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Introduction to Sociology

Ron Hammond, Paul Cheney, Raewyn Pearsey

Chapter 09 - Stratification

Stratification and the Three P's

Did you ever live in a home where the basement was really cold and the upstairs was hot? I did while growing up; we had cold layers of air in the basement and warmer layers upstairs. I didn't know it at the time but when layers occur in nature it is called stratification. Layers occur almost everywhere in nature: in tissues of the human body, rock formations in the ground, atmospheres around the earth, and in societies of every nation on the earth. We call these layers strata and the process of layering stratification. Societies have stratification, too.

Social Stratification is the socio-economic layering of society's members according to property, power, and prestige. Property is all the wealth, investments, deeded and titled properties, and other tangible sources of income. Pobwer is the ability to get one's way even in the face of opposition to one's goals. Prestige is the degree of social honor attached with your position in society. As things go, those with lots of property tend to also have lots of power and social prestige. Those with less property tend to have less power and prestige.

The key concept of this chapter is that there are layers of social stratification in every society, nation, and even at the global level-there are the "haves" who coexist with the masses or "Have nots." Does this remind you of Karl Marx and Max Weber? It should. They focused heavily on wealth and poverty in the complex social systems of their day. In our current social world there are a very few who are extremely wealthy.

At they reported that there were 1,588 billionaires throughout the world in 2013 with a combined net worth of $6.6 trillion and with individual net worth ranging between $1-78.6 billion (Retrieved 19 June 2014 from The World’s Billionaires at SOURCE ). The report identified the "top five loser billionaires" who each had lost hundreds of millions of dollars over the last year, totaling $2,259,900,000!

The GNI PPP Index Score

In spite of the rare and isolated wealth of these 793 people, billions of other people still experience hunger, poverty, preventable illness, early deaths, and famines and wars. In a reference we use often in this textbook, you will find the Population Reference Bureau's World Population Data Sheet can be very enlightening in this discussion ( ).

The PRB uses a measure of relative economic well being called the GNI PPP. The GNI PPP is the gross national income of a country converted to international dollars using a factor called the purchasing power parity. In other words this lets you understand how much a person could buy in the US with a given amount of money, regardless of the country's currency. It lets the United Nation and Population Reference Bureau have a common value to compare countries with when they look at international stratification issues. The 2012 estimates include key information from the World Bank.

The higher the GNI PPP the better off the average person in that country. Look at Table 1 below to see GNI PPP values for selected countries and regions of the world in 2012. The US ranks high $52,340 per capita (per person) but is the 17th wealthiest. Contrast that to Liberia's score of just $290 per year. The only other nation as poor as Liberia is the Democratic Republic of the Congo also at $370. You can already see that there is clear evidence of stratification at a global level.

In this report many of the countries are divided into "low, Middle, and High" income regions. The developed world or "High Income" region of the world averaged $38,444 while the low income region averaged $594 and the middle income region averaged $4,408." The high income region is nearly 65 times wealthier than the low income region and nearly 9 times wealthier than the middle income region.

More Developed Nations are nations with comparably higher wealth than most countries of the world including: Western Europe; Canada, United States, Japan, and Australia-these are also called Now Rich Countries. More developed nations are often referred to as high income nations which had a gross per capita national income in excess of $12,616 in 2012 (Atlas dollars see SOURCE ).

Less Developed Nations are nations located near to or south of the Equator which have less wealth and more of the world's population of inhabitants including: Africa, India, Central and South America, most island nations, and most of Asia (Excluding China)-these are also called Now Poor Countries. These countries are classified as low income or as having less than $1,035 per person. Africa is the poorest region with the average person making less than 1/10th of what the average US person makes.

Table 1. Selected GNI PPPs for Countries and Regions of the World, Atlas $ 2012*.
Country or Region GNI PPP
High Income $ 38,444
Low Income $ 594
Middle Income $ 4,400
East Asian & Pacific $ 4,884
Europe & Central Asia $ 6,658
South Asia $ 1,437
Sub Saharan Africa $ 1,547
European Union $38,115
Niger $ 390
United States $52,640
Brazil $11,630
Norway $98,790
World $10,212
*Retrieved 19 June 2014 from Gross national income per capita 2012, Atlas (US Dollars) and PPP (international dollars) SOURCE

Look at Figure 1 which shows the top 5 GNI PPP countries of the world. Again Luxembourg at $64,400 has a score over 20 times higher than Africa's; 11 times higher than Asia (Excl. China); and 7 times higher than Latin America. The other top 4 countries scores follow: Norway-$53,690; Kuwait-$49,970; Brunei-$49,900; and Singapore-$48,520. Now look at Figure 2 which shows a comparison of the bottom 5 lowest scoring nations in the world. Their respective incomes are as follows: Liberia-$290; Dem. Rep. of Congo-$290; Burunei-$330; Djibouti-$400; and Guinea-Bissau-$470. The average GNI PPP score for the top five was $53,296 and for the bottom 5 it was $356. That means the stratification difference between the world's top five countries is over 149 times higher than the bottom 5 countries.

Figure 1. A Comparison of the Top 5 GNI PPP Country's Scores in 2012*.
*From 2013 World Population Data Sheet: Demographic Data and Estimates for the Countries and Regions of the World.
Figure 2. A Comparison of the Top 5 GNI PPP Country's Scores in 2012*
*From 2013 World Population Data Sheet: Demographic Data and Estimates for the Countries and Regions of the World SOURCE

United States Layers-Strata

There is similar stratification in the United States. Look at Figure 3 to see the general upward trend in median income for all races especially from about 1995 and later. You can see the blue vertical shaded bars that represent the years of economic recession. Income declines during recessions But, notice the layers with Asians, Whites (non-Hispanics), Hispanics, then Blacks (data were not available for Native Americans). Asians had a median income of $68,636 contrasted to Blacks at $33,321 (That equals $35,515 more for Asians).

Inflation happens when the general cost of goods rises while the general purchasing power of a country’s currency is declining. These dollars are multiplied by a number that converts them all to having the same buying power as 2012 dollars. That conversion is often calculated using a value called the Consumer Price Index (CPI) or the weighted average rise or fall of certain types of goods within an economy (such as medical care, food, and transportation). When income is adjusted to a standard value in a given year (say 2012), it is called controlling for (or adjusting for) inflation.

Figure 3. A Comparison of the US Median Household Income by Race and Hispanic 1967-2012*.
*Retrieved 19 June 2014 from Figure 1 Real median household income by race and Hispanic origin: 1967 to 2012 DeNavas-Walt, Carmen, Bernadette D. Proctor, and Jessica C. Smith, U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Reports, P60-245, Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2012, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, 2013.

Figure 4 shows a comparison of earnings of men and women between 1960 and 2012 (in constant 2012 dollars). In the US, men have always earned a higher median income in comparison to women but the gap in income has be narrowing slightly since about 1980 with an increase in narrowing starting about 1995. The thick line on the top of this diagram indicates that the ratio of female-to-male median income was up to 77 percent meaning that women have a median of 77 cents earned for every one dollar men earned.

Figure 4. Female-to-Male Earnings and median Earnings in the US 1960-2012 (2012 dollars)*
*Retrieved 19 June 2014 from Figure 2 Female-to-Male Earnings Ratio and Median Earnings of Full-Time, Year-Round Workers 15 Years and Older by Sex: 1960 to 2012 DeNavas-Walt, Carmen, Bernadette D. Proctor, and Jessica C. Smith, U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Reports, P60-245, Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2012, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, 2013.

Figure 5 shows the number and percent in poverty in the US between 1959-2012. In 2012 there was 15.0 percent of the US population living in poverty. Between 1965 and 2012 the percent in poverty rose and fell below 11 and 15 percent. Notice the drop between1959 and 1979 when jobs were abundant and the economy was doing moderately well.

Figure 5. Number and Percent of people living in Poverty in the US from 1959-2012
*Retrieved 19 June 2014 from Figure 4 Number in Poverty and Poverty Rate: 1959 to 2012 SOURCE DeNavas-Walt, Carmen, Bernadette D. Proctor, and Jessica C. Smith, U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Reports, P60-245, Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2012, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, 2013.

This is somewhat remarkable given the fact that 8 recessions occurred during this time frame and the fact that the US completely revised its welfare and poverty intervention laws in 1996 implementing Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) in place of the old Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). Many lobbyist, policy makers, and lawmakers might look at this trend and see the steady pattern as having been a success, at least in terms of the percent of those in poverty not returning to its 1959 level of 23 percent. Many who actually live in poverty would not. It is difficult for analyst to define that as a success given that there are currently 46.5 million living in poverty.

Figure 6 begins to show you why the layers look the way they do in society. As we will discuss later in Chapter 14 on education, dropping out of high school hurts your income and overall socio-economic well-being. Asians had the lowest dropout rates followed closely by Whites. Over 40 percent of Hispanics, African Americans, and Native Americans dropped out. Dropping out is a dead end personal income buster that hurts the individual, community, and society at large. Dropping out is a very bad economic choice. But, not all economic disadvantage results from our choices.

In the US, non-Whites, non-Asians, and non-males are more likely to be found in the lower layers. Figure 7 portrays what the layering of society might look like if the US population were divided into 3 groups, the top 10 percent extremely wealthy, the next 20 percent wealthy, and the remaining 70 percent of middle and lower classes. The top 10 percent of our country owns the lion’s share of all the wealth available to be owned in the US. They own as much as 100 times the average US person's wealth.

For a relative few they make more in a year than most of us make in a lifetime. Theirs' is the life of high levels of the 3 Ps. Among the next 20 percent Upper-class, they hold the high ranking jobs, run for elected office, and run the major corporations in CEO-level positions. These types of jobs: pay more; require more education; require more abstract thought; and allow for more self-directed, autonomy in their daily activities. The blue or largest category includes the remainder of us. We fall in some layer between upper middle class, middle class, working class, labor class, and/or poor. It has proven to be a fact that the higher one’s education, the higher one’s standard of living. In the United States, tremendous efforts have been made to provide a high school diploma and college degree to everyone (see information in Chapter 14 on education). Some successes have been measured.

Figure 6. Percentage of United States High School Dropouts Rates of 16-through 24-year-olds, by race/ethnicity: 1990 through 2012.
Retrieved from June 16, 2014 Figure 2. Status dropout rates of 16- through 24-year-olds, by race/ethnicity: 1990 through 2012 SOURCE
Figure 7. Portrayal of United States' Economic Layering
© 2009 Ron J. Hammond, Ph.D.

Understanding Poverty and Near Poverty

The US has an official definition of being poor or in poverty. The Poverty Line is the official measure of those whose incomes are less than three times a lower cost food budget. Many of the Federal and State welfare programs use these poverty guidelines for qualification criteria used to access welfare. Although $40,090 is a great deal of money, it would be difficult to support a family of 8 on it in 2014. This definition has been the US 's official poverty definition since the 1930s with only a few adjustments. Near Poverty is when one earns up to 25% above the poverty line. We would say that a person near poverty has an income below 125% of the current poverty line. Most who qualify as living below poverty also qualify for state and federal welfare which typically include health care benefits, food assistance, housing and utility assistance, and some cash aid. Those near poverty may or may not qualify depending upon current state and federal regulations.

Do you remember up above where reported that the world's 793 billionaires lost about 23 percent of their wealth (they also were worth about $3 billion each)? If they suffered that same 23 percent loss today they'd still be worth $2,310,000,000. You take your highest range of poverty line ($37,010 for a family of 10) and take 23 percent of a loss on that you see real economic hurting with only $28,478 for 10 people in the family. We've all lost during these economic downturns and we've all gained something in the upswings. But, the losses hurt the lower layers of the economic strata sometimes to the point that they fall below the ability to sustain their families. Absolute Poverty is the level of poverty where individuals and families cannot sustain food, shelter, warmth, and safety needs. Those below poverty are already in a bind. For example, the average home where I live in Utah costs way more than the average poor family of 10 could afford. A family that big could not find an apartment to rent. They might find a mobile home or might even on a real lucky break find some government subsidized housing assistance. Not being able to find suitable housing is correlated with many other social challenges for families.

Table 3. US Poverty Guidelines 2014 With Near Poverty Estimates*
Number of People in Family Poverty Line Near Poverty Estimates <125% of Poverty Line
1 $11,670 $14,587
2 $15,730 $19,663
3 $19,790 $24,738
4 $23,850 $29,813
5 $27,910 $34,888
6 $31,970 $39,963
7 $36,030 $45,038
8 $40,090 $50,113
Retrieved 21 May 2014 The 2014 HHS Poverty Guidelines for 48 contiguous states (excluding Hawaii and Alaska) from SOURCE

In Figure 8 you can see the poverty and near poverty rates for various racial groups in the Unites States 1980 to 2006. The thick black line represents the sum of the percent in poverty and below 125 percent of the poverty line (near poverty) for each year. The line ranges about 25 percent or just below 1 in 4 being in or near poverty for the US. Whites (the redline) have the lowest rate of persons in poverty but make up the largest numbers of persons in poverty because Whites represent about 75 percent of the US population. Asians are slightly higher than Whites. The blue line represents the percent in poverty for all races. It's much lower than the high rates of poverty for Blacks and Hispanics because Whites are such a larger portion of the population that it pulls the overall average downward for all race. The near poverty line is tan. Hispanic is second worst and Black is the worst for percent in poverty. We see that the layers in the strata have racial factors for both poverty and near poverty levels (we'll discuss race issues more in Chapter 11). There are also layers in the strata based on education (we'll discuss this more in Chapter 14)

Figure 8. Poverty and Near Poverty in the United States: 1966-2012*
*Retrieved 16 June 2014 from Living in Near Poverty in the United States: 1966–2012, Charles Hokayem and Misty L. Heggeness May P60-248 SOURCE

The US with such a high GNI PPP score has relatively high level of a standard of living. Outside the US in the poorer regions of the world a GNI PPP income of $1.25 or less per day is considered below poverty (retrieved 19 June 2014 from The World’s State of the Poor . The World Bank report suggested that in 2011 about 1,200,000,000 (billion) people lived at or below this level in the world. It also reported a significant decline in extreme poverty worldwide.

There are differences among economic systems in which people live and have opportunities. This brings up a very important concept from Max Weber. Life Chances are an individual's access to basic opportunities and resources in the marketplace. Not all of us have the same life chances as others. For example, one of my best friends in high school came from a wealthy family. Her father was a neurosurgeon and they had many resources that myself and others like me didn't have. When I went to college, I was the first ever on either my mother or father's side to go to college. I had no financial aid, no family support, and such bad high school grades that I had no scholarship funding. My friend on the other hand had a new car, new Apple computer, all expenses paid apartment and living costs. She and I had very different life chances from one another. She earned her Master's degree and I earned my Ph.D. I only received help once from my father with a car repair bill (he gave me this as a graduation present). I worked numerous part-time jobs and eventually got my GPA high enough to earn a scholarship, and later graduate assistantship. I also had to take out thousands in student loans.


But, even I had far greater life chances than most people in the world today. So do you. We have K-12 education, access to college, and the possibility of a career of our choosing. In many less developed countries low to no formal education is common fare. The United Nations has the 2015 Millennium Development Goal and the Education For All initiative (see Table 12.1 from SOURCE ). It is simply that all children of the world will have access to a primary education by the year 2015.

This goal equates to them receiving K-6 education. In 2006, the world average was 83.4 percent of children getting some k-6 education with an expected number of 10.6 years for males and 11.1 years for females worldwide. In Africa many children get no formal education and in 2006, only 72.6 percent got K-6 with an expected 9.1 years for males 7.6 for females. As you can see, life chances vary from house to house, state to state, region to region, and nation to nation. It also clarifies your understanding of stratification to look to the nation's economic system.

Measuring Economic Systems: Class and Caste

The United States has an open class system of life chances and opportunities in the market place.

An Open Class System is an economic system that has upward mobility, is achievement-based, and allows social relations between the classes. India has a closed caste system. A Closed Caste System is an economic system that allows no mobility between caste levels: you are born into the caste you stay in your entire life, and you can't have social relations between the castes. India has a highly structured caste system which has 5 distinct cast layers called: Brahman (Priests or scholars); Kshatriya (Nobles and warriors); Vaishva (Merchants and skilled artisans); Shudra (Common laborers); and Harijan (Outcast/dirty workers).

In India you typically are born into a caste and that is your destiny for life. This was basically true up until the 1980s when multinational corporations began to set up various types of business enterprises in India. Western corporations hired thousands and thousands based upon their personal skills and achievements (a class trait in the West). The Indians have experienced cultural disruptions because talented individuals have worked their way above higher caste members in the organizational structure. We find similar violations of caste rules here in the US where Indians who migrate here find themselves with many opportunities. Their life chances increase by virtue of their being able to shift residence from a caste to a class society.

Sociologists like to study how people improve, diminish, or leave unchanged their economic status-we call this Social Mobility means the movement between economic strata in a society's system. There are a few key types of mobility. Upward Mobility means moving from a lower to higher class. Downward Mobility is moving from a higher to a lower class. Horizontal Mobility is remaining in the same class. We can compare mobility between or within generations of family members. Inter-generational Mobility is the research of mobility between generations (IE: grandparents to parents to grandchildren to great-grandchildren).

Just list the occupation your grandparents, parents, and you have and rank them by property, power, and prestige. This is a measure of inter-generational mobility at your personal level. Intra-generational Mobility is the research of mobility within a generation. Just compare your property, power, and prestige between you and your brothers and sisters (this might even work for comparisons between you and your cousins).

Structural Mobility is mobility in social class, which is attributable to changes in social structure of a society at the larger social, not personal level. The United States has experienced collective upward social mobility for the entire nation over the last 40 plus years. Upward structural mobility can be identified in Figure 3 above as you look at the trends of median household income over the last few decades. On the other hand certain portions of the US society are experiencing more upward mobility than others.

The Congressional Budget office reported that between 1979 and 2007, the US after tax income grew 275 percent for the top 1 percent of the richest people; 65 percent for the next 19 percent richest; 39 percent for the people who feel between the 21-60 percent richest category; then rose only 18 percent for the US’s poorest poor or lowest 20 percent (retrieved 19 June 2014 from Trends in the distribution of household income between 1979-2007 SOURCE ).

The Middle Class are defined as those between the upper class and poorer class members of society. This sounds fairly concise and accurate, but there is also a subjective component to being middle class—your values and aspirations. Many middle class want their children to graduate college build for a retirement, buy a nice home, buy a nice car, and take their family on a few vacations. Surveys find that many Americans define themselves as belonging to the middle class, even if they have low or higher levels of income (See Cashell, Brian W. "Who are the Middle Class?" CRS Report for Congress. October 22, 2008 and Middle Class in America SOURCE ).

Many middle class people in the US work toward what many have called, the "American Dream." USA Today ran an article 4 July 2014 on exactly what that dream might costs (Retrieved 7 August 2014 from What it Cost To Live The American Dream, by Howard R. Gold, SOURCE ). The article estimated annual earnings of $58,491 in order to buy the basic family of four dream; another $17,009 to afford a few of the niceties or extras; another $54,857 to pay taxes and put money into retirement and college funds for a total of $130,357 to live the so called, "American dream." Of course most in the US do not come close to earning this much money, but many still strive to be able to.

The US Census Bureau provided Census data between 1967 and 2012 indicating the percent share of the total US wealth obtained by the population and depicted in quintiles. Quintiles are groups of people in society divided in to 5 distinct subgroups, each representing 20 percent of the population. In this case the quintiles represent the poorest 20 percent; 2nd poorest 20 percent; middle 20 percent; 2nd richest 20 percent; and richest 20 percent of the US population for each year. Figure 9 shows the share of the total US income obtained by each quintile of the country’s richest on down to poorest 20 percentage groups.

It is obvious that the richest 20 percentile has seen a dramatic rise in the share of the total US wealth obtained since 1969. The lower 4 quintiles or 80 percent have each seen a steady decline over the last 4-5 decades.

Figure 9. Percent of Total US Wealth Obtained by 5 US Quintile Income Groups 1967-2012*
* retrieved 19 June 2014 from Historical Income Tables: Households, Table H-2. Share of Aggregate Income Received by Each Fifth and Top 5 Percent of Households, All Races: 1967 to 2012 and Excel files in All Races Table H-2. Share of Aggregate Income Received by Each Fifth and Top 5 Percent of Households.

Sociologists who focus on stratification typically use official data to measure the layers. This is what is called the Objective Method, where researchers set up categories and rank people according to preset objective criteria (such as median household income). Sociologists also talk to people or ask their opinions about the layers and how they perceive their fit into the economic strata.

The Reputational Method is where researchers look to people who know the individual and subjectively report on his/her class. We ask them to answer a survey question such as "which class best fits your current economic situation? __Rich, __Middle, __Working, or __Poverty Class". Notice the absence of numbers in the reputational method.

Yes, there are layers in society. Through sociology’s theories and statistical style you can begin to better understand how they develop and how they are perpetuated in various forms both within and between countries.

Additional Reading

  • There is an interesting report on empowering women economically free on the United Nations webpage.LINK.
  • The United Nations set up 8 Millennium goals to reach by 2015 LINK
  • meritocracy
  • Davis-Moore thesis
  • capitalist
  • proletarians
  • alienation
  • blue-collar occupations
  • white-collar occupations
  • socioeconomic status
  • conspicuous consumption
  • feminization of poverty
  • slavery
  • bonded labor
  • indentured service
  • ideology
  • endogamy
  • apartheid
  • estate stratification system
  • social mobility
  • proletariat
  • class consciousness
  • false class consciousness
  • meritocracy
  • divine right of kings
  • first world
  • second world
  • third world
  • world system theory
  • globalization of capitalism
  • culture of poverty
  • neocolonialism
  • multinational corporations
  • structured inequalities
  • slavery
  • occupation
  • Marx means of production and the analysis of class
  • Weber class and status
  • means of production
  • surplus value
  • pariah groups
  • status
  • Davis and Moore functions of stratification
  • Erik Olin Wright contradictory class locations
  • Annette Laureau on parenting styles
  • contradictory class locations
  • upper middle class
  • lower middle class
  • upper class
  • middle class
  • working class
  • lower class
  • underclass
  • intergenerational mobility
  • intragenerational mobility
  • exchange mobility
  • relative poverty
  • working poor
  • feminization of poverty
  • children in poverty
  • the elderly in poverty
  • homeless
  • Kuznets curve
  • culture of poverty
  • dependence culture

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