Social stratification is the way society categorizes its people into socioeconomic strata, based on factors of their occupation, wealth, income, and either social status or any form of derived power (“Sociologists,” n.d.) Social stratification sets limits and boundaries on what certain groups of people or societies have access to, including healthcare and education, both which are essential components of one’s well-being. Sociologists have recognized that stratification is a society wide system which makes inequalities present in a given society especially apparent. Social stratification peaks a special interest in sociology because of the fact it represents a larger social pattern.
Social stratification is an outdated way to classify persons in any given society, as such division leads to inequalities in education, healthcare, career opportunities and overall quality of life. Stratification does not just highlight individual inequalities, but specifically systemic inequalities based upon group membership, social classes and races or ethnicities.
As derived from a German social theorist, Max Weber, there are three dimensions to social stratification, being social class, status and power. Social class is especially determined by one’s occupation, being that social class reflects their income and wealth. Those who make similar incomes or rank close to one other in wealth belong to the same social class. In the United States, forty-four percent of people belong to middle class and forty-three percent belong to the working class. The remaining thirteen percent in made up by one percent upper class and twelve percent low class. The amount of people belonging to each social class highlights issues caused by other areas or dimensions of social stratification (Sage Publications, n.d.). A secondary factor of the stratification system, status, relates to the prestige status attached to one’s position within society or certain groups. Status having the importance it does signifies that more than just money is viewed as valuable by others. Power, the third and last dimension of social stratification is power, or the ability to get others to do or act as you want them to, despite their desire to actually do it. The more power someone has, the higher they typically rank within any given society. Positions of power are the easiest ways to work up the social class system, especially in terms of politics. Wealth and high amounts of income are also associated with power, but are not entirely connected (Sage Publications, n.d.).
The main concern of social stratification is economic inequality, where some individuals in a given society yield a great deal of status, money or power, while others yield very little and do not have the same opportunities for upward mobility. Because wealth also includes assets such as savings accounts, investments, investment properties or cars, income cannot be a sole judge of wealth. Those who experience generational wealth are more likely to retain a high social status and continue to build upon what they have. On the opposite end of the spectrum, many others face disadvantages in building their wealth due to mortgages, student loans, car loans or other personal debts (Sage Publications, n.d.). Further contributing to economic inequality is income inequality, which poses a bigger threat to society in the 2010s and 2020s than ever before.
The top 0.1 percent made an average annual household income of over six million dollars in 2012. The top 1 percent made an average of about 1.2 million, while the other ninety- percent made a household average less than thirty-one thousand. The gap in income equality continues to grow as technological advances have taken over many jobs and as the political climate focuses on other issues aside from helping the middle to low classes. The federal minimum wage has been $7.25 per hour for years, despite the cost of living continuously growing (Sage Publications, n.d.). Through the conduction of research on stratification, education proved to play a crucial role in the intergenerational transmission of socioeconomic status of one’s parents to their own work and economic status. Education is also one of the strongest predictors of physical and psychological health, and there is a clear link between this and one’s socioeconomic status. The socioeconomic of a person greatly determines the education they receive, which will clearly have additional impacts on their overall health and success they are likely to be able to achieve. Additionally, aspects of social origins, such as growing up in poverty, affect their well-being into their adult lives (Reynolds, Ross, 1998).
There are different types of stratification systems, either being closed or open. Closed stratification systems allow for little change in social position, like the caste system. Caste systems rarely see people who are born into one part of the system every fall into another; if someone is born into a low position in a caste system, it is highly unlikely they will ever achieve a higher position, due to lack of opportunities for people to improve their social standing. The class system is based on social factors and individual achievement, and class consists of people who share similar status with regards to income, wealth, education and occupation. The class system is considered open, and people are free to attain their preferred level of education or field of employment. The biggest difference between caste systems and class systems is that those in caste systems have a fixed destiny, while those in class systems are affected by the socioeconomic status they are born into, they have the freedom and opportunity to achieve better for themselves. Meritocracy is an ideal system which is based on the belief that social stratification is the result of personal effort, which in turn determines social standing. This too, would be considered an open system (“Meritocracy,” n.d.). Regardless of the type of stratification system, certain factors affect a persons’ position in society, including race or gender.
Race has an impact on how people live in the United States; in 2017, over ten percent of African Americans were uninsured compared to nearly six percent of non-Hispanic whites. This is largely in part by the jobs people of different races work; as black Americans have less career opportunities in higher-level positions, they are unlikely to have health insurance or other benefits offered to them from their employer. In 2017, over forty-one percent of African Americans had government issued health insurance coverage. African Americans are statistically more likely to report being in poor health, be overweight or have childhood asthma. Additionally, less than nine percent of African American adults received mental health services compared to over eighteen percent of non-Hispanic whites in 2018. They are the racial group with the highest cancer mortality rate, infant deaths and more likely to die of suicide. These health disparities highlight how detrimental social stratification can be to groups of people who are not favored by their society (American Progress, n.d.).
Currently, the Covid-19 pandemic is putting an extra strain by those already suffering the disadvantages created by social stratification. Reports show that financial hardships caused by the pandemic are significantly impacting low-income, black and Hispanic families the most. It has especially affected the children of these families, posing risks to the childrens’ health, well-being and development. Nearly sixty-two percent of Hispanic parents and fifty percent of black parents living with children reported themselves or a family member lost a job or a significant amount of working hours due to the pandemic. Over half of low-income families overall reported job losses. As a result, one third of nine-thousand participants in a study experienced food insecurity since March 2020 and sixteen percent have gone without medical care (Jenco, 2020).
Within social stratification, two theories are presented; the structural functional theories which support social stratification, and the conflict critical theories, which state that social stratification reinforces inequalities. Structural function theory argues that societies have always been stratified, further stating that societies need stratification systems in order to exist and function properly. The theory believes that stratification ensures that people will be motivated to fill less pleasant, but import roles in society and that people will find their place in a career. However, this theory assumes that higher- level occupations such as doctors, are more important to society than lower- level occupations such as sanitation workers. Conflict critical theories are against social stratification as it involves and promotes inequality. They do not see a legitimate reason as to why higher- level occupations are viewed as more important by society when low-level occupations are depended on just as much. They also question the need for people at the higher levels of stratification to receive rewards to the extent they do when people in classes below them often work occupations of equal importance yet receive much less monetarily (Sage Publications, n.d.).
Social stratification ultimately results in a hierarchical difference and inequalities. Factors that represent the different dimensions of what stratification is based around are social class, status and power. In the United States specifically, where society is based around wealth and income, there is a money- based stratification system. Generational wealth plays a large role in how someone will experience life and determine their socioeconomic status throughout their lives. Generational wealth is when the social standing of someone’s parents that is passed down to them. This can include both material wealth and an identity with a strong network. In more recent research indicates that young people in the twenty- first century will experience downward mobility in terms of intergenerational wealth. Not only may this mean that more people will fall into lower socioeconomic statuses, but also threatens the health and well-being of a greater population of people (Sage Publications, n.d.).
Stratification systems produce mental health disparities. The proximate life conditions of a person depend upon four generic resources, being economic resources, power and authority, social capital and civil rights. (McLeod J.D. (2013). Stratification creates differences even on a global level, placing hierarchical differences and inequalities among countries around the globe. This is most significant in the oppression of southern global areas, which are typically lower- income countries by northern global areas, which are typically high-income areas. This creates boundaries and limits to what resources a country has, what they can offer their residents, and how well they can provide a safe, livable area to their citizens. Additionally, global stratification also impacts the education and healthcare available to them (Sage Publications, n.d.).
It is obvious that social stratification creates and reinforces inequalities that target certain groups of people more than others, causing life long and generational disadvantages. The limits it creates for marginalized populations especially affects every aspect of one’s life; health, education, likelihood of working in a high-level occupation or likelihood to be born into poverty, access to healthcare are all disadvantaged compared to non-Hispanic white peers. For social workers, it is important to ensure that all groups of people, regardless of race or any other factors, have equal access and opportunity. The National Association of Social Workers established it a priority of the practice to end poverty, as it is morally wrong for the richest country, The United States, to allow millions of their citizens to struggle with their basic daily needs (MSWcareers, 2018).
One way social workers may help achieve social justice, or help clients who are put at a disadvantage due to social justice issues, is to promote social and economic justice. They may do this by empowering either individual clients or other groups of people to influence social policies and institutions that promote social justice. By advocating for change, social workers show their commitment to giving all people equal access to any resources or opportunities required to meet basic needs and fully aid development (University of St. Thomas).
Social workers help others to function in the best way possible in their environment, navigate their relationships, and helping with the solution of both personal and familial problems they are facing. (Sagepub.in) Basic principles of social justice include access, or greater equality of the access to various goods and services, equity, which is overcoming unfairness created by unequal access to economic resources and power, legal, industrial and political rights, and participation, or the expanded opportunities for presence and participation in the decisions which govern their lives (www1.health.gov.au). On an individual basis, social workers may assist with clients who suffer from the inequalities caused by social stratification by ensuring their basic needs are met. They may help find affordable housing, government assistant programs, healthcare or childcare. On a larger scale, social workers can advocate for reform through legislation. They may promote economic security through social welfare legislation or advance programs which affect public policy and organize community or political action (MSWcareers, 2018).
A social problem exists whenever an influential group asserts a specific social condition affecting a larger number of people, which can be remedied by collective actions (Zastrow, 2000). Social stratification is a social problem kept in place by various governments in the United States and internationally. The social problems caused by stratification put many people at a life long disadvantage with little opportunity for upward mobility or change. Social stratification both creates and reinforces inequalities economically, healthcare, education and much more. While sociologists have argued that social stratification is necessary for societies to properly function and to motivate its members to achieve success within careers, research shows that stratification is far more harmful than helpful. It is important for social workers to diligently work towards lessening to inequalities caused by social stratification so that everyone living in a given society shares equal access and opportunities to a quality education, healthcare and life overall. By social workers advocating for new policies and bringing attention to the harmful results of social stratification, they are serving the greater good for all people, by ensuring nothing is without reach of those who are born into lower classes.