Are the 35 million Americans who fall below the poverty line there because they are lazy and have let all opportunities for social advancement pass them by? Or is there currently a social structure that successfully reproduces classes and limits upward social mobility in America? Certain institutions in American society, including education, work and occupational structure and the family help perpetuate social class stratification. These institutions widen the gap between the rich and the poor by placing inherent restrictions on opportunities for those born into different classes. Although the degree of effort put forth by each individual is critically important, their relationship to the aforementioned institutions can severely limit upward social mobility.
The current educational system creates a unique contradiction. While traditionally the best way to climb the ladders of society, American schools are now reproducing social classes. Those children born into poor families and neighborhoods usually begin their school career at a steep disadvantage. Public schools that are run down and lack sufficient funding or other key resources like good teachers are endemic to these lower income areas. The idea of class reproduction, or the correspondence principle, is obviously present in education. As mentioned above, differences between schools and school districts exist. In his article on the inequalities of public education in New York, Kozol describes an elementary school in North Bronx where 63 children share an average sized classroom. The room has no windows, for the building used to be a roller-skating rink. Consisting of 90% black and Hispanics, the student body of 1,300 has only 26 computers. (Kozol, 95) On the other hand, educational standards in upper-middle class communities are far superior. Here in Grand Blanc, Michigan an average second grade class would have one teacher for under thirty students and more than one computer in the room. When their parents can afford it, the technology and quality of teaching is even superior for students enrolled at private schools. Although bussing and other programs aimed at leveling these inequalities have been implemented, the majority of children born into lower income families are not presented with any choices. They are confined to minimal technology and deprived of individual attention from teachers, just to name a few disadvantages. Even a student with a high I.Q. and mental capacity for college might not fulfill his potential because of these restrictions, which are also present at the high school level. Variations within schools also help to restrict opportunities for some students. Admission to certain programs like G.A.T.E. and magnet schools can be class based. Once on a higher track or in one of these programs, a student is exposed to many useful and intellectually stimulating opportunities. Unfortunately, many minority students and those from lower income households are not encouraged to enroll in these programs despite their potential. In a lower track, they are confined to remedial education and poor teachers with emphasis on basic and monotonous tasks. The differences within the classroom have also been shown to limit opportunities for some students. Depending on a student’s social class, a teacher may be more apt to help or disregard that student. A student with poor mannerisms and speech pattern may be presupposed to have little room for improvement, while one from a higher class background could receive much more help from a teacher. In addition, education tends to provide a hidden curriculum promoting cultural capital. For example, a rich school might emphasize self-confidence and proper speech patterns, while a poor school might stress subordination to authority and other basic ideas that would prepare a student for a lower class existence. These inequalities in the educational system severely limit opportunities for some students, while opening up windows for advancement for others. Even with a high I.Q., a child born in the north part Flint, Michigan would have to overcome great obstacles to get on a path to college. On the other hand, the superior educational environment at a rich school, like Grand Blanc would tend to promote and foster a desire for higher education among the students, thus granting them access to upward social mobility.
Another institution in this country that has a tendency to preserve the current separation between the upper and lower classes is the work and occupational structure. Not only does the established framework inherently limit advancement to higher-tier jobs, it also isolates the urban poor from the rest of society, thus reproducing social classes. Divided into two job sectors, America’s segmented labor market can significantly affect the livelihood of American workers and thereby perpetuate the economic gap between the rich and poor. (Nasar) The primary sector consists of large bureaucratic operations with higher salaries and more stable jobs. Requiring relatively high-level skills, these jobs are the most desirable in the job market because of their good benefits and good working conditions. The secondary sector, on the other hand, consists of smaller companies with less stable jobs and lower salaries. With little room for advancement even in a particular company, these low-level clerical and unskilled blue-collar jobs are obviously less desirable. Those individuals with lower levels of education end up in this fast-growing sector. The 1990s have seen an economic trend of downsizing in the primary sector of the labor market. With highly qualified workers now looking for jobs and struggling to provide for themselves, those with few marketable skills are faced with an enormous barrier that confines them to the lower class. Sylvia Nasar also argues that the occupational structure has an impact on communities as well as individuals. (Nasar) As corporations move out of inner cities with high crime rates and into suburbs, manufacturing jobs once ideal for the poor are now distant and impractical. This change now isolates the urban poor from the rest of society economically, socially, and geographically. (Nasar) The structure of employment in America makes it nearly impossible to move into higher-tier jobs, thereby economically isolating the lower social class. It also geographically isolates them, creating urban ghettos and other lower class neighborhoods where workers have to resort to the poorer jobs. In this process of class reproduction, a child born into a family in one of these lower-class communities has little chance of aspiring beyond the low-paying jobs in his immediate environment.
In contrast, one born into a higher-class family is surrounded by success stories and is more likely to end up in the primary sector of the labor force. Perhaps one of the most fundamental social institutions, the family, can play a key role in either limiting or offering opportunities to a child. Families both have a direct influence on an individual in terms of cultural capital and an indirect influence in their relationship to other institutions. Cultural capital is knowledge necessary for success in the middle class. Basic social graces such as a proper speech pattern are picked up from parents and others in a family. An individual’s dress and other similar mannerisms contribute to his presentation of self. Bearing great weight in the work place and other daily relations, these and other key attributes are usually instilled throughout a child’s development. Others are likely to make negative attributions for an individual with a poor speech pattern or dismal presentation of self. When surrounded by a family accustomed to poor habits and speech patterns, a child will likely adapt and use the same social graces. This can significantly hinder his ability to converse with others outside of that social class, and thus limit chances for a better job and class standing. In relation to another institution, the family can have a profound effect on a child’s education. Where parents have the money and resources to put into their local school, they will. Families in wealthier neighborhoods have an immediate expectation for their children to attend some kind of college, probably because one or both of the parents did. They have the money and time to donate, and the effects are easily seen in up to date technology and smaller classes, to name a few examples. Less fortunate areas, on the other hand, have working class families, some of which have both parents working. They lack both time and money to help the school on the whole, and their individual student. If a child comes home and both parents are at work, who is there to motivate him to do his homework? This leaves a great deal of responsibility on the student, and more often than not, the child fails to reach full potential because of his family situation. Therefore, a family is critical in both the aspect of cultural capital and in relationships to other institutions like education. Depending on what class an individual is born into, the social institutions mentioned obviously help determine his future standing in society. Poorer children are immediately exposed to relatively dismal surroundings. They are thrown into a social cycle that can pose many obstacles to upward mobility. Richer children are at a clear advantage, with high expectations from parents and others, a path to the upper social classes can be already paved. Although these inequalities exist, one can never underestimate the power of self-discipline and motivation. The only way to fully utilize one’s potential, regardless of the situation, is to make the most out of any available opportunity.
Nasar, Sylvia. (April 4, 1999), Economic View; Is the U.S. income gap really a big problem?- New York Times
Kozol, Jonathan. (1991), Savage Inequalities. New York: Crown