Tag Archives: social class

Framing social class with sample selection

A lot of qualitative sociology makes comparisons across social class categories. Many researchers build class into their research designs by selecting subjects using broad criteria, most often education level, income level, or occupation. Depending on the set of questions at hand, the class selection categories will vary, focusing on, for example, upbringing and socialization, access to resources, or occupational outlook.

In the absence of a substantive review, here are a few arbitrarily selected examplar books from my areas of research:

This post was inspired by the question Caitlyn Collins asked the other day on Twitter:

She followed up by saying, “Social class is nebulous, but precision here matters to make meaningful claims. What do we mean when we say we’re talking to poor, working class, middle class, wealthy folks? I’m looking for specific demographic questions, categories, scales sociologists use as screeners.” The thread generated a lot of good ideas.

Income, education, occupation

Screening people for research can be costly and time consuming, so you want to maximize simplicity as well as clarity. So here’s a way of looking at some common screening variables, and what you might get or lose by relying on them in different combinations. This uses the 2018 American Community Survey, provided by IPUMS.org (Stata data file and code here).

  • I used income, education, and occupation to identify the status of individuals, and generated household class categories by the presence of absence of types of people in each. That means everyone in each household is in the same class category (a choice you might or might not want to make).
  • Income: Total household income divided by an equivalency scale (for cost of living). The scale counts each adult as 1 person, each child under 18 as .70, and then scales that count by ^.70. I divided the resulting distribution into thirds, so households are in the top, middle, or bottom third. Top third is what I called “middle/upper” class, bottom third is “lower class.”
  • Education: I use BA degree to identify households that have (middle/upper) or don’t (lower) a four-year college graduate present. This is 31% of adults.
  • Occupation: I used the 2018 ACS occupation codes, and coded people as middle/upper class if their codes was 10 to 3550, which are management, business, and financial occupations; computer, engineering, and science occupations; education, legal, community service, arts, and media occupations; and healthcare practitioners and technical occupations. It’s pretty close to what we used to call “managerial and professional” occupations. Together, these account for 37% of workers.

So each of these three variables identifies an upper/middle class status of about a third of people.

For lower class status, you can just reverse them. The except is income, which is in three categories. For that, I counted households as lower class if their household income was in the bottom third of the adjusted distribution. In the figures below, that means they’re neither middle/upper class nor lower class if they’re in the middle of the income distribution. This is easily adjusted.

Venn diagrams

You can make Venn diagrams in Stata using the pvenn2 add-on, which I naturally discovered after making these. If  you must know, made these by generating tables in Stata, downloading this free plotter app, entering the values manually, copying the resulting figures into Powerpoint and applying the text there, then printing them to PDF, and extracting the images from PDF using Photoshop. Not recommended workflow.

Here they are. I hope the visuals might help people think about for example, who they might get if they screened on just one of these variables, or how unusual someone is who has a high income or occupation but no BA, and so on. But draw your own conclusions (and feel free to modify the code and follow your own approach). Click to enlarge.

First middle/upper class:

Venn diagram of overlapping class definitions

Then lower class:

Venn diagram of overlapping class definitions.

I said draw your own conclusions, but please don’t draw the conclusion that I think this is the best way to define social class. That’s a whole different question. This is just about simply ways to select people to be research subjects. For other posts on social class, follow this tag, which includes this post about class self identification by income and race/ethnicity.

Data and code: osf.io/w2yvf/

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New data show change in the class (identity) structure

Updating a 2013 post with the 2016 General Social Survey. Not a lot of interpretation, just some facts.

The GSS has, since 1972, asked Americans:

If you were asked to use one of four names for your social class, which would you say you belong in: the lower class, the working class, the middle class, or the upper class?

The latest data release, for 2016, confirms what I noticed before: a big rise in the percentage of people describing themselves as “lower class” since the 2008 recession, from 5% to 9%. This is striking when you zoom in on it:

gss lower class

Now, looking at the trend in all four classes, it’s clear there has been a decline in the proportion of people calling themselves “middle class” — which hit its lowest level ever in the series, 41%:

gss all classes

Is this important? I don’t know. The most common tendency in sociology these days is to use measures of education (one’s own education, or one’s parents’) to indicate social class, which is generally thought of in material terms, rather than as an identity issue (or as a question of what people actually learn in school). Of course there are sociologists who study class identity issues, but as a survey item I bet it’s more likely to show up in political science research.

Of course the political salience of “working class” was heightened by the election in 2016 (although the phrase itself was more likely used as an adjective than a noun; the noun in American politics remains “working families,” a term I dislike). And by “working class” of course most people meant White working class. A Google search of the New York Times site for [“White working class” 2016] produces 1,050 hits; [“Black working class” 2016] yields 37. But Blacks are considerably more likely to identify as “working class,” and less likely to choose “middle class,” than are Whites. Here is the breakdown for 2016 (at the mean of controls for age and sex):

gss class race

Of course that doesn’t account for common correlates of class identity; it’s just a description of the groups. I looked a little more closely at income. Here is how people report class identities by family income, this time at the mean of controls for age, sex, race/ethnicity, and marital status (partly to account for family size)*:

gss 2016 social class id

This shows that “working class” is most common among those in the $30,000-$50,000 range, and it dominates under $75,000, while “middle class” picks up most people over $75,000. Only people in the top bracket — and only a small proportion of them — identify as “upper class.”

I did a little checking to see what difference class makes on some common political issues. Regressions holding constant sex, race/ethnicity, education, income, marital status, and region, showed that working class people were more Democratic than middle class people (on a scale from strong Dem to strong Rep); but middle class people are more pro-choice, and also more likely to think “people can be trusted.” In similar models, class didn’t do much to explain confidence in organized labor, support for same-sex marriage, attidues toward taxes on the rich, the likelihood of owning a gun, political views (liberal v. conservative), or traditional gender attitudes. Still, I think it’s worth asking.

In summary, it’s interesting that the self-identified class structure may be shifting relatively rapidly, and the implications are to be determined.

* Code for the income regression, using the full GSS dataset through 2016, available here.

gen rndwt=round(wtssall)
recode income16 (1/11=1) (12/15=2) (16/18=3) (19/20=4) (20/22=5) (23/25=6) (26=7) , gen(incate)
label define cl_lbl 1 "$0-<17.5k"
label define cl_lbl 2 "$17.5-<30k", add
label define cl_lbl 3 "$30-<50k", add
label define cl_lbl 4 "$50-<75k", add
label define cl_lbl 5 "$75-<110k", add
label define cl_lbl 6 "$110k-<170k", add
label define cl_lbl 7 "$179k+", add
label values incate cl_lbl
mlogit class c.age#c.age i.sex i.race i.marital i.incate [weight=rndwt] if year==2016
margins incate


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Social class divides the futures of high school students

There is new research from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), written up by Susan Dynarsky at the New York Times Upshot. The striking finding is that poor children in the top quartile on high school math scores have a 41% chance of finishing a BA degree by their late twenties — the same chance as children from the second-lowest quartile in math scores who are high-socioeconomic status (SES). Poor children from the third-highest quartile in high school math have graduation about equal to the worst-scoring children form the richest group. Here’s the figure:


The headline on the figure is misleading, actually, since SES is not measured by wealth, but by a combination of parental education, occupation, and income. (Low here means the bottom quartile of SES, Middle is the 25th to 75th percentile, and High is 75th and up.)

One possible mechanism for the disparity in college completion rates is education expectations. Dynarsky mentions expectations measured in the sophomore year of high school, which was 2002 for this cohort. What she doesn’t mention is how much those expectations changed by senior year. Going to the NCES source for that data (here) I found this chart, which I annotated in red:


Between sophomore and senior year, the percentage expecting to finish a BA degree or more decreased and the percentage expecting to go to two-year college increased, across SES levels. But the change was much greater for lower SES students. So the gap in expecting to go to two-year college between high- and low-SES students grew from 6 to 17 percentage points; that is, from 9% versus 3% in the sophomore year to 22% versus 6% in the senior year. That’s a big crushing of expectations that happened in the formative years at the end of high school.


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Marriage, divorce, remarriage, age, education (Coontz tabs edition)

Stephanie Coontz has an excellent Op-Ed on the front of today’s New York Times Sunday Review, which draws out the implications for family instability of the connection between increasing gender equality on the one hand, and increasing economic inequality and insecurity on the other. The new instability is disproportionately concentrated among the population with less than a college degree. To help with her research, I gave Stephanie the figure below, but it didn’t make the final cut. This shows the marriage history of men and women by education and age. She wrote:

According to the sociologist Philip N. Cohen, among 40-somethings with at least a bachelor’s degree, as of 2012, 63 percent of men and 59 percent of women were in their first marriage, compared to just 43 percent of men and 42 percent of women without a bachelor’s degree.

I highlighted those numbers in the figure. Also striking is the higher percentage of divorced people among those with less than a BA degree (and higher widowhood rates). Click to enlarge: age marriage history Cross-posted on the Families As They Really Are blog.


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The remarkable centrality of Unequal Childhoods

I had the privilege of introducing Annette Lareau at our department’s annual Rosenberg Forum. She is the current president of the American Sociological Association and the author of the book Unequal Childhoods: Race, Class, and Family Life.

Her talk was about exciting new research into the reproduction of social class through parents’ selection of schools and neighborhoods. But to set it up I showed the place of Unequal Childhoods in the citation network of sociology journals created by Neal Caren. The network includes the works most cited in 5,471 articles in sociology journals in the years 2008-2012, with lines connecting works cited in the same articles, and colors for the clusters of works commonly cited together. The size of the nodes represents times cited.

In this version I labeled the bigger clusters either with a term for the subfield (e.g., Religion) or key work (e.g., Bowling Alone). Click on the image to enlarge my version, or see it in full here, with the details and data.

PowerPoint PresentationI am amazed by the centrality of Unequal Childhoods, which isn’t part of a big cluster but has thick ties to a bunch of different ones, which is why it’s in the center. These are the works that Unequal Childhoods was cited with five times or more:

Hays S 1996 Cultural Contradicti 16
Blau P 1967 Am Occupational Stru 14
Bianchi SM 2006 Changing Rhythms Ame 13
Stone P 2007 Opting Out Why Women 12
Blair-loy M 2003 Competing Devotions 12
Bourdieu P 1977 Reprod ED Soc Cultue 12
Dimaggio P 1982 Am Sociol Rev 11
Lamont Michele 1988 Sociological Theory 10
Farkas G 2003 Annu Rev Sociol 9
Edin K 2005 Promises I Can Keep 9
Bourdieu P 1984 Distinctions Social 9
Hochschild Arlie R 1989 2 Shift Working Pare 8
Mclanahan Sara 1994 Growing Single Paren 8
Hochschild AR 1997 Time Bind Work Becom 8
Swidler A 1986 Am Sociol Rev 8
Townsend NW 2002 Package Deal 8
Bourdieu P 1986 Hdb Theory Res Socio 8
Bowles S 1976 Sch Capitalist AM 7
Bourdieu P 1990 Logic Practice Trans 7
Jacobs JA 2004 Time Divide Family G 7
Sewell W 1975 ED Occupation Earnin 7
Downey DB 1995 Am Sociol Rev 7
Jencks Christopher 1972 Inequality Reassessm 7
Raftery AE 1995 Sociol Methodol 5

* * *

That’s some reach!



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How many Black scholars does it take to have any Black scholars?

I had a very nice time at the 21st Annual Symposium on Family Issues at Penn State University, where I presented remarks in response to a paper by Sara McLanahan and Wade Jacobsen. The theme of the symposium was “Diverging Destinies,” or the growing differences in family experiences by social class in the US. The event has lots of time for discussion and debate, and much of that focused on poor people and their families, around contested terms such as choices, parenting, behavior, attitudes, orientation, and so on. I had plenty to agree and disagree with, there were lots of good talks, and it was a good conversation.

The scenic Nittany Lion Inn (photo by me)

The scenic Nittany Lion Inn (photo by me)

Here are two observations.

The first was a moment when Ron Haskins from the Brookings Institution, a long-time member of the welfare policy establishment (his bio describes him as “instrumental in the 1996 overhaul of national welfare policy”), responded to Harvard professor Kathryn Edin’s response to his presentation. She had spent most of her time talking about her new book, Doing the Best I Can: Fathering in the Inner City. For the book, Edin undertook years of ethnographic fieldwork and interviews, and emerged with a very sympathetic yet sobering description of the poor young men she studied, men who want more than anything to be good fathers — according to the contemporary ideals of both economic provision and emotional togetherness — but for many reasons usually can’t meet their own goals.

When they were both on the dais, Haskins said she was “too optimistic” about her subjects, in describing them as eager to do the right thing for their children. “I know these guys!” he said, before describing some anecdotal experiences from his (apparently distant) personal past. It struck me because it seemed profoundly disrespectful of not only her work, but of her kind of research. Of course ethnographers can do bad studies or misinterpret their data. But I would only discount a serious work of ethnography based on my personal experience if that experience were pretty deep. I suspect Haskins wouldn’t have struck that note if her work had been a quantitative demography, but I could be wrong. (Earlier, I had pointed out that welfare reform failed at its stated goal of making poor single mothers get married, and he countered that it had been successful at getting them to work, so “behavior modification does work” — and we should use that program as a model for future work-mandating reforms.)

Who's on that dais?

Who’s on that dais?

Anyway, the second observation was about the composition of the speakers. None of our 16 speakers this year was Black. When I grumbled about that on Facebook, someone said he felt the same way last year. That got me to check the previous programs. (Each year the organizers of the symposium produce a book from the papers — you can see previous editions here, where the contributors are all listed.) I had to go back to 2008 to find an African American speaker, according to my reading of their photos and bios (which is not the best way to identify race/ethnicity, obviously, so I maybe wrong). Overall, of the last 114 speakers going back to 2007, I think only one was Black.

I don’t know who decides on the topics or the invitations, or how the event has unfolded over time, so I can’t comment on the process or motivations of those involved. But I think this is not good. The symposium is a substantial endeavor, with grant money from various sources. An invitation to speak there is a line on your CV, it comes with a small honorarium and travel expenses, and it’s a chance to network with other family researchers, grant-makers, and policy people. There also are a lot of students attending the talks. So whatever the reasons, it’s a shame more Black scholars haven’t been there.


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Percent describing themselves as “lower class” hits 40-year high

Yipes. Have you seen the General Social Survey responses to the CLASS question lately?

Since 1972, they’ve asked,

If you were asked to use one of four names for your social class, which would you say you belong in: the lower class, the working class, the middle class, or the upper class?

The responses have been pretty stable, with close to an even split between working and middle, and tails of 5% or less in upper and lower. But not anymore:

gss-classIt might not look that dramatic. But let me zoom in on that red line for you:



I’m sure some of you (like those who have written books on this question) will be able to explain this beyond: wow, this recession made more people poor. The official poverty rate today is about where it was back when “lower class” was at 4%.



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Charles Murray on his propaganda playing field

I have some notes on Charles Murray’s new book Coming Apart, and the reactions to it, for a would-be essay. Since I haven’t read the book yet, I’m not ready to write that essay, but there are some things you can say without reading the book. Maybe this will be handy or interesting for those who operate in the faster information lanes.

First, remember who we’re dealing with: Murray is not a scholar doing (peer reviewed) research to advance our collective understanding of social life. He is a political propagandist. So we can hold him responsible primarily for the consequences of his work rather than its scientific veracity (which does require reading the book). He works for the American Enterprise Institute, a charitable-in-the-legal-sense front for corporate interests, which launders the tax-free contributions of its donors — a who’s-who of right-wing elites — to create “expert” opinion that in turn shapes and justifies the actions of government leaders.

Of course, they are not alone in this, but they are leaders of the form. This is from their latest annual report:

By treating their representatives as legitimate experts we play into their diabolical schemes.

Stop the presses

In addition to wasting everyone’s time in Congress, AEI is also very effective at promoting their representatives’ work in the media — where hardly anyone does more than mention AEI in passing. Murray’s book has been reviewed not once, but twice in the New York Times. And AEI achieved a near-perfect placement record among the Times‘s top columnists, including David Brooks (“I’ll be shocked if there’s another book this year as important”) and Ross Douthat (“brilliant”), Paul Krugman (“the new book at the heart of the conservative pushback”), and Nicholas Kristoff (“he’s right to highlight social dimensions of the crisis among low-skilled white workers”). The latter two are critical, too, but not enough to overcome the adage about publicity. (The Times also ran a good roundup by Thomas Edsall.)

The marketing campaign includes, naturally, advance bashing of sociologists, the small corner of academia that did the best job of debunking his last big book, The Bell Curve. “I am sure there are still sociology departments where people would cross themselves if I came into the room,” he smirked to the Chronicle of Higher Education. But in that article, sociologist Dalton Conley is quoted as calling Murray, “probably the most influential social-policy thinker in America” (before offering some critical comments as well).

As Anne Coulter might say, though, “our sociologists” aren’t so bad. Brad Wilcox, for example, has joined the fawning chorus at the Wall Street Journal (which previewed the book), declaring we (Whites) are “a nation where millions of people are losing touch with the founding virtues that have long lent American lives purpose, direction and happiness … The scope and cost of government grows, and liberty withers, when the family breaks down.”

Like old times

Like Newt Gingrich, Murray uses the looming specter of Black pathology to whip up apocalyptic fears among Whites (while somehow convincing some people he’s not a racist because he describes “America” with data on Whites). The two were anti-welfare soul-mates in the 1990s, when Murray wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal called “The Coming White Underclass” (10/29/93), which was a preview of Coming Apart.

He wrote then:

Every once in a while the sky really is falling, and this seems to be the case with the latest national figures on illegitimacy… now the overall white illegitimacy rate is 22%. The figure in low-income, working-class communities may be twice that. How much illegitimacy can a community tolerate? Nobody knows, but the historical fact is that the trendlines on black crime, dropout from the labor force, and illegitimacy all shifted sharply upward as the overall black illegitimacy rate passed 25%. … But the brutal truth is that American society as a whole could survive when illegitimacy became epidemic within a comparatively small ethnic minority. It cannot survive the same epidemic among whites.

For what it’s worth, the “illegitimacy” rate is 41% nationally, and 29% for non-Hispanic Whites. And, of course, the crime rate is through the … floor. So, look to him for reliable predictions about whether “American society as a whole [can] survive” at your own risk.

His solutions then, in addition to zeroing out welfare for single mothers, included dropping the sentimental attachment to letting people raise their own children:

Those who prattle about the importance of keeping children with their biological mothers may wish to spend some time in a patrol car or with a social worker seeing what the reality of life with welfare-dependent biological mothers can be like.

This is a very partial rundown. Feel free to add your own links in the comments.


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Gingrich channels William Julius Wilson?

Illustrations from NY Review of Books, here and here.

Newt Gingrich, in Iowa, December 1, 2011:

Really poor children, in really poor neighborhoods, have no habits of working, and have nobody around them who works. So they literally have no habit of showing up on Monday, they have no habit of staying all day. They have no habit of “I do this and you give me cash,” unless it’s illegal.

William Julius Wilson, The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy (1987):

Inner-city social isolation also generates behavior not conducive to good work histories. The patterns of behavior that are associated with a life of casual work (tardiness and absenteeism) are quite different from those that accompany a life of regular or steady work (e.g., the habit of waking up early in the morning to a ringing alarm clock). In neighborhoods in which nearly every family has at least one person who is steadily employed, the norms and behavior patterns that emanate from a life of regularized employment become part of the community gestalt. (p. 60)

Wilson tried to differentiate between the “culture of poverty” and “social isolation,” but the distinction often has not come through in the popular retelling of his work.

Perhaps coincidentally, Gingrich started on this pitch in a speech at Harvard, where Wilson is in the sociology department.


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Play, supervision and pressured parenting

Americans about my age and older all seem to have stories about how we survived our school playgrounds without today’s cushy soft surfaces, safety-oriented climbing structures, and running water.

Here is a picture of the playground at my elementary school. I myself survived a fall off one of those seesaws onto the broken-glass-strewn asphalt, with nothing but a scrape to show for it (attended to by the school secretary — there was no “school nurse” back then either).
In the safety craze in recent decades, sadly, real seesaws were one of the first things to go.

Go back another few generations, and you’ll find stories like this — about 200 children killed in the streets of New York in 1910 (from the NYT Jan. 1, 1911).

Most of those kids weren’t in cars or wagons; they were playing in the streets, doing work for their families, or just wandering around unattended — there were no public playgrounds. In contrast, in 2009 there were about 10 pedestrian or cycling children killed by vehicles in New York City. Ah, the good old days.*


A USDA program uses digital cameras to analyze food selections and waste content as trays come and go from the lunch line in schools with high obesity rates.

As things have gotten safer for America’s children, of course, parents have become ever more concerned with their safety, as well as with their learning and development. Somewhere in America on a Sunday a few weeks ago, in an affluent community, a public playground was bubbling with activity. Every child seemed to be enjoying a rollicking good time on the latest safety-designed play equipment, cushioned by a luxuriously deep bed of mulch.

Also, each child seemed to be within a few feet of a parent or other adult caretaker — coaching, encouraging, spotting, supervising.

In recent years, concern about the physical fitness of children has increased, especially among poor children. Some researchers have asked whether the proximity of safe neighborhood playgrounds is one cause of the social class disparity in obesity rates. That would make sense because obesity rates are lower among children who play outdoors. But the relationship between social class and playing outdoors is not clear at all. Rich children have more access to some kinds of facilities, but poor children have more free time — and, where there is public housing, it usually includes playgrounds, like this one photographed in the 1960s:


Photo by Ann Zane Shanks.

In Annette Lareau’s analysis of family life and social class, Unequal Childhoods, children of middle class and richer parents spend more time in organized activities, and poorer kids spend more time in unstructured time (including play and TV). But as these pictures show, there’s play and there’s play. Are middle class parents hovering more than poorer parents do, and with what effect?

Consider a recent article by Myron Floyd and colleagues (covered here), which attempted to assess the level of physical activity among children in public parks by observing 2,700 children in 20 public parks in Durham, NC:

[The] presence of parental supervision was the strongest negative correlate of children’s activity… the presence of adults appears to inadvertently suppress park-based physical activity in the current study, particularly among younger children. … This result should be used to encourage park designers to create play environments conducive to feelings of safety and security that would encourage rather than discourage active park use among children. For example, blending natural landscapes, manufactured play structures, and fencing in close intimate settings can be used to create comfortable environments for children and families. Such design strategies could encourage parents to allow their children to freely explore their surroundings, providing more opportunities for physical activity.

Interestingly, park in the pictured above has a fence around it so that parents can hang around at a distance with little fear for their children.

Under social pressure

In Under Pressure, one of many books bemoaning the excesses of over-parenting, Carl Honoré wrote:

Even when we poke fun at overzealous parenting … part of us wonders, What if they’re right? What if I’m letting my children down by not parenting harder? Racked by guilt and terrified of doing the wrong thing, we end up copying the alpha parent in the playground.

The point is not just that some parents have overzealous supervisory ambitions, driven by unequal investments in children and a threateningly competitive future. I think there is a supervision ratchet that feeds on the interaction between parents. In an article called “Playground Panopticism,” Holly Blackford summarized her observations:

The mothers in the ring of park benches symbolize the suggestion of surveillance, which Foucault describes as the technology of disciplinary power under liberal ideals of governance. However, the panoptic force of the mothers around the suburban playground becomes a community that gazes at the children only to ultimately gaze at one another, seeing reflected in the children the parenting abilities of one another.

This plays out in everyday interaction, whether one wants to engage it or not. If everyone else’s kid is closely supervised while yours is running around bonkers on her own, is a parent to do? If the other parents insist that their kids not go “up the slide” and yours just scrambles past them, you feel the pressure. (You also put the other parent in the position of violating another taboo — supervising someone else’s child.) So it’s not just fear of underparenting that drives parents to hover — it’s also the cross-parent interactions. These are the moments when contagious parenting behavior spreads.

*I started looking at this after reading about it in Viviana Zelizer’s Pricing the Priceless Child, in which she writes, “The case of children’s accidental death provides empirical evidence of the new meanings of child life in twentieth-century America.”

Reminder: This blog post does not constitute research, but rather commentary, observation and recommendations for reading and discussion. The description of my childhood playground, and of one recent afternoon at one park, are anecdotes, something that stimulates reflection on wider issues, not empirical evidence or data.


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