Social relations across class lines

People relate to each other on the basis of a set of moral and cognitive frameworks — ideas about the social world and how others are expected to behave — and on the basis of fairly specific scripts that prescribe their own behavior in given stylized circumstances. It is evident that there are important and deep differences across cultures, regions, and classes when it comes to the specifics of these frameworks and scripts. Part of what makes My Man Godfrey humorous is the mismatch of expectations that are brought forward by the different signals of social class presented by Godfrey. Is he a homeless man, a victim of the Depression, or an upper class gentleman in disguise? His accent suggests the latter; whereas his dress and living conditions suggest one or another of the first two possibilities.

It is relatively rare for people in the United States to have sustained contact with individuals from substantially different socioeconomic circumstances; and when they do, the interactions are generally stylized and perfunctory. Consider churches — there is remarkably little socioeconomic diversity within churches in the United States. This is even more true of elite private and public universities (link). Take the percentage of Pell eligibility as an indicator of socioeconomic diversity. The University of Wisconsin-Madison serves only 10% Pell-eligible students, and Yale University only 12% Pell-eligible. According to the New York Times article providing this data, the upper margin of Pell eligibility is a family income of about $70,000; so roughly 90% of the undergraduate students in these elite universities come from families with greater than $70,000 annual income. What is the likelihood of a Yale or UW student having a serious, prolonged conversation with a person from a family below the poverty line (roughly $25,000)? It is virtually nil.

Non-elite public universities are more diverse by this measure; in 2011 49% of 19.7 million students in AASCU universities are Pell recipients (link). So the likelihood of cross-class conversations occurring in non-elite public universities is substantially higher than at flagships and elite private universities. But, as Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton show in Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality, even more socioeconomically diverse public universities fall victim to institutional arrangements that serve to track students by their socioeconomic status into different life outcomes (link).

This lack of socioeconomic diversity in most fundamental institutions in the United States has many consequences. Among these is a high level of perspective-blindness when it comes to the ability of upper-income people to understand the worldview and circumstances of lower-income people. In a very blunt way, we do not understand each other. And these forms of blindness are even more opaque when they are compounded by unfamiliar racial or religious backgrounds for the two parties.

This socioeconomic separation may go some ways towards explaining what otherwise appears very puzzling in our politics today — the evident hostility to the poor that is embodied in conservative rhetoric about social policies like food assistance or access to Medicaid-subsidized health insurance. A legislator or commentator who has never had a serious conversation with a non-union construction worker supporting a family earning $18.50/hour ($38,500 annually) will have a hard time understanding the meaning of a change in policy that result in additional monthly expenses. But also, he or she may not be in a position to understand how prejudicial his way of expressing himself is to the low-income person. (I’ve treated this issue in an earlier post as well.)

E.P. Thompson considered some of these forms of separation and mutual incomprehension across class boundaries in eighteenth-century Britain in his excellent essay, “Patrician Society, Plebeian Culture” (link). His central theme is the passing of a paternalistic culture to a more purely economic and exploitative relationship. Patrons came to have less and less of a sense of obligation when it came to the conditions of the poor within their domain. Simultaneously, men and women on the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum came to have a more confident sense of their independence from earlier forms of subordination, sometimes in ways that alarmed the old elites. But this growing sense of independence did not after all threaten the relations of subordination that governed:

And yet one feels that “crisis” is too strong a term. If the complaint continues throughout the century that the poor were indisciplined, criminal, prone to tumult and riot, one never feels, before the French Revolution, that the rulers of England conceived that their whole social order might be endangered. The insubordination of the poor was an inconvenience; it was not a menace. The styles of politics and of architecture, the rhetoric of the gentry and their decorative arts, all seem to proclaim stability, self- confidence, a habit of managing all threats to their hegemony. (387)

The efforts that universities make to enhance the diversity and inclusiveness of their classrooms often focus on this point of social separation: how can we encourage students from different races, religions, or classes to interact with each other deeply enough to learn from each other? The need is real; the segregation of American society by race, religion, and socioeconomic status is a huge obstacle to mutual understanding and trust across groups. But all too often these efforts at teaching multicultural competence have less effect than they are designed to have. Organizations like AmeriCorps and CityYear probably have greater effect, simply because they succeed in recruiting highly diverse cohorts of young men and women who learn from each other while working on common projects (link).


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