Parsing socioeconomics and class

25 Oct

Regarding yesterday’s post: It’s important to note that kids tend to conflate two discrete and yet related aspects of identity: socioeconomic status and class. (After all, they’re 3 years old.) In Blink’s work, I use the following definitions for socioeconomic status and class:

Socioeconomic status (SES) refers to the aspect of identity that is based on the possession of wealth and other societally-valued assets, including education and employment. SES matters because it impacts access to resources and opportunities. Very simply: more assets usually means easier, better or more social opportunities.

Class refers to the aspect of identity and culture that is informed by:

  • SES,
  • access to social resources and opportunities,
  • daily living norms and expectations, and
  • sense of entitlement and constraint in the world

that has historically and systemically accorded preferential status, privilege and freedoms to economically advantaged individuals as a group, while subordinating groups with less economic power and authority.

But SES and class aren’t always directly linked. In other words, higher class status doesn’t just or always mean having more money. Russian history is rife with examples of titled, landed and socially-privileged nobility who were financially impoverished. Yet, their class identity continued to open doors and opportunities (including a place in the history books) for them.

Here’s a more contemporary example of what I mean: Maybe I identify as living paycheck to paycheck, and I have an Ivy League education, a network of resources through which I could find a better-paying job if I wanted, and family resources that I can fall back on when things get really tight. Or maybe I identify as living paycheck to paycheck, and I’m sending money home to my mother, whose medication has gotten really expensive, and walking to work instead of taking BART so that I can save at least a little money for a rainy day or back to school fund.

In the first scenario, “living paycheck to paycheck” describes my SES: it reflects my income, but not my total pool of resources; in the second scenario, “living paycheck to paycheck” describes my class: it summarizes my resources, daily living and planning and, to a real extent, my opportunities to change that status. And while I certainly could change my status (through more education or other opportunities), I may never shake that rainy day savings mentality. Because class identity and culture are acquired and lost less easily than money.

While this distinction is obviously not toddler-material, I believe it’s critical to untangle these two aspects of identity as children develop the capacity to think critically and complexly because understanding the difference between SES and class means understanding how (much) money defines who we are.

Having said all this, I hope the takeaway isn’t that we should be the semantics police and arrest people for conflating SES and class. No, while I think the distinction and relationship between SES and class are helpful in understanding individual and group identity and dynamics, I think it’s also important for the conversation just to happen. And even naming SES or class is a quantum leap for folks who have been raised not to talk about money. The accumulation of biases we have (rich = “good” to be and also “bad” because to be rich is to be greedy; while poor = “bad” to be and also morally virtuous in our romanticized narratives) makes a conversation about SES and class a veritable minefield for those striving not to offend or misspeak.

So while I hold this distinction in my work, I try to discern when and how it’s best to fold it into my conversations and practice with others. Because the point isn’t to be correct people back into silence, but to help them do their best thinking and action.

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