Visualizing Social Stratification in the U.S.

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A businessman walks by a homeless woman holding a card requesting money on September 28, 2010 in New York City. Spencer Platt/Getty Images
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What is Social Stratification?

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A businessman walks by a homeless woman holding a card requesting money on September 28, 2010 in New York City. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Sociologists take for granted that society is stratified, but what does that mean? Social stratification is a term used to describe the way people in society are sorted into a hierarchy primarily based on wealth, but also based on other socially important characteristics that interact with wealth and income, like education, gender, and race.

This slide show is designed to visualize how these things come together to produce a stratified society. First, we'll take a look at distribution of wealth, income, and poverty in the U.S. Then, we'll examine how gender, education, and race affect these outcomes.

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Wealth Distribution in the U.S.

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Wealth distribution in the U.S. in 2012. politizane

In an economic sense, wealth distribution is the most accurate measure of stratification. Income alone does not account for assets and debt, but wealth is a measure of how much total money one has overall.

Wealth distribution in the U.S. is shockingly unequal. The top one percent of the population controls 40 percent of the nation's wealth. They own half of all stocks, bonds, and mutual funds. Meanwhile, the bottom 80 percent of the population has just 7 percent of all wealth, and the bottom 40 percent have barely any wealth at all. In fact, wealth inequality has grown to such an extreme over the last quarter century that it is now at its highest in our nation's history. Because of this, today's middle class is barely distinguishable from the poor, in terms of wealth.

Click here to watch a fascinating video that shows how the average American's understanding of wealth distribution differs greatly from the reality of it, and how far that reality is from what most of us consider ideal distribution.

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Income Distribution in the U.S.

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Income distribution as measured by the 2012 U.S. Census annual Social and Economic Supplement. vikjam

While wealth is the most accurate measure of economic stratification, income certainly contributes to it, so sociologists consider it important to examine income distribution too.

Looking at this graph, drawn from data collected via the U.S. Census Bureau's Annual Social and Economic Supplement, you can see how household income (all income earned by members of a particular household) is clustered at the lower end of the spectrum, with the largest number of households in the range of $10,000 to $39,000 per year. The median--the reported value that falls smack in the middle of all households counted--is $51,000, with a full 75 percent of the households earning less than $85,000 per year.

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How Many Americans Are in Poverty? Who Are They?

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Number of people in poverty, and the poverty rate in 2013, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. U.S. Census Bureau

According to a 2014 report from the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2013 there were a record 45.3 million people in poverty in the U.S., or 14.5 percent of the national population. But, what does it mean to be "in poverty"?

To determine this status, the Census Bureau uses a mathematical formula that considers number of adults and children in a household, and household annual income, measured against what is considered the "poverty threshold" for that combination of people. For example, in 2013, the poverty threshold for a single person under the age of 65 was $12,119. For one adult and one child it was $16,057, while for two adults and two children it was $23,624.

Like income and wealth, poverty in the U.S. is not distributed equally. Children, Blacks, and Latinos experience rates of poverty far higher than the national rate of 14.5 percent.

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Effect of Gender on Wages in the U.S.

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The gender wage gap over time. U.S. Census Bureau

U.S. Census data show that, though the gender wage gap has shrunk in recent years, it persists today, and results in women on average earning just 78 cents to the man's dollar. In 2013, men working full-time took home median pay of $50,033 (or just below the national median household income of $51,000). However, women working full-time earned just $39,157--just 76.7 percent of that national median.

Some suggest that this gap exists because women self-select into lower-paid positions and fields than do men, or because we do not advocate for raises and promotions as much as men do. However, a veritable mountain of data shows that the gap exists across fields, positions, and pay grades, even when controlling for things like level of education and marital status. One recent study found that it even exists in the women-dominated field of nursing, while others have documented it at the level of parents compensating children for doing chores.

The gender pay gap is exacerbated by race, with women of color earning less than white women, with the exception of Asian American women, who out-earn white women in this regard. We'll take a closer look at the effect of race on income and wealth in later slides.

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Impact of Education on Wealth

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Median Net Worth by Educational Attainment in 2014. Pew Research Center

The notion that earning degrees is good for one's pocket is fairly universal in U.S. society, but just how good? It turns out that the impact of educational attainment on a person's wealth is significant. 

According to Pew Research Center, those with a college degree or higher have more than 3.6 times the wealth of the average American, and more than 4.5 times that of those who completed some college, or who hold a two-year degree. Those who did not advance beyond a high school diploma are at a significant economic disadvantage in U.S. society, and a result, have just 12 percent of the wealth of those at the highest end of the education spectrum.

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Impact of Education on Income

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Impact of Educational Attainment on Income in 2014. Pew Research Center

Just as it impacts wealth, and connected to this outcome, educational attainment significantly shapes a person's level of income. In fact, this effect is only increasing in strength, as Pew Research Center found a growing income gap between those who have a college degree or higher, and those who do not.

Those between the ages of 25 and 32 who have at least a college degree are earning a median annual income of $45,500 (in 2013 dollars). They earn 52 percent more than those who have just "some college," who earn $30,000. These findings by Pew illustrate painfully that attending college but not completing it (or being in the process of it) makes little difference over completing high school, which results in a median annual income of $28,000.

It's probably obvious to most that higher education has a positive effect on income because, at least ideally, one receives valuable training in a field and develops knowledge and skills that an employer is willing to pay for. However, sociologists also recognize that higher education grants those who complete it cultural capital, or more socially and culturally oriented knowledge and skills that suggest competence, intellect, and trustworthiness, among other things. This is perhaps why a practical two-year degree does not boost one's income much over those who stop education after high school, but those who have learned to think, talk, and behave like four-year university students will earn far more.

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Distribution of Education in the U.S.

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Educational Attainment in the U.S. in 2013. Pew Research Center

Sociologists and many others agree that one of the reasons that we see such an unequal distribution of income and wealth in the U.S. is because our nation suffers from an unequal distribution of education. The previous slides makes clear that education has a positive impact on wealth and income, and that in particular, a Bachelors degree or higher offers a significant boost to both. That just 31 percent of the population above age 25 holds a Bachelors degree helps explain the great chasm between the haves and the have nots in today's society.

The good news, though, is that this data from Pew Research Center shows that educational attainment, at all levels, is on the upswing. Of course, educational attainment alone is not the solution to economic inequality. The system of capitalism itself is premised on it, and so it will take significant overhaul to overcome this problem. But equalizing educational opportunities and raising educational attainment overall will certainly help in the process.

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Who Goes to College in the U.S.?

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Rate of college completion by race. Pew Research Center

The data presented in previous slides have established a clear connection between educational attainment and economic well-being. Any good sociologist worth her salt would then want to know what factors influence educational attainment, and by way of it, income inequality. For example, how might race influence it?

In 2012 Pew Research Center reported that completion of college among adults age 25-29 was highest among Asians, 60 percent of whom have earned a Bachelors degree. In fact, they are the only racial group in the U.S. with a college completion rate above 50 percent. Just 40 percent of whites aged 25 to 29 have completed college. The rate among Blacks and Latinos in this age range is quite a bit lower, at 23 percent for the former, and 15 percent for the latter.

However, just as educational attainment among the general population is on an upward climb, so too is it, in terms of college completion, among whites, Black, and Latinos. This trend among Blacks and Latinos is noteworthy, in part, because of the discrimination these students face in the classroom, all the way from kindergarten through university, that serves to funnel them away from higher education.

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The Effect of Race on Income in the U.S.

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Median household income by race, overtime, through 2013. U.S. Census Bureau

Given the correlation we've established between educational attainment and income, and between educational attainment and race, it is probably not surprising to readers that income is stratified by race. In 2013, according to U.S. Census data, Asian households in the U.S. are earning the highest median income--$67,056. White households trail them by about 13 percent, at $58,270. Latino households earn just 79 percent of white ones, while Black households earn a median income of just $34,598 per year.

It's important to note, though, that this racialized income inequality can't be explained by racial disparities in education alone. Many studies have demonstrated, that all else being equal, Black and Latino job applicants are assessed less favorably than white ones. This recent study found that employers are more likely to call white applicants from less selective universities than they are Black applicants from prestigious ones. The Black applicants in the study were more likely to be offered lower status and lower paid positions than the white candidates. In fact, another recent study found that employers are more likely to express interest in a white applicant with a criminal record than they are a Black applicant with no record.

All of this evidence points to a strong negative effect of racism on the income of people of color in the U.S.

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Effect of Race on Wealth in the U.S.

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The effect of race on wealth over time. Urban Institute

The racialized disparity in earnings illustrated in the previous slide adds up to a gargantuan wealth divide between white Americans and Blacks and Latinos. Data from Urban Institute show that, in 2013, the average white family had seven times as much wealth as the average Black family, and six times as much as the average Latino family. Disturbingly, this divide has grown sharply since the late 1990s.

Among Blacks, this divide was established early on by the system of slavery, which not only barred Blacks from earning money and accumulating wealth, but made their labor a lucrative wealth-building asset for white. Similarly, many native-born and immigrant Latinos experienced slavery, bonded labor, and extreme wage exploitation historically, and even still today.

Racial discrimination in home sales and mortgage lending has also contributed significantly to this wealth divide, as property ownership is one of the key sources of wealth in the U.S. In fact, Blacks and Latinos were hardest hit by the Great Recession that began in 2007 in large part because they were more likely than whites to lose their homes in foreclosure.