According to the nonprofit resource center Class Action, classism can be defined as the systematic assignment of characteristics of worth and ability based on social class and the systematic oppression of subordinated groups (people without endowed or acquired economic power, social influence, and privilege) by the dominant groups (those who have access to control of the necessary resources by which other people make their living). It includes individual attitudes and behaviors, systems of policies and practices that benefit the upper classes at the expense of the lower classes, the rationale that supports these systems and this unequal valuing, and the culture that perpetuates them.
Before going on to develop this definition of classism, it is necessary to also define which classes are subordinate to which others. Many scholars, whether they are sociologists, economists, or psychologists, begin their attempts to define class structure by acknowledging that there is no conclusive definition. The language used to describe groups of interest varies widely, including such terminology as poor, low income, disadvantaged, working class, blue collar, white collar, wealthy, and upper class; class indicators (the criteria used to differentiate class membership) include such considerations as income, attitudes and beliefs, educational level, job prestige, power in the workplace, and differences between manual and physical labor. Each of these formulations captures some, but not all, of the truth about the lived experience of social class, but the most useful definition for a discussion of classism as a form of oppression will be one that incorporates considerations of social power and powerlessness. Along these lines, authors Betsy Leondar-Wright and Michael Zweig have offered similar formulations that include the following elements:
- Poverty class: Predominantly working-class people who, because of unemployment, low-wage jobs, health problems, or other crises, are without enough income to support their basic needs.
- Working class: People who have little power or authority in the workplace, little control over the availability or content of jobs, and little say in the decisions that affect their access to health care, education, and housing. They tend to have lower levels of income, net worth, and formal education than more powerful classes.
- Middle class: Professionals, managers, small business owners, often college-educated and salaried. Middle-class people have more autonomy and control in the workplace than working-class people, and more economic security; however, they rely upon earnings from work to support themselves.
- Owning class: People who own enough wealth that they do not need to work to support themselves; people who own and control the resources by which other people earn a living. The owning class includes people who, as a result of their economic power, also have significant social, cultural, and political power relative to other classes.
To better understand classism, it is necessary to locate it within a conceptual framework that helps further clarify it. First, classism is a form of oppression and, as such, does not refer simply to prejudiced attitudes that people of one social class group might have regarding members of another class. Rather, classism, like racism, sexism, and heterosexism, is an interlocking system that involves domination and control of social ideology, institutions, and resources, resulting in a condition of privilege for one group relative to the disadvantage of another. Of course, members of both dominant and subordinated groups are capable of harboring prejudiced attitudes, but only dominant groups have the institutional and cultural power to enforce their prejudices via oppression. Making this distinction between prejudice and oppression is significant in that, in a world where the status quo is characterized by social inequities, all prejudices are not created equal; some are the expressions of real sociocultural power hierarchies.
Second, classism, like other forms of oppression, often exists within individuals at an unconscious level, so it can be perpetuated by well-intentioned people who are genuinely unaware that they are acting on learned cultural assumptions about the differences between poor people and wealthier people. Becoming aware of classism, then, does not imply that one was previously deliberately scornful of poor people or overtly lacking in concern for them. Even people who participate in charitable activities benefiting the poor, and poor people themselves, are exposed to cultural attitudes regarding the poor and incorporate them into their worldviews and self-concepts.
Finally, although isolating one form of oppression is useful for the purposes of summary and definition, the lived experience of social class is complex, and class and classism exist at intersections with other aspects of identity such as race and gender. Different forms of oppression have an interlocking nature, and their function often serves to perpetuate each other.
For example, sexism operates so that most people living in poverty are women, and racism and classism inform each other in critical ways. In the minds of many Americans, the typical poor individual is represented by a person of color, yet most welfare recipients are, in fact, White. At the same time, people of color are much more likely to live in poverty, with the 2004 poverty rates for racial groups being 25% for Blacks, 22% for Latinos/as, 10% for Asians, and 9% for Whites, according to the University of Michigan’s National Poverty Center. Considering both race and gender together with regard to class reveals the very high poverty rates of about 40% for Black and Latina female-headed households.
Examples of Classism in Everyday Life
In a nation that has long defined itself in opposition to the old-world class structures and explicit caste systems found in other societies, it is not surprising that classism would be one of the least recognized of the “-isms.” Although some are easily identifiable, many forms of classism escape the notice of the most well-intentioned people. Examples of classism include the general cultural and institutional invisibility of poor and working-class people, negative attitudes and beliefs regarding poor and working-class people, educational inequities, healthcare inequities, disparities in the judicial system, environmental injustice, social acceptance of unlivable minimum wages, and the deprecation of organizations of working people.
Cultural and Institutional Invisibility of Poor and Working-Class People
Perhaps the best example of the unexamined invisibility of poor people in the mainstream U.S. cultural experience is the widespread astonishment at the depth of American poverty revealed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which struck the Gulf Coast in 2005; journalists and television reports of the time chronicled both the disaster itself and the nation’s startled response to it. In her 2002 article on classism in the United States, called “Cognitive and Behavioral Distancing From the Poor,” psychologist Bernice Lott described the primary characteristic of classism as “cognitive and behavioral distancing from the poor,” a response that renders the poor invisible in many interpersonal and institutional contexts. The field of psychology is no exception; as Lott explained, a lack of attention to issues related to poverty and classism is evident even in the consideration of multicultural issues. The result is that psychological theory, research, and practice are not particularly accessible or relevant for poor people, and middle-class psychologists who attempt to offer services in poor communities may find that their work is compromised by previously unexamined classist attitudes. Similarly, the experiences of poor and working-class people are largely without representation in art, literature, or popular culture; there are few working-class voices in the national discourse on public policy issues; and intellectualism and critical thinking are largely assumed to be the province of wealthier Americans.
Negative Attitudes and Beliefs
Writing about the time that she spent working in low-wage jobs, author Barbara Ehrenreich described her encounters with the contemptuous attitudes that are often directed toward poor and working-class people. Although most middle- and owning-class people would not consider themselves to view others unfavorably simply on the basis of their financial status, there is a considerable amount of evidence to suggest that poor people are often seen in a negative light. Television sitcoms often present poor and working-class people as narrow-minded and ignorant, even if comically so; classist attitudes are referenced in jokes about people with southern accents and people who live in trailers. Owning-class people, by contrast, can become national celebrities on the basis of the wealth they own, with the media chronicling their everyday activities. Lott’s 2002 article (mentioned in the previous section) is a review of research that provides evidence of this widespread, if often unconscious, aversion. For example, study participants endorsed traits such as crude, lazy, stupid, dirty, and immoral more often for poor people than for middle-class people, and they listed stereotypes for poor people that included uneducated, lazy, dirty, drug/ alcohol user, and criminal. Descriptors like these point to a tendency to locate the factors contributing to poverty within poor people themselves, effectively deflecting attention from larger societal forces that obstruct pathways out of poverty for poor families.
American cultural lore includes a belief in education as a social equalizer within a meritocratic society, yet the reality is that the gap between the educational experiences of children from poor families and their wealthier peers continues to widen. This trend has been documented by scholars such as Jonathan Kozol, the author of several books examining the interface of class, race, and schooling in America, including The Shame of the Nation (2005). Students who attend public schools in poor communities are more likely to be taught by poorly paid, uncertified teachers, and their schools are more likely to have fewer computers, fewer library books, fewer classes, fewer extracurricular opportunities, and fewer teachers than schools attended by wealthier students. Correspondingly, less money overall is spent per student on behalf of children in poor neighborhoods, a gap that spans from $8,000 per student on the low end to $18,000 per student in wealthier neighborhoods, according to Kozol. Those poor students who do receive adequate preparation for college-level work will face financial obstacles that few can surmount. In a report called “Losing Ground,” the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education documented that the costs of a college education are escalating at a rate higher than both inflation and family income, lowering the rates of attendance by low-income students while those from middle- and owning-class families continue to attend college in record numbers. The educational equity gap, then, becomes one of the ways that “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer,” as college degrees are themselves associated with increases in earning potential; the College Board estimates that over a lifetime, the gap in earnings between those with a high school diploma and a B.A. or higher exceeds $1,000,000.
The annual United Nations Human Development Report usually addresses health and well-being in third-world countries, yet in 2005 it documented the widening healthcare gap in the United States, the wealthiest country on Earth. The United Nations found that, although the United States spends more money on health care than any other country, only certain groups of Americans enjoy the benefits. Among poor people and people of color, health indicators are worse in the United States than in some developing countries. Infant mortality, for example, has increased for the past 5 years and is now equal to that of Malaysia. The Kaiser Commission, which studies healthcare and insurance trends, reported that by 2004, the number of Americans without health insurance grew to 45.5 million, with 80% of the uninsured coming from working families. Not surprisingly, people without insurance are more likely to have problems getting medical care, less able to purchase prescribed medications, more likely to let preventable conditions escalate into serious ones, and more likely to let serious problems go untreated. As more and more poor and working-class families are permitted to go without access to health care, they are increasingly vulnerable to the multiple health risks of poverty, which include elevated rates of nearly every sort of threat to survival, including heart disease, diabetes, exposure to toxins, cognitive and physical functional decline, and homicide, among many others.
Disparities in the Judicial System
Under this heading can be found one of the clearest forms of classism: bail. This overt form of discrimination hides in plain sight as the poor remain in prison cells while wealthier people accused of the same crimes go free. More generally, millions of Americans are financially without access to civil legal process, and funding for legal aid services is sufficient only to provide counsel to a small proportion of those who need it. Laura Abel at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice has explained that a scenario familiar to viewers of law-and-order television programs—that legal aid services are provided to Americans who cannot afford an attorney—never comes to pass for most poor people. For example, the Brennan Center showed in 2007 that fewer than one out of four tenants facing eviction in New York City Housing Court had legal representation; in particular, 5,000 low-income senior citizens come before New York City housing court each year with no legal representation. Overall, 67% of all potential evictees had incomes under $25,000, making clear the linkages between poverty, lack of access to legal counsel, and homelessness.
Classism and racism intertwine to affect the way that waste and “dirty industries” are managed in American communities. In urban areas, this means that waste dumps and pollution-producing operations are predominantly located where poor people and people of color live. In economically depressed rural areas like the Central Appalachian mountain region, poor families contend with the effects of strip-mining and its most extreme form, mountain-top removal. Through the use of mountain-top removal, coal companies access underlying coal deposits by blasting off the tops of the Appalachian Mountains, a cost-cutting, profit-enhancing method that has already resulted in the decapitation of some 300,000 acres of mountain area in West Virginia alone; estimates are that at current rates of demolition, an area the size of Rhode Island will have been decapitated by 2012. Nearby valleys and streams are filled in with everything from the blast that is not coal—the so-called overburden—while the coal-washing process leaves behind vast slurry ponds of coal sludge, a thick mixture of soil, water, and the toxic chemicals used in coal processing. On October 11, 2000, a 72-acre, 2.3-billion-gallon impoundment near Inez, Kentucky, failed. A torrent of slurry was released into the surrounding countryside, resulting in what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency called one of the South’s worst environmental disasters. This catastrophe received little national media attention, although it ruined property, destroyed drinking water systems, and killed local animal and aquatic life in one of the poorest counties within one of the poorest regions of the United States. This dangerous situation continues to threaten the people of the Central Appalachian region, which is the location of at least 700 more slurry impoundments.
Classism and the Minimum Wage
The continuing low level of the minimum wage gives rise to inherent ethical contradictions, suggesting that attitudes toward poor and working-class people may influence public debate (or lack thereof) regarding this issue. Without people working in minimum-wage jobs to carry it along, everyday life in America would come to a standstill. Our society relies upon the labor of people who work in child care, take care of the elderly, clean offices, and serve food, yet the citizens who perform these necessary jobs cannot earn enough money to support themselves and their children. The federal minimum wage was not increased at all for a 10-year period beginning in 1996, and in terms of real purchasing power, it was allowed to fall during that time to its lowest level in 50 years, eventually representing only 64% of the poverty line. In May 2007, the U.S. Congress passed a measure to raise the minimum wage to $7.25 per hour—yet this amount is still not sufficient to lift a family of four above the poverty threshold. The consequences for working people who try to survive in these jobs are clear; the National Coalition for the Homeless reported in 2005 that as many as 25% of people in U.S. homeless shelters have jobs. Less obvious are the advantages that middle- and owning-class people enjoy as a result, in that they can afford to buy more products and services more cheaply when employers do not pay employees enough to live on.
An alternative perspective on the minimum wage is the living wage. As explained by the Economic Policy Institute, the living wage is a pay rate that would bring a full-time worker within 100% to 130% of the poverty line (130% being the maximum amount that a family can earn and still be eligible for food stamps). Although 58 local governments have passed living wage ordinances for their own cities or counties (beginning with Baltimore, Maryland, in 1994), this debate has yet to receive sustained attention on a national level. Different constituencies could be expected to bring different perspectives to this debate, but an attempt to understand classist attitudes must include the notion that unconscious devaluing of poor and working-class people may be at work to discourage such an examination.
Deprecation of Organizations of Working-Class People
Classist attitudes can also be seen in the way that groups of poor and working-class people are regarded if they come together to advocate for themselves. Organizations such as unions comprise the sole opportunity for working-class people to have a voice in workplaces where they do not own or control resources, have no authority in the content or availability of jobs, and do not occupy roles in the corporate power structure. They have used that voice to achieve such innovations as the end of child labor and the establishment of the 8-hour (as opposed to the unlimited hour) workday. These organizations also help bring low-wage earners out of poverty; in 2005, the AFL-CIO reported that union workers earn an average of 28% more in weekly wages than their nonunion counterparts. Yet, in August 2005, a Harris Poll found that a majority of U.S. adults surveyed (68%) rated labor organizations negatively—hardly a surprising finding given the increasingly unfavorable portrayal of unions in American culture. Whereas entertainment vehicles or news reports may offer sympathetic accounts of individual poor people or families, organizations of poor and working-class people are typically portrayed unfavorably, for example, as greedy, troublesome, or corrupt. Past labor officials have indeed been found guilty of corruption—as have high-ranking members of financial, pharmaceutical, agribusiness, medical, and defense-contracting corporations, among many others. Yet, there is not an across-the-board dismissal of these organizations, nor do we begrudge their right to meet collectively to protect their interests—professional organizations, chambers of commerce, and lobbying groups are all examples of such organizing.
Classism in View
An understanding of classism, then, begins with a clearer vision of poor and working-class people among us and their conspicuous absence from important cultural and institutional representations of American life. It requires a new awareness of personal attitudes and assumptions regarding the poor. Finally, it means not only recognizing the circumstances under which poor people live but also the aspects of our social system that hinder poor families in their efforts to surmount poverty.
- Carr, S. C., & Sloan, T. S. (Eds.). (2003). Poverty and psychology. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum.
- Correspondents of the New York Times. (2005). Class matters. New York: Henry Holt.
- Ehrenreich, B. (2001). Nickel and dimed: On (not) getting by in America. New York: Henry Holt.
- Hill, M., & Rothblum, E. D. (Eds.). (1996). Classism and feminist therapy: Counting costs. New York: Harrington Park.
- hooks, b. (2000). Where we stand: Class matters. New York: Routledge.
- Kozol, J. (2005). The shame of the nation. New York: Crown.
- Leondar-Wright, B. (2005). Class matters. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society.
- Lott, B. (2002). Cognitive and behavioral distancing from the poor. American Psychologist, 57, 100-110.
- Smith, L. (2005). Psychotherapy, classism, and the poor: Conspicuous by their absence. American Psychologist, 60, 687-696.
- Zweig, M. (2000). The working class majority. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.