How Does Socioeconomic Inequality Affect Social Class, Especially for People of Color? (2023)

How Does Socioeconomic Inequality Affect Social Class, Especially for People of Color? (1)

Sociologist Dalton Conley, Henry Putnam University Professor in Sociology at Princeton University, will give a virtual lecture on how socioeconomic inequality manifests across generations today, October 21, as part of this year’s BU Diversity and Inclusion’s Learn More lecture series, which is focusing on issues of social class. Photo courtesy of Wilson Center

Diversity & Inclusion

Princeton sociologist Dalton Conley will speak at today’s installment of BU Diversity & Inclusion Learn More Series

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Socioeconomic inequality is one of the most pressing issues American society is grappling with. How does it play out over generations and how have those inequalities led to discrepancies in wealth, especially for people of color?

This year’s Boston University Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) annual Learn More series is focused on an exploration of social class, and the latest installment of the virtual series is today, Wednesday, October 21, featuring noted sociologist Dalton Conley, Henry Putnam University Professor in Sociology at Princeton University.

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Conley’s talk, Construction and Understanding of Social Class, will examine the effects of socioeconomic equality, how it can be inherited across generations, and how it affects access to wealth among people of color. The event begins at 4 pm.

The author of several books, including Being Black, Living in the Red: Race, Wealth, and Social Policy in America (University of California Press, 2009), The Pecking Order (Vintage, 2009), Elsewhere, USA (Vintage, 2008), and Parentology (Simon & Schuster, 2014), Conley is also a faculty affiliate at Princeton’s Office of Population Research and Center for Health and Wellbeing and a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research. He serves in a pro bono capacity as dean of health sciences at the University of the People, an accredited, tuition-free online college that strives to increase accessibility to higher education.

BU Today spoke with Conley ahead of today’s talk.

Q&A

With Dalton Conley

BU Today: How is socioeconomic status inherited? How does generational wealth or its lack affect an individual’s economic mobility?

Conley: Today, we typically measure socioeconomic status with four measures. First is someone’s education level, second is occupation (which can be rank-ordered through a methodology by their prestige), third is their income level, and fourth is their wealth level (accumulated or lack thereof). Those four together we feel composite the resources an individual has to bring to bear in society, and we call that socioeconomic status. There are other dimensions, like political power, but I think that if you use those four measures, it’s a pretty good summary of what someone’s relative position in society is from a socioeconomic perspective.

How it’s inherited is not something that we know a definitive answer to. My earlier work was on the impact of parental wealth. Back in the ’90s, when I was studying it, there were three measures: education, occupation, and income. I was a part of a group of new scholars that was saying, “No, we really have to consider wealth.” Wealth is an important component of class, and in some cases, it’s literally passed on through inheritance or gifts. What we found was that if you consider all of those dimensions and more, like age, appearance, marital status, race, and so on, when you throw them all in a model together to see what actually matters for the offspring and their socioeconomic status, it turns out that the single biggest effect is parents’ education level, and second to that is parental wealth.

When you think about that, it illustrates the two main mechanisms by which parents pass on advantage or disadvantage socially. Education captures parental attitudes towards education, how much they value it, and what sort of cognitive and noncognitive skills they have to pass on to their kids. Wealth is the money side of it, and a lot of it is in the form of their home. If they’re homeowners, that is correlated with the quality of your kids’ schooling because in the United States, we finance local schools predominantly through local property taxes. Then, how much wealth the parents have influences whether you’re able to go to college, whether you’re able to stay in college without having to take a job, which in turn influences your performance and whether or not you’re likely to get through in four years. If you think about income, when you send your kids to college, you’re not thinking, “Yeah, I’ll just skim a little off my weekly paycheck.” You pay out of wealth, out of money that you saved up for a long time, like a college savings plan, or loans.

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In your book Being Black, Living in the Red, you discuss the relationship between race and wealth mobility. How does race influence someone’s economic status?

It goes two ways, and I think that it’s a cycle. In that research, what I found was that if you look at, for example, college graduation rates, there is a racial gap. However, when you just simply compare, say, African Americans and white Americans on likelihood of graduating with a four-year bachelor’s degree, you’re really comparing apples and oranges, because you’re comparing, on average, people who came from vastly different economic resources in their families. There’s an income gap, like a pay gap, by race, and that’s substantial.

But if you look at the wealth gap, the wealth gap has been consistently about one to 10, meaning that the typical, or median, African American family has 10 cents of wealth to the dollar of wealth of the typical median white family.

What I found is [that] a huge racial gap in wealth seems to be the engine of continued wealth inequality in a post-1960s era, meaning that it’s not that race doesn’t matter in society, but for example, education differences by race are actually differences by family wealth levels. Differences in premarital or teenage childbearing are actually differences in teenage childbearing rates by family wealth levels. There is a difference in likelihood of relying on public assistance or welfare by race, but actually, that’s not a race difference, it’s a difference by family wealth level. So really, what appear to be race effects in a lot of domains like education, welfare, and so forth, are actually wealth effects. They’re not explainable by just income differences and savings rate differences between them. They’re a product of a lot of different factors, contemporary and historical, but that wealth gap is not just going to go away itself if we have equal education or even equal incomes.

It’s a legacy of hundreds of years of racial inequality. And institutions and policies and market dynamics generate it still today. The argument of that book is that if we want to address racial equality or equity, one of the main things we should be tackling is the wealth gap. It doesn’t do everything, like solve differences in police violence, but for a lot of the disparities, like educational disparities, the best policy for racial equity and education would actually be racial equity and wealth. Unfortunately, people like their wealth, and it’s very hard to have a very progressive wealth policy; even in much more socialistic countries in Europe, when there have been wealth taxes imposed for redistribution, there have been political revolts. So it is a challenge, but it is an important challenge.

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Has the relationship between wealth and race in America changed? If so, how?

Unfortunately, the answer is a short one: It has not changed. Some of the institutions that prevented minority wealth accumulation in the past are now gone, like redlining, which was an official practice in the early 20th century. That’s the process by which banks would draw a red line on maps of neighborhoods and draw a red line around minority neighborhoods and not give any loans to those neighborhoods. Things like a racially restrictive covenant, where an owner could stipulate that the future owner could only sell or rent their house to people of a particular race, are illegal now. Segregated public facilities were made illegal in the 1960s.

There are clearly things that have changed that have affected wealth distribution, but it’s very tenacious, almost like a weed. It’s still there. And the crazy thing is that over my entire lifetime of 50 years, since there have been measures of wealth inequality, the race gaps have been stable. We haven’t really directly tackled it, but we have chipped away at it with different policies, and yet things haven’t changed. It probably requires a much more direct policy shift in the environment to do something about it. Others hope that if we continue to equalize education and continue to have incomes inched closer together slowly, that by spillover, that will reduce the wealth gap, but I personally believe that it will require something much more dramatic, like wealth taxes and universal baby bonds, something that [New Jersey Democratic Senator] Cory Booker talked about in his brief campaign for president, where every child in America gets a pre-funded savings account that can be used later on.

Dalton Conley will speak on Construction and Understanding of Social Class, part of the Diversity & Inclusion Learn More Series, on Wednesday, October 21, at 4 pm. Register here to attend virtually.

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FAQs

How does social inequality affect social class? ›

Their research found that inequality causes a wide range of health and social problems, from reduced life expectancy and higher infant mortality to poor educational attainment, lower social mobility and increased levels of violence and mental illness.

What impact does socioeconomic status and income inequality have on society? ›

Effects of income inequality, researchers have found, include higher rates of health and social problems, and lower rates of social goods, a lower population-wide satisfaction and happiness and even a lower level of economic growth when human capital is neglected for high-end consumption.

How would their socioeconomic class affect their lives in the future? ›

Socioeconomic status can influence an individual's physical health, educational attainment, mental health, and life satisfaction among others. Recently, researchers have discovered many of the complex associations between socioeconomic status in childhood and their health and happiness later in life.

What are socioeconomic inequalities? ›

Socio-economic inequality relates to disparities that individuals might have in both their economic and social resources that are linked to their social class. These disparities include but aren't limited to their earnings, education, and/or income.

What are the inequalities in social class? ›

There are five systems or types of social inequality: wealth inequality, treatment and responsibility inequality, political inequality, life inequality, and membership inequality. Political inequality is the difference brought about by the ability to access governmental resources which therefore have no civic equality.

How does socioeconomic affect our lives? ›

Health Impacts of Socioeconomic Status. People in lower income or class status are often relegated to living and working environments that have a higher risk for pollution, stress, injury and other risk factors for disease outcomes.

How does economic inequality affect society and individuals? ›

Societies with pronounced economic inequality suffer from lower long-term GDP growth rates, higher crime rates, poorer public health, increased political inequality, and lower average education levels.

What are the effects of economic inequality on society? ›

Economic. Less equal societies have less stable economies. High levels of income inequality are linked to economic instability, financial crisis, debt and inflation.

How does socioeconomic status affect social development? ›

SES affects overall human functioning, including our physical and mental health. Low SES and its correlates, such as lower educational achievement, poverty and poor health, ultimately affect our society.

Does race have an impact on social class? ›

Research has shown that race and ethnicity in terms of stratification often determine a person's socioeconomic status (U.S. Census Bureau, 2009). Furthermore, communities are often segregated by SES, race, and ethnicity.

How can social equality based on the presence of social classes in society affects human society? ›

Answer. Answer: This in turn leads to 'the intergenerational transmission of unequal economic and social opportunities, creating poverty traps, wasting human potential, and resulting in less dynamic, less creative societies' (UNDESA, 2013, p.

What factors affect a person's social class? ›

Most sociologists define social class as a grouping based on similar social factors like wealth, income, education, and occupation. These factors affect how much power and prestige a person has.

What causes socio economic inequality? ›

Among the acknowledged factors that impact economic inequality in some part are the labour market, innate ability, education, race, gender, culture, wealth condensation, and development patterns.

Why are there inequalities in social class? ›

Social inequality results from a society organized by hierarchies of class, race, and gender that unequally distributes access to resources and rights.

Why economic inequality is a problem? ›

Inequality is a drag on economic growth and fosters political dysfunction, experts say. Concentrated income and wealth reduces the level of demand in the economy because rich households tend to spend less of their income than poorer ones. Reduced opportunities for low-income households can also hurt the economy.

What is social inequality and why is it important? ›

Inequality means people have unequal access to scarce and valued resources in society. These resources might be economic or political, such as health care, education, jobs, property and land ownership, housing, and ability to influence government policy. Statistics on United States and global inequality are alarming.

What is social inequality and example? ›

Social inequality refers to differential access to and use of resources across various domains (e.g., health, education, occupations) that result in disparities across gender, race/ethnicity, class, and other important social markers.

What factors affect socioeconomic status? ›

Socioeconomic status is the position of an individual or group on the socioeconomic scale, which is determined by a combination of social and economic factors such as income, amount and kind of education, type and prestige of occupation, place of residence, and—in some societies or parts of society—ethnic origin or ...

What are the four things that affect the Socio-economic factors? ›

Socio-economic factors include occupation, education, income, wealth and where someone lives.

What are socioeconomic factors that affect students? ›

Socio-economic factors may include parental level of education, parental income, financial and material support by parent, language, parental involvement in child education and peer group in school environment.

What are the factors that affect social inequality? ›

Inequalities are not only driven and measured by income, but are determined by other factors - gender, age, origin, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, class, and religion. These factors determine inequalities of opportunity which continue to persist, within and between countries.

How does income inequality affect poverty and quality of life in a country? ›

Put differently, high inequality is associated with higher crime rates, lower life expectancy and conflict. This relationship between high inequality and weak growth appears to be particularly strong in countries where a large part of the population is 'trapped' in poverty.

How does social inequality affect society Brainly? ›

Inequality leads to discrimination and if there is discrimination in a society then there will be no development as discrimination stops devlopment.

How does inequality affect the community? ›

This in turn leads to 'the intergenerational transmission of unequal economic and social opportunities, creating poverty traps, wasting human potential, and resulting in less dynamic, less creative societies' (UNDESA, 2013, p. 22). Inequalities can also have a negative impact on almost all in society.

How does socioeconomic factors affect development? ›

It will impact the area which a child lives, the quality of food they eat, the toys they have access to in the home and learning opportunities they experience outside the home. The income of families differs significantly.

How a person's social class also referred to as socioeconomic status can affect his or her chances of success? ›

Those from higher social class backgrounds tend to be more successful in developing career aspirations and are generally better prepared for the world of work because of access to resources such as career offices, guidance counselors, better schools, high level “social actors,” and familial experience with higher ...

How does Socio-economic background affect the development of a child? ›

Your parents' socioeconomic status will determine many things about your early development: how you view the world; what, how much, and how often you eat; the type of early childhood education; your overall health; or how others view you. It also impacts your later success or failure in life.

Why are there inequalities in social class? ›

Social inequality results from a society organized by hierarchies of class, race, and gender that unequally distributes access to resources and rights.

What factors affect social class? ›

Most sociologists define social class as a grouping based on similar social factors like wealth, income, education, and occupation. These factors affect how much power and prestige a person has.

Why Does social class matter in terms of social inequality? ›

It matters to sociologists because the fact that it exists reflects unequal access to rights, resources, and power in society—what we call social stratification. As such, it has a strong effect on the access an individual has to education, the quality of that education, and how high a level he or she can reach.

How does social inequality affect us? ›

Trust, Participation, Attitudes and Happiness. Inequality affects how you see those around you and your level of happiness. People in less equal societies are less likely to trust each other, less likely to engage in social or civic participation, and less likely to say they're happy.

How can social equality based on the presence of social classes in society affects human society? ›

Answer. Answer: This in turn leads to 'the intergenerational transmission of unequal economic and social opportunities, creating poverty traps, wasting human potential, and resulting in less dynamic, less creative societies' (UNDESA, 2013, p.

What is social inequality and why is it important? ›

Inequality means people have unequal access to scarce and valued resources in society. These resources might be economic or political, such as health care, education, jobs, property and land ownership, housing, and ability to influence government policy. Statistics on United States and global inequality are alarming.

What are some of the problems caused by class inequality? ›

Societies with pronounced economic inequality suffer from lower long-term GDP growth rates, higher crime rates, poorer public health, increased political inequality, and lower average education levels.

What is socioeconomic class example? ›

In common parlance, the term "social class" is usually synonymous with "socio-economic class", defined as "people having the same social, economic, cultural, political or educational status", e.g., "the working class"; "an emerging professional class".

What is the relationship between class and inequality? ›

One is that inequality increases the sense of entitlement in higher‐class people, because they engage more often in downward social comparisons. Another is that higher‐class people may be more concerned about losing their privileged position in society if they perceive a large gap between the rich and the poor.

What are socioeconomic factors that affect students? ›

Socio-economic factors may include parental level of education, parental income, financial and material support by parent, language, parental involvement in child education and peer group in school environment.

How do social differences lead to social inequality? ›

Many differences are linked to social categories such as social class, gender, ethnicity, age, religion and disability. They indicate not only different life style decisions but fundamental inequalities of life chances and are responsible for systematic inequalities in income, health and life expectancy.

What causes economic inequality? ›

The rise in economic inequality in the U.S. is tied to several factors. These include, in no particular order, technological change, globalization, the decline of unions and the eroding value of the minimum wage.

Is social class same as socioeconomic status? ›

Social class encompasses both socioeconomic status (SES) and subjective social status (SSS). Although social class may often be included in psychological studies, it is often treated as a control variable as opposed to a main variable, or a moderator or mediator of a relationship.

What is inequality and how does it affect society? ›

Inequality affects every member of the society. Economic inequality impacts the GDP per capita. It gives rise to poorer public health and illiteracy, thus increasing crime rates, fuelling political instability, and eventually destabilising the society.

What are the factors that affect social inequality? ›

Inequalities are not only driven and measured by income, but are determined by other factors - gender, age, origin, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, class, and religion. These factors determine inequalities of opportunity which continue to persist, within and between countries.

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