WCP: The Downwardly Mobile: How Some People Lose Class Privilege

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In the U.S., the expectation of upward mobility has begun to seem like magical thinking. Few Americans move up the social class ladder, and quite a few fall a few rungs down from the status their parents achieved. In Working-Class Perspectives this week, sociologist Jessi Streib looks at some of the factors that contribute to downward mobility.

We have two narratives about class in this country. Perhaps the most prominent is the American Dream – the idea that hard work and moral fortitude can lead people from rages to riches. The second is that of the rigged class system, one designed to ensure that the privileged remain privileged while the poor remain poor.

There are several problems with these narratives, but I want to focus on one: they both miss a large group of people, the downwardly mobile. In fact, one in two kids born into the upper-middle-class – one in two kids born to a college-educated professional parent – fall out of this class as adults.

I wanted to learn how kids raised with so much could lose the privileges they had. So I poured over interviews researchers conducted with over 100 upper-middle-class Americans who they followed from age 13 to age 28. I found out that my idea that they have so many resources was wrong.

As I write in my new book, Privilege Lost: Who Leaves the Upper Middle Class and How They Fall, being born into the upper middle class doesn’t guarantee that children receive high levels of the three resources that help them stay at the top: academic skills, institutional knowledge, and money. These resources depend on parents having them and passing them down, and that doesn’t happen as often as the rigged class system narrative leads us to believe.

Some upper-middle-class parents do not have high levels of these resources themselves. Not all professionals earn a lot of money, so they don’t have it to pass down. In many families, the parent most involved in childrearing – usually the mother – does not have a college degree or a professional job, so she isn’t well positioned to teach her children how to navigate college or prepare for the professional workforce. Of course, some parents who do have all of the resources of the upper middle class don’t pass them on to their children. They may work so much that they spend little time with their children, become too sick to pass them down, or just believe that children should forge their own path. And sometimes, health issues keep kids from internalizing or using the resources they get from their parents.

Children who receive few resources from their parents realize that they this will limit their ability to gain status through school and work. Many then decide that these resources are not worth having and that they don’t want to spend their time in the institutions that value those resources.  Instead, they form identities based on what their resources allow: as a wife and mother, family man, artist, athlete, rebel, or the like. This gives them ways to gain status, but it also leads to a change in their class. Instead of focusing on school, college, and professional jobs, they opt out of these institutions – putting themselves on a downwardly mobile path.

Virginia is a good example. Her father was an upper-level executive who earned a six-figure income, so she grew up in a six-bedroom house. But Virginia’s dad was so busy working that she barely knew him. They didn’t talk much about school and his work. Instead, Virginia spent most of her time with her mother, who had dropped out of college when she became pregnant with Virginia’s older sister and had been a stay-at-home mother ever since. She didn’t know how to navigate college and professional jobs herself.

Raised without the knowledge that helps students succeed in school or work, Virginia was unlikely to excel in either. So, she opted out. She saw school as a place to pass through, deemed college irrelevant, and framed professional work as immoral as it would take time away from the people she cared about most. Instead of drawing on her community to gain the resources she would have needed to succeed in school, college, and work, she set her sights on fulfilling roles her resources allowed: becoming a wife and mother.

Virginia started working toward these goals at an early age. In high school and after, she tried to enter relationships that would move toward marriage. By her early 20s, she had become engaged and hoped to soon have children. Because she did not attend college, the men she met were not in college either – including the man she married. Despite her father’s high income, education, and occupation, Virginia then did not have the resources she needed to excel in the institutions that lead to class reproduction, and she formed an identity that didn’t require them or encourage her to see them out. Doing so led her out of the institutions that could keep her in her class and onto a downwardly mobile path.

Cory’s case is a little different. Both of his parents had graduate degrees and professional jobs. His mother spent a lot of time with Cory, monitoring his homework, talking to him about how to do well in his courses, and managing his college applications. He learned to do well in school and earned reasonably high grades. But his family didn’t have a lot of money. His father was in and out of employment, and his mother’s job as a school librarian didn’t pay a high salary. Cory felt that he stood out among his classmates because he had to work a part-time job, didn’t have a car, and was the last of his classmates to get a cell phone.

Raised with less money than his peers, Cory formed an identity around not needing it. He identified as an athlete: a type of person who would pursue a passion rather than money. Cory dedicated his time to sports, became known for his success playing soccer and basketball, and often talked of his passion for the game. As he put it, “God is number one and sports are number two.” When it came time to picking a college, he chose one with a sports management major. He spent his time in college learning about sports, playing intramural sports, writing about sports, and interning for a minor league sports team.

But while the identity of an athlete covered for his family’s lack of money, being disinterested in how to make money later hurt him. Cory never researched the labor market for sports-related jobs. He just assumed that once he graduated with a sports management degree, he would be offered a job in the front office of an NBA team. Of course, this didn’t happen. Instead, Cory ended up with three part-time jobs – he ran a basketball league, played basketball with kids in an after-school program, and, in the summer, he organized a half-day sports camp. He wasn’t sure if he would ever land a professional sports job, but he remained determined to follow his passion rather than selling out by going in to a different kind of business. The identity Cory formed then reflected his family’s little money, but also encouraged him not to seek out ways to make money himself. This strategy brought him some forms of status, but it also pushed him out of the upper-middle-class.

As Virginia and Cory remind us, there are millions of Americans whose lives are not captured by the stories of the American Dream or the rigged class system. Rather, their stories are ones of snowballing effects – of how being raised without some resources cascades into a series of experiences and identities that lead to downwardly mobile paths.

Jessi Streib

Jessi Streib is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Duke University and the author of Privilege Lost: Who Leaves the Upper Middle Class and How They Fall.

Read other Working-Class Perspectives on our website.
The Working-Class Perspectives blog is brought to you by our Visiting Scholar for the 2015-20 academic years, John Russo, and English Professor and Director of the American Studies Program at Georgetown University, Sherry Linkon. It features several regular and guest contributors. Last year, the blog published 43 posts that were read over 94,000 times by readers in 176 countries. The blog is cited by journalists from around the world, and discussed in courses in high schools and colleges worldwide.