Visualizing Social Stratification in the U.S.

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

What is Social Stratification?

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, such as education, gender, and race.

Below, we'll review how these factors come together to produce a stratified society. First, we'll take a look at the distribution of wealth, income, and poverty in the U.S. Then, we'll examine how gender, education, and race affect these outcomes.

Wealth Distribution in the U.S.

Graph showing the highly stratified distribution of wealth in the U.S.: the top 1% controls about 40% of all wealth, and the bottom 80% has just 7% of all wealth.
Wealth distribution in the U.S. in 2012. politizane

Looking at the distribution of wealth is the most accurate way of measuring social stratification, because income alone does not account for assets and debt. Wealth serves as a measure of how much total money one has overall.

Wealth distribution in the U.S. is shockingly unequal. The top 1% of the population controls approximately 40% of the nation's wealth. Fifty percent of all stocks, bonds, and mutual funds are also owned by the top 1%. Meanwhile, the bottom 80% of the population has just 7% of all wealth, and the bottom 40% 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.

Not only is wealth distributed unequally, but many of us are not aware of the extent of wealth inequality in the U.S. 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.

Income Distribution in the U.S.

Distribution of annual household income in the U.S. The largest number of households earn in the range of $10,000 to $39,000 per year. The median is $51,000, and a full 75 percent of the households earn less than $85,000 per year.
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.

This graph, drawn from data collected via the U.S. Census Bureau's Annual Social and Economic Supplement, shows 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% of the households earning less than $85,000 per year.

How Many Americans Are in Poverty? Who Are They?

Two graphs showing the U.S. poverty rate from 1959-2013. In 2013, 45.3 million people—14.5 percent of the population—were in poverty in the U.S.
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, 45.3 million people—14.5% of the population—were in poverty in the U.S. But, what does it mean to be "in poverty"?

To determine this status, the Census Bureau uses a mathematical formula that considers the 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, Black people, and Latino people experience rates of poverty far higher than the national rate of 14.5%.

Effect of Gender on Wages in the U.S.

Graph showing the number of female and male workers from 1967-2013.
Graph showing the number of female and male workers from 1967-2013. U.S. Census Bureau

U.S. Census data show that, though the gender wage gap has shrunk in recent years, it persists today: According to 2013 Census Bureau data, women earned just 78 cents to the man's dollar. In 2013, men working full-time took home a 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 76.8% 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 women 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. A 2015 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 BIPOC women 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 below.

Impact of Education on Wealth

Chart showing median net worth by educational attainment for households headed by 25- to 32-year-olds. Those with a college degree or higher have more than 3.6 times the wealth of the average American in 2011 ($26,058 versus $7,262).
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 as a result, have just 12% of the wealth of those at the highest end of the education spectrum.

Impact of Education on Income

Graph of educational attainment and earnings. Those with a Bachelor's degree earn more than those with a high school degree, and this trend has become more pronounced over time.
Impact of Educational Attainment on Income in 2014. Pew Research Center

Educational attainment also 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.

In 2013, those between the ages of 25 and 32 who had at least a college degree earned an annual income of $45,500, which was 52% more than those who attended college but did not receive a degree (income in this group was $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 (the median annual income for high school graduates was $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.

Distribution of Education in the U.S.

Graph of educational attainment from 1971-2012. The percentage of Americans completing high school and college has increased during the time studied.
Educational Attainment in the U.S., 1971-2012. 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. As we saw above, education is linked to greater wealth and higher income, and that in particular, a Bachelor's degree or higher offers a significant boost to both. That just 31% of the population above age 25 holds a Bachelor's 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 inequality, 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.

Who Goes to College in the U.S.?

Rate of college completion by race, from 1971-2012. College completion was highest among Asians, and college completion increased for all groups over the time period studied.
Rate of college completion by race. Pew Research Center

The data presented above have established a clear connection between educational attainment and economic well-being. Any good sociologist worth their 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 Asian Americans, 60% of whom have earned a Bachelor's degree. In fact, they are the only racial group in the U.S. with a college completion rate above 50%. Just 40% of whites aged 25 to 29 have completed college. The rate among Black and Latino people in this age range is quite a bit lower, at 23% and 15% respectively.

However, data from the Pew Center shows that college completion is on an upward climb. This increase in college completion among Black and Latino students 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.

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

Median household income by race, over time, through 2013.
Median household income by race, over time, 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. earned the highest median income—$67,065. White households trail them by about 13%, at $58,270. Latino households earn approximately 70% of white ones, while Black households earn a median income of just $34,598 per year.

It's important to note, though, that these differences in 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. One study found that employers are as 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 BIPOC people in the U.S.

Effect of Race on Wealth in the U.S.

The effect of race on wealth from 1963-2013. The racial wealth gap increased sharply over the time studied.
The effect of race on wealth over time. Urban Institute

The disparity in earnings illustrated above adds up to a gargantuan racial wealth divide. Data from the 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 Black people, this divide was established early on by the institution of slavery, which not only barred them from earning money and accumulating wealth but also made their labor a wealth-building asset for whites. Similarly, many native-born and immigrant Latinos experienced enslavement, 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, Black and Latino households 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.

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Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "Visualizing Social Stratification in the U.S." ThoughtCo, Sep. 14, 2020, Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. (2020, September 14). Visualizing Social Stratification in the U.S. Retrieved from Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "Visualizing Social Stratification in the U.S." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 3, 2023).