Uncomfortable Questions, Depressing Answers

In a recent INforefront post, James Madison asked some uncomfortable questions about the role class distinctions play in (theoretically classless) America.

Does the Land of the Free have class distinctions? Are such distinctions inevitable? Defensible?

American notions of class aren’t grounded in lineage and tradition—at least, not to the extent they are elsewhere. Class in America gets confused with concepts of meritocracy and echoes of Calvinism, the belief that earthly success was a sign of God’s favor and one’s  “chosen-ness.”

The conviction that material wealth was evidence of moral merit was accompanied by the conclusion that poverty must signal moral defect. Over the years, these doctrinal roots of our belief in the comparative worth of rich and poor was lost, subsumed into a secular, class-based proposition: poor folks are lazy “takers” who lack “middle-class values.”

In a culture that celebrates (fast-disappearing) meritocracy and social mobility, it’s easy to conclude that poverty is a result of class-based attitudes and characteristics. And of course, if you’re privileged, it’s satisfying to attribute your good fortune to individual merit rather than the fact you were born (with the “right” race, religion, gender and sexual orientation) into a family with the wherewithal to feed, clothe, educate and endow you.

These attitudes foster policies that favor the fortunate, diminish the middle class, and make social mobility virtually impossible for the working poor.

There will always be winners and losers. There will always be some people who work harder than others, who are smarter or more entrepreneurial and deserve to do better. But a society that confuses individual worth with money and social status is a class-based society.

Right now, unfortunately, that describes America.


  1. I guess I generally agree that American culture is all too quick to make quick judgements about poverty being the result of a lack of morality or being of the “right” stock. But I do think sometimes we progressive tend to get caught up in blaming everything that befalls those who are at the lower end of the economic spectrum on everything except individual failures to take personal responsibility. Now don’t throw things at me or refuse ever to have coffee or something stronger with me near Mass Avenue again……..or take away my liberal card……..I said “individual”. The problem is, often on both sides of the cultural divide….to stereotypically generalize about classes and groups.

  2. I grew up in the rural South during the 1950s. There were plenty of people living in poverty, poor folks, both black and white; however, among the poor folks there were distinct differences, cultural differences, for lack of a better description, that had absolutely nothing to do with skin color. Folks who are in the older Baby Boomer generation and who spent their youth far away from urban centers of polite society would understand this concept; younger people might not get it, but I have a gut level feeling that many readers are familiar with this concept. It was called ‘class’, and ‘class’ had little to do with a person’s net worth; it had more to do with an overall concept of time, maybe universal time and the concept of delayed gratification. Yes, there were distinct ‘classes’ during my childhood, and being poor did not equate with being in a lower class. Being a member of the lower class was, and still is behind closed doors, a very real thing that a pot load of money seldom alters. As a hypothetical, think of a dude named Billy Bob, a life-long resident of Harlan County, KY living in a rusty double-wide trailer home hanging off the side of a hill who suddenly wins $100M in the Lottery and is flat broke in less than 5 years. Billy Bob lacks a concept of universal time, a concept of planning for the future, a concept of delaying his gratification. Yes, whatever we might wish, there are classes in the US, both in urban areas and in rural areas.

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