Class in America
In reality, what sets the different classes apart is more than skin deep.
Erin, her husband, Kip, and their five children (right) are an upper-middle class family who live in the affluent suburb of Naperville, Illinois. Erin stays busy taking care of the kids while Kip works as a managing director of insurance. In her neighborhood, Erin says furniture, cars, engagement rings and well-manicured lawns are all signs of status. She says her neighborhood is a safe place for her kids to play outside and ride bikes unattended.
Erin says a typical "crazy day" is jam-packed with sports and activities for all five children, from soccer practices to swimming classes. School is another top priority. Erin says she and her husband chose their neighborhood (right) for the quality of schools in the district. "College is expected for all of our children," says Erin. "We want all of them to have the best education they can and to be whoever they want to be."
Erin (right) says she likes to wear certain clothes and carry designer purses to fit into the upper class level. She says her kids are also touched by class—if they don't wear the right clothes, Erin says they simply won't fit in. "Our kids feel a sense of entitlement," says Erin, "If they're at the store and they want something, and I say 'No,' they say, 'Why not?'"
Carrie and Erin each have different methods for disciplining their children. "There's no talking back in our house, they know the rules and they know that that is unacceptable to us and disrespectful," says Carrie.
Erin says she wishes she could be a better disciplinarian with her kids. "I try to be strict, but unfortunately I fall back to negotiation," says Erin.
Robert says there are three common indicators of class: weight, teeth and dialect. In terms of appearance, people who are overweight or have poor teeth are generally regarded as lower class. The way someone talks says even more about their class. "People pay attention to dialect, to language," says Robert. "If you have the local dialect, wherever you're from, you're considered to be not as educated."
These class designators also lend themselves to their own kind of discrimination. "People speak different forms of English and there is prejudice," says Robert. "We have sexism in this country, we have racism, but we also have classism—and we are very sensitive to language."
According to Robert, most people end up in the same class as their parents. "We live in a society in which the most important predictor in where you're going to end up—in terms of class and also wealth—is your parents' class and their wealth."
His first film, Born Rich, exposed how 10 children from wealthy families spent their time and their money. For his new film, The One Percent, Jamie turns the camera on his own family, breaking what he calls an "unspoken rule" of families with old money—he confronted them about their class, wealth and inheritance.
According to The One Percent, since 1979...
- The top one percent of Americans own roughly 40 percent of the country's wealth.
- The top one percent possesses more wealth than the bottom 90 percent combined.
- An average member of the top one percent earns roughly $862,000 a year while a majority of Americans earn only $34,736. That's what the average CEO earns in less than one day of work!
Jamie says this rising inequality gap could be an ominous sign. "Historians always list a growing wealth gap among the many reasons for the decline of great civilizations," he says.
Robert Reich agrees. "Societies are fragile things, they're based on trust," he says. "If people don't feel that they have a fair chance of getting ahead...a lot of people feel excluded. That's not good for society. That doesn't keep America together."
"I've had opportunities to have any educational opportunity I wanted. I've traveled all around the world. Money has never been a worry for me in my life. I'm aware to the degree that it's done wonderful things for me. It also has given me the great opportunity to pursue making films and that's really a great part of my life. I really love doing it. And I feel lucky to be in that position. So certainly, I feel like money has been a tremendous asset in my life in every way," he says. "My life would not be as good if I were cut out of the will."
Nicole works as an artist and also earns money organizing the house of a wealthy family in San Francisco. "It's a very weird thing to be working for a very wealthy family considering I do come from one of the wealthiest families in America," Nicole says. "And I feel that the family I work for feels a bit of humor around the fact that I am from one of the wealthiest families—a wealthier family than, I believe, they are."
She recognizes that she lives between two classes—she is from a wealthy family but doesn't actually have that wealth. Does she wish she had more money? "I'm at peace with [not having inherited wealth]," she says, "but I do feel that it would be nice to be involved with creating things for others with that money and to be involved in it. I feel completely excluded from it."