American Social Classes Defined

In what American social class do you or your family reside: the wealthy, middle class, working class, or poor? I posed this question to a classroom of San Diego State University students taking an introductory course on American history from the Civil War to the present. This was my third semester working as a teaching assistant, and experience taught me that students understood history concepts best when explained by connecting them to real life experience. At this point in the course, we were discussing the social upheavals that buffeted American society from 1900-1930, particularly in the labor movement, and paved the way for President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal policies.

To make the polling as shameless as possible, I instructed students to close their eyes and raise their right hand above their heads if they were members of the wealthy class. If they identified as members of the middle class, students were told to raise just their left hands, and if they considered themselves part of the working class to raise both hands. Finally, I instructed those who identified as poor to not raise their hands.

As I counted the students, noting the number in each category, the majority identified themselves as being in the middle class. A smattering of students polled from the wealthy and working class, while one brave soul claimed a place among the poor. The results, however, did not conform to the statistics provided by SDSU administration that showed the majority of its students came from San Diego’s working class. To explore this statistical anomaly, I placed a student at a white board that listed the four social class groupings, while the class provided suggestions for the identifying characteristics of each social class.

Students began with a debate about the fiscal boundaries of each social class before moving on to define the economic factors important to all Americans. While on the surface determining the components that characterize an individual’s social class appeared simple, students struggled with this concept because Americans rarely think about class differences, with most simply believing they fit within the middle class. To really flesh out this problem, I asked the class to think about the major economic factors they will probably face while growing older. What services, I asked, will you need in day-to-day life, and which resources do you consider indulgent?

That simple question brought an avalanche of ideas forward and the class settled on eight factors that delineated each social class from the other: housing, transportation, healthcare, salary, savings/stock ownership, credit, profession, and the access and affordability of a college education for both adults and their offspring. Using these boundaries, the students’ produced a table (see below) that they believed reasonably defined each American social class.


Working Class

Middle Class




$18,000-one child

$22,000-two child



$32,000-one child

$38,000-two child



$1,000,000 +

Rent/Own home/apt

Rent/Own home/apt

Own home/multiple homes

Own multiple homes

Car/Public transportation

Car/Public transportation

Multiple vehicles

Multiple vehicles, ships, aircraft

High school education/some college

High school education/some college



Lives month-to-month on paycheck

Lives month-to-month on paycheck

Adequate paycheck

Ample economic growth

Dependent on credit cards or doesn’t own cc

Dependent on credit cards

Less dependent on CC

Use CC as convenience

No savings or stock ownership

Scant savings and some stock ownership

Monthly savings and stock ownership

Stock and corporate ownership

Limited access to healthcare

Limited access to healthcare

Access to healthcare

No limits on healthcare

Work more than one job

Work more than one job

One job or both working

Single job that utilizes work force

Cannot pay for child’s college education

Limited ability to fund child’s college education

Can pay for a child’s portion or complete college education

No barriers in paying child’s college education

Assigning class designation based on salary was the most sensible place to start because the data was readily available on government websites. I challenged students to find the data in less than five minutes, and pointed them to where they discovered the necessary figures. The paycheck remains a vital economic indicator for most Americans, and a deciding factor for where they will live, their means of transportation, and whether they will go to college. It determines the individual’s access to healthcare and credit, and the amount of savings, if any, for future retirement. More importantly, pay ascertains how much time and resources parents can spend on their children.

The prime domain for minimum wage laborers, the lowest paid workers often needed more than one job just to break even on a month-to-month basis, and depended on credit cards to afford vital services such as food, clothing, rent, and bills. With nothing left over at month’s end, savings are diminutive and limit educational opportunities. Unless employers provide healthcare plans, the poor’s access to medical aid is restricted to emergency hospital visits, or low cost community health centers that only deal with symptoms and not long-term solutions. Affordable housing eats up the largest portion of pay, and families often find themselves forced to live in gang controlled, crime infested neighborhoods. Faced with such a steep economic climb, families endured an overwhelming number of obstacles to escape generational poverty, the students decided.

To move into the working class required an almost doubling in pay based on economic figures, but it also opened up greater educational opportunities. Students posited that, although access to education improved, the other economic factors remained relatively stagnant, leaving the individual susceptible to employment downturns solved by increasing dependence on credit card or taking multiple jobs. Accruing savings was possible, but affordable college education for both the individual and offspring was only possible by accepting student loans. Housing opportunities also improved for members of this social class, lessening the incidents of crime and environmental pollution. The working class, students complained, was the most difficult to define and the least discussed by the nation’s politicians.

Advancement into the middle class required almost a doubling in salary relative to the working class, but students also decided that this group drew fiscal benefits from investing excess wages in stock markets. Access to higher education, and the professional connections derived from the experience, provided greater access to high-wage job markets, a benefit passed on to offspring through private schools and tutors. Credit card use among this well educated group was seen as more convenience driven than as a necessity, and members were able to pay the cost of college for offspring, both tuition and housing, without reliance on student loans. Without the negative effects of burdensome student loans weighing down on them, this group’s offspring were empowered with the advantages necessary to succeed on a generational basis.

The wealthy class, students decided, was the easiest to define because literally no obstacles, other than greed, constrained its members opportunities. Advanced education, fiscal abundance, and political adroitness provided this group with the power to manipulate legislative rules to influence beneficial tax and economic policies. Although President Barack Obama identified $200k as the low-end of the wealthy class, students decided that true financial freedom only occurred for those individuals earning a minimum of one million dollars annually. Wealth accumulation for this class ensues not only from the individual’s earnings, but also from the labor provided from the social classes below it.

Armed with this new understanding of contemporary socioeconomic class, I conducted another secret poll asking where my students believed they fit in the nation’s fabric. This time no one identified as wealthy, while the number identifying as middle class dropped dramatically, replaced by a rise in students claiming working-class and poor status. Class identification among my students brought home the reality of obstacles facing contemporary individuals to economic advancement, something readily apparent to American citizens living during the period from 1900-1930. Now, ask yourself, where do you fit in today’s American social class?