic inequality. Recent democratic debates can reflect the increased concern of the American society about economic disparities. The range of issues such as student debt, breaking up the Big Tech companies, social welfare were hugely debated among candidates, which indicates that the extent of economic inequality in the US is significant, and the public is concerned about it more than ever. Moreover, a recent media publication revealed that during the COVID-19 pandemic, Jeff Bezos and Walmart heirs had earned 42 and 25 times the total amount they paid for the hazard pay for their 1 and 1.5 million workers, respectively (Kinder and Stateler 3). The report also emphasizes that while Jeff Bezos earns $11.5 million per hour, its workers earn $0.99 per hour (Kinder and Stateler 4). Hence, these numbers illustrate that the income gap between people is significant in America.
Factors That Limit Social Mobility and Reproduce Inequalities
Economic Inequality Along the Racial Lines
The current US society is economically unequal based on three key factors – race, gender, and working-class. The United States’ unique and grave history of institutionalized slavery and subsequent discrimination against African-American people inevitably shaped this group’s economic status. As W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the most prominent sociologists, have noted, the conditions of slavery and unwillingness of the white community to integrate black individuals into the society have segregated and limited the latter.
Specifically, this process of marginalization and subsequent economic consequences have occurred in several ways: firstly, during the aftermath of the abolition of slavery, African-Americans were not properly employed as the white bias, mainly in the South, has persisted (Du Bois 7). Secondly, even if employers hired African-Americans, they were not paid equal wages as their white counterparts for doing the same work. These communities had limited influence over the laws that shaped these and other aspects of economic prosperity since they were not given the right to vote. Under these conditions, white employers could exploit black workers, and the latter was forced to tolerate such treatment given the absence of alternative financial sources. Lastly, perpetual racist prejudice in the criminal justice system meant that African-Americans are detained disproportionately more than white people. Hence, given the social bias against ex-offenders, African-Americans struggle to find a proper job after their release from prison. Thus, through this mechanism, African-American communities are systematically excluded from economic opportunities, perpetuating the economic inequality along the racial lines.
Crucially, unlike in any other country, the unique context of the United States significantly exacerbates the challenges faced as a result of economic inequality. Du Bois stated that being a poor person is hard, but it is much more challenging to be in the “land of dollars” like the United States. Hence, the analysis of the economic inequality in the US should extend beyond mere statistics and encapsulate the American context of economic prosperity, which leads to higher prices and more social alienation of the poor.
Economic Inequality Based on Gender
Economic inequality based on gender persists in the US along with other developed countries. However, the fact that the issue applies to other countries should not prevent scholars and policy-makers from addressing it. In Society in America, Harriet Martineau wrote that the patriarchal system of norms and relations constrained the intellectual development of women (Lecture Notes: Martineau: Patriarchy and Women’s Rights). Since women are not educated in the vast majority of instances, they cannot derive economic prosperity as men can. Even if they are educated, the patriarchal norms and prejudice against women, or mechanisms such as maternity leave, force women to receive fewer wages than men for the same amount of work. Hence, due to historical trajectories of patriarchy, women worldwide, including the US, suffer economic inequality compared to their male counterparts.
Cultural and Social Capital
Both of the abovementioned characteristics significantly limit the individual’s cultural and social capital, shaping one’s economic capital. As a result, financial capital affects an individual’s social mobility and reproduces class inequalities across generations. As a result of historical disenfranchisement, both women and African-American communities failed to obtain the types of knowledge, skills, styles, and habits necessary to succeed in the competitive labor market; hence, their cultural capital is limited. In addition, since these groups are rarely integrated into prosperous white male society, they often could not develop social relationships with those dominant groups necessary for economic growth. These issues are particularly tragic in the case of intersectional groups such as African-American women, who bear the burden based on their gender and race simultaneously.
Agents of Socialization
Agents of socialization is another factor that significantly influences the individual’s social mobility. Firstly, the family substantially shapes individuals’ perception of the world and their position in society (Lecture Notes: Culture, Class, and Socialization). Class status can affect education and child rearing in families, including what skills children learn and what kind of values they learn to prioritize and aspire for (Lareau 759). Therefore, the individuals’ foremost source of social and subsequent economic capital is their family.
In addition, schools are another important agent of socialization. In schools, students learn hidden curriculum, implicit lessons that later determine their social mobility. These lessons teach individuals’ relationships to authority, notions of patriotism, individual competition, and gender roles (Lecture Notes: Culture, Class, and Socialization). Class plays a crucial role in what form these lessons will take since their content differs based on the type of school students attend, often determined by their socioeconomic status. In their research, Anyon found that working-class schools taught students to follow the rules and think in a particular way, limiting students’ freedom to think critically (3). Meanwhile, affluent professional schools encouraged independent thinking and emphasized students’ understanding of the material instead of merely following the rules (Anyon 5). There are other agents of socialization such as religious institutions, peer groups, and mass media that significantly affect how an individual perceives itself in society and reproduce social mobility.
Change in the Economic Inequality Over Time
The level of economic inequality has changed over time, more positively than negatively. The open discrimination in terms of wages, employment, and conditions against gender or racial minorities is rare today than at any other time in history. It is evident that compared to the US of the 1950s, for instance, more women are employed and capable of economic independence from their partners. However, it is crucial to emphasize that financial discrepancies based on gender and racial characteristics persist. This situation is because of the institutionalized nature of economic inequality (Lecture Notes: Class, Stratification, and Social Mobility). Since inequality and stratification are systematic, that is, they are profoundly ingrained in the institutional structures of society, it is challenging to change or eliminate them.
Class stratification matters because it enables and perpetuates economic inequality by affecting people’s experiences and life chances. The individual’s position in the social stratification system significantly determines their further access to economic opportunities. In the class stratification, system resources are distributed unevenly, and class defines individuals’ to particular valuable resources (Lecture Notes: Class, Stratification, and Social Mobility). For instance, the upper class in the US has more access to proper nutrition, better housing, efficient medical care, quality education, control over their work, political influence, and protection from crime and violence. On the latter, Chambliss argues that the class structure of American society determines one’s demeanor, visibility, and perceptual bias towards them in their criminal activities (192). Influential upper-middle-class individuals have the power to control legal institutions in a way that would benefit them at the expense of the lower-class, who do not have the means to intervene in these ways (Chambliss 193). Thus, stratification is vital as it serves to perpetuate and justify economic inequality.
Despite progress over the last century, the vast majority of American society suffers from rampant economic inequality caused by the interplay of different factors, including exploitation by corporate America and discrimination along racial and gender lines. Social and cultural capital is significantly determined by one’s race, gender, agents of socialization. In return, social and cultural capital shape and perpetuate one’s economic status. Stratification based on financial position further exacerbates disparities between classes and benefits those in the upper social strata.
Anyon, Jean. “Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work.” Journal of Education, vol. 162, no. 1, 1980, pp. 67–92., doi:10.1177/002205748016200106.
Chambliss, William J. “The Saints and the Roughnecks.” Society, vol. 11, no. 1, 1973, pp. 24–31., doi:10.1007/bf03181016.
Du Bois, W.E. Burghardt. Black Reconstruction: An Essay toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880. Reprint Services Corp., 1935.
Kinder, Molly, and Laura Stateler. “Amazon and Walmart Have Raked in Billions in Additional Profits during the Pandemic, and Shared Almost None of It with Their Workers.” Brookings, Brookings, 2021.
Lareau, Annette. “Invisible Inequality: Social Class and Childrearing in Black Families and White Families.” American Sociological Review, vol. 67, no. 5, 2002, p. 747., doi:10.2307/3088916.