Shifting Perceptions of Class Divides

References to the “classlessness” of American society are common in the academic literature and in the popular press. In America, it seems, we have long simply believed that we are all middle class and that our economic destinies are in our own hands.

Thus, A Nation of “Haves” and “Have-Nots“, a report released today by the Pew Foundation, is particularly intriguing.

From the report:

Over the past two decades, a growing share of the public has come to the view that American society is divided into two groups, the “haves” and the “have-nots.” Today, Americans are split evenly on the two-class question with as many saying the country is divided along economic lines as say this is not the case (48% each). In sharp contrast, in 1988, 71% rejected this notion, while just 26% saw a divided nation.

Of equal importance, the number of Americans who see themselves among the “have-nots” of society has doubled over the past two decades, from 17% in 1988 to 34% today. In 1988, far more Americans said that, if they had to choose, they probably were among the “haves” (59%) than the “have-nots” (17%). Today, this gap is far narrower (45% “haves” vs. 34% “have-nots”).

How do we account for these relatively significant shifts in perceptions? Are the relative shifts in income distributions that the article mentions visible to most people? And if they are, what’s happening to the sense that we can still work our way out of whatever circumstance we find ourselves in?

And how do we talk about these perceptions in schools, as some families grow more skeptical of the idea that we live in an open society rich with opportunity?

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