Social Stratification and the American Dream

Social stratification plays an intricate role in American society. Through social stratification Americans are categorized into specific categories. These categories are then divided into different sections and statuses. In America, social stratification can be seen in someone’s socio-economic status, determined by their geographic location, occupation, or education. Divisions like this can be harmful by those who are negatively affected by social stratification. For example, many poor people are negatively affected by social stratification. The poor are of low socio-economic status and limited quality of life compared to their middle and upper class counterparts. In this way, social stratification can work to further harm the people negatively affected. The effects of social stratification on American society makes one consider the concept of the American dream. With division among social classes, is the American Dream a real possibility for all Americans or is this only a myth? By understanding the concepts of social stratification, it becomes apparent the American dream is not a reality for all Americans.

Many people are familiar with the concept of the American dream. The American dream describes the individual who goes from rags to riches. This is someone who is poor or disadvantaged, and through diligence and hard work is able to become prosperous and successful. “A romantic ideal, it provides hope for those who struggle not only with adversity but with prejudice and exclusion on a daily basis”, (Marin, 2008). The image of the American Dream is portrayed throughout American culture and can be seen in movies and media. Through this understanding, all Americans are able to become rich and live happily ever after. However, how can one become successful and reach the American dream when America is socially divided among class lines? Social stratification implies division among society that is based on social inequality. Many of these inequalities are related to someone’s socio-economic class.  Therefore, there are inconsistencies between people who are rich and those who are poor. People who do not fit into these two castes are recognized as middle class. Although socio-economic status differs from household to household, many researchers and experts suggest that everyone can become rich and live the American dream.

 

ASSUMPTIONS ABOUT THE AMERICAN DREAM

There are a number of published experts and enthusiast who insist that anyone can make it rich if they just follow a list of specific rules. However, does this strategy apply to all Americans? When reading the books, the Automatic Millionaire and 9 Steps to Financial Freedom, it was easy to see that having the American dream may not be easy for all Americans. These books provided great and useful advice to money management, investing for the future, and obtaining wealth. Although it gave ideas for future financial decisions, the author’s recommendations do not apply to all Americans. This can be seen as the authors made general assumptions about Americans and American society.

In the book, 9 Steps to Financial Freedom (2000) the author Suze Orman made many assumptions about Americans. These assumptions can make it difficult for some to identify with the book and apply financial advice to real life situations. For example, Orman offers advice to her readers to help them gain financial freedom. The book “covers everything from wills and trust and what insurance you need (and don’t need) to new ways to think about debt and your 401k or retirement plan to how to invest and what to invest in”, (Orman 2000: iix). Orman’s book covers useful information that can be helpful to many people. However it is not helpful to all people. From Orman’s perspective, to gain financial freedom, the individual must have these assets listed. This includes medical insurance and a 401k plan. These are benefits that come with fulltime employment and people working in their career for several years. However, there are some people who work fulltime and have neither a 401k nor medical insurance. It also assumes that all Americans have assets. People who do not own property or business may not have a will or trust fund. Without these basic requirements, assets and fulltime employment, some Americans are unable to achieve the financial freedom that Orman encourages throughout her book.

The Automatic Millionaire Workbook (2005) is another book that help people obtain the American dream. However, like Orman’s book it also makes many assumptions about Americans and their finances. In this book, the author David Bach states, “money isn’t why people fail to reach their financial goals… you almost certainly make enough money today to become an automatic millionaire”, (2005, p. 11). Here, Bach assumes that all American’s make enough money to become rich however are making the wrong decisions with their finances. This general assumption is not true for everyone. Families dependent on social service programs like welfare and disability may not make enough money to sustain themselves. Another example is observed in President Obama’s 2013 State of the Union speech. In his speech Obama recognized that fulltime American’s working for minimum wage live below the poverty line. So, although some people are employed fulltime and hardworking, they may not be in the financial position to become a millionaire if he or she does not have enough money cover their basic household expenses, let alone to save or invest their money.

When comparing the assumptions of these two books, Orman’s book makes more assumptions about the American public and the American dream. Orman states that the goal of her book is to, “make you independent from financial advisors” (Orman, 2000). However, the average American does not have a financial advisor. For different cultures and subcultures, a financial advisor is taboo or unheard of. This is true for African American’s where many do not talk openly about their debt and finances nor do they seek advice to reduce debt except to borrow money to eliminate debt. The assumption that Americans are dependent on financial advisors to sustain themselves is a broad statement and does not apply to some considered middle-class. Although Bach makes assumptions about American society, many of the assumptions are related so sustainability. While Orman assumes that her readers are dependent on financial advisors, Bach assumes that all Americans are financially independent. These assumptions make it difficult for the author to reach out to the average American. It also creates an example of the social stratification system evident in American society. Their assumptions demonstrate the division between lower and upper class society and the difficulty for lower class society to move up the social ladder.

THE AMERICAN DREAM AND SOCIAL CLASS

The ideal of the American dream is that someone who is poor can become rich and successful with hard work and dedication. The financial freedom and millionaire status implied in these get-rich books are based off the ideals of the American dream. However, the authors did not address people who are in poverty and low socio-economic class. This only stresses the division between the rich and the poor and the importance of social status.  “An emphasis on status and status aspirations is linked with occupation and features personal achievements and success rather than family heritage, the importance and accident of birth”, (Encyclopedia, 2008: n.p). The authors only recognize middle class and upper class individuals, people who have reached specific milestones in life. This includes occupational, professional, and educational achievements. According to the authors, these are the people who have the potential to become a millionaire or have financial freedom. Although these books provide tools and strategies for middle-class individuals to become upper-class, they do not include lower-class or impoverished citizens to help them reach this American dream. Thus, they lack the inclusion of all Americans in to their strategy to financial success.

By excluding lower class citizens and their financial circumstances, Orman and Bach are emphasizing the social stratification system. They are doing this by ignoring the problem of poverty and not providing a path for these individuals to become financial free or millionaires. In this way, they are continuing the social disenfranchisement of poor people through exclusion. An example of this can be seen in the real life situations Orman gives people in need of financial freedom. She describes Suzanne who has no debt but has not saved for her financial future and Andy who saves his money but afraid to invest (Orman, 2000: 17). In many cases, there are people who consider themselves middle class and are not in these financial situations. Some middle class families live paycheck to paycheck and live in financial poverty. “The more a majority discriminates in social intercourse against a minority, the smaller is the discrepancy between the majorities lower and the minorities higher rate of intergroup associations”, (Blau, 2002: n.p). Despite the social intercourse that occurs between the different socio-economic classes, upper class citizens continue to discriminate against lower class citizens continuing the system of social stratifications found throughout American society.

HORATIO ALGER MYTH AND THE AMERICAN DREAM

Horatio Alger was an early American writer who wrote stories honoring the ideals of the American dream. In his stories, as long as a man was diligent and hardworking he can become prosperous and successful. “Alger… projected the view that success goes to those who exemplify correct values”, (Steinberg, 2008: 134). This is true for many Americans throughout history and today. American idol is a talent show searching for America’s next undiscovered singer and the Pursuit of Happiness is a movie depicting a true modern day story of rags to riches. So, in many ways there is truth to the Horatio Alger myth and the legend of the American dream. However, achieving the American dream maybe easier for some people than others. This is seen when reading 9 Steps to Financial Success and the Automatic Millionaire Workbook.

In his book, the Automatic Millionaire, Bach suggests that the number one secret to the American dream is to make your financial plans automatic (1998: 14). “All you need to do is take full advantage of the technology that lets you make automatic payments to everything from your mortgage to your 401k”, (Bach, 1998: 14). Yet, this may be difficult for some people to do. Many people living in poverty do not have a computer. Others do not have access to the internet at home. In addition to this, people in poverty may not be able to do this because they do not have a bank account and do not use a debit or credit card. Others may not be able to pay their rent or mortgage with one pay check. Therefore, this simple rule is not as simple for poor people who live under such circumstances. As a rule to becoming a millionaire, it excludes lower class citizens. It suggests that poor people cannot become millionaires. The strategy Bach gives us in his book is opposed to the American dream and Horatio Alger’s myth. Instead, is only provides a current example of the social stratification system found in American society and ways that it continues to disenfranchise people of low socio-economic status.

Orman and Bach make financial success look easy. Orman determines that financial freedom can be found in 9 steps while Bach concludes that people must change their mind frame to achieve financial gains. He suggests that by asking yourself some simple questions, someone can determine if they have the mindset of a millionaire. However, in his book Bach admits that “today the American dream is on life support” (2005: 9). He goes on to blame lost ideals on the growing consumer culture and the desire to buy things we don’t need. From this perspective, he is identifying with all Americans and the framework of our American culture. This is because many people are driven by the image of wealth, despite the cost it takes to have these things. However, throughout his book he continues to make assumptions about his readers suggesting that the American dream can be achieved only if you are financially stable and independent- a middle class or upper middle class citizen.

Orman is able to reach out to ideals of the American dream and Horatio Alger’s myth by rationalizing the need for financial success. She states that “we need money to live as surely as we need air to breath and this need cuts across all races, both sexes and all income brackets” (Orman, 2000: 4). Her statement is true for many Americans. However when we really start to think about this statement, people really do not need money to live; people only require life to live. Yet the need to have money to sustain oneself is required to live the American dream. She admits that money does not make the person, but because there is a need for money, people should use their money well to save for their future. Although Orman takes such an assertive stand on the ideas of wealth, she does not provide a financial method of success for those impoverished. In her book, the layout for the American dream includes a fulltime job with full benefits and the lifestyle of middle class Americans.

 

THE AMERICAN DREAM?

A sociology researcher tells us that, “status distributions are nearly always positively skewed with a majority of the population occupying less than average status and small numbers occupying status that is far above average”, (Blau, 2002).  This statement implies that lower and middle class citizens make up the true majority of the American population. This true majority make up the American society. These are people disenfranchised by their socio-economic status, they live pay check to pay check, and are examples of the social stratification. Authors such as Ozman and Bach have developed strategies to help individuals reach financial success. Although they have good intentions, they exclude poor and some middle class citizens that can benefit from financial advice. From reading these books, the authors imply that only people living in a certain socio-economic class can achieve the American dream. In many ways this is true. Because of the system of social stratification found in our society, people who are lower and middle class may find it difficult to achieve financial success. Despite the difficulties, it does not mean that it cannot happen.

There are many success stories found both today and throughout history that tells us that there is no myth to the American dream. From athletes and performers, business owners and professionals, many Americans began their life poor or disenfranchised only to become a success story either by talent or luck. Social stratification is a system of inequality and division that categorizes people. In America, the social stratification system can be observed through socio-economic status. Someone’s status is not only determined by their income, it also is determined by their education or occupation. “The relations between classes are an important aspect of social process in complex societies and the various social classes and their relations are significant components of social organization” (Encyclopedia, 2008: n.p). Authors Orman and Bach want to help people achieve wealth and the American dream. However the approach used to help reduce financial strain for their audience, only continues poverty and social stratification found throughout American society.

 

            References

About Russia Robinson

I use my writing talents, and skills I’ve learned through academics and experience, to benefit the greater good of society. Conducting research, writing articles, essays, and blogging, I give informative information on a variety of topics and issues that affect society. I also write creative works like children’s books, short stories, poems, and a novel in progress. I earned a BA in English creative writing and American literature from San Francisco State and graduate studies in Technical Writing at Kennesaw State University. Through my career in education and mental health I have spent more than 10 years’ helping young people succeed. I am a certifiable Language Arts teacher, working in education, social services, and mental health. Interested in my writing services? Feel free to contact me via email.
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