Tuesday, June 07, 2005

All classed up and nowhere to go [About NYT's Class Matters]

All classed up and nowhere to go

The New York Times goes slumming: How the paper’s allegiance to the ruling elite distorts its look at class in America

June 3 - 9, 2005

The Boston Phoenix

AT FIRST GLANCE, "Class Matters" — the New York Times’ epic inquiry into the widening economic divisions of the new millennium — appears to be what its editors solemnly claim: a well-intentioned effort to reckon with a serious social condition, one that notoriously eludes clear understanding in America, so long hymned as the planet’s pre-eminent land of opportunity. Alas, however, the New York Times is in no position to deliver. In contrast to, say, the paper’s conscientious reporting on the ’60s-era civil-rights movement in the South, its foray into class consciousness suffers from a fatal flaw. Social class is at the core of the Times’ institutional identity, which prevents the paper from offering the sort of dispassionate, critically searching discussion the subject demands.
Even as the paper takes hits for its alleged liberal bias, it retains a supremely undeviating affinity for the cultural habits of the rich and celebrated — most obviously in its Sunday Vows section, which features short celebratory biographies of newly consummated mateships from the overclass. The Sunday Styles section — along with the Home and Dining sections, the T: Style magazine, and the recently added Thursday Styles — delivers breathless dispatches on the mores, tastes, status worries, and modes of pecuniary display favored by the coming generation of anxious downtown arrivistes.
So the many installments of "Class Matters" — a now nearly completed work in progress — come across less like an authoritative exercise in social criticism than like an oddly anxious series of Tourette’s-style asides, desperately sidestepping the core economic inequities that the Times can never quite afford to mention outright. Getting the New York Times to explain the real operation of social class in America is, at the end of the day, a lot like granting your parents exclusive license to explain sex to you: there are simply far too many conflicts that run far too deep to result in any reliable account of how the thing works.
YOU CAN SEE the trouble early on, in what serves as the series’s mission statement: the pledge, in the May 15 first-installment "Overview" piece by Janny Scott and David Leonhardt, that they will chart the way "class influences destiny in America."
For most people on the receiving end of class prerogatives in this country — unskilled service workers who find it all but illegal to form unions, say, or poor black voters in Ohio and Florida — there’s no "influences" about it: class is destiny in America, delimiting access to basic social benefits like health care, education, job training, and affordable housing. Yet for all sorts of painfully self-evident institutional reasons, the New York Times can’t afford to approach a subject this potent in a straightforward fashion.
Instead Scott and Leonhardt marshal their readers through a leisurely tour of hoary American social mythology. America, they purr, "has gone a long way toward the appearance of classlessness" — meaning, one supposes, that the downwardly mobile middle classes are actually thriving on the appearance of being in possession of wealth and disposable income, as though, by analogy, it would have been perfectly acceptable to report design upgrades in segregated Southern drinking fountains as a meaningful advance for black civil rights. "Social diversity," they explain, "has erased many of the markers" separating the country’s haves from the have-nots. Yet they fail to recognize that a more socially diverse ruling class remains a ruling class, after all — an uncomfortable truth easily overlooked when one is writing for an influential organ of said ruling class.
Not surprisingly, then, the closer Scott and Leonhardt circle toward the heart of the matter — how some Americans leverage social advantage into greater wealth and privilege, and how many, many more have seen wealth, educational opportunity, disposable income, and job security stagnate or decline while household debt and health-care costs soar — the more ungainly and vague everything becomes. Still, Scott and Leonhardt are forced to concede a stubborn social fact: "Americans are arguably more likely than they were 30 years ago to end up in the same class into which they were born."
Here the dogged reader is at last primed to reckon with a sharp point of analytical departure: the storied American Dream of social mobility across generations appears to be stalled. Instead, however, the authors lurch into more bootless mythmaking: "Merit has replaced the old system of inherited privilege.... But merit, it turns out, is at least partly class-based. Parents with money, education, and connections cultivate in their children the habits the meritocracy rewards."
Well, no. Parents with connections, education, and money place their considerable resources directly at their offspring’s disposal. What results has everything to do with openly legible lines of power, and very nearly nothing to do with the cultivation of meritocracy-pleasing behavioral "habits" — as any cursory glance at the Oval Office’s present occupant or the cast of The Simple Life will instantly confirm.
Meritocracy is an especially obtrusive and unstable term here, since neither Scott nor Leonhardt — nor scarcely any uncritical champion of meritocracy in our time — pauses to note the original meaning of the term. The concept of meritocracy first surfaced in a 1958 satirical political novel, The Rise of the Meritocracy, by old-line British socialist Michael Young. Young’s coinage was not intended to describe a system of impartial upward advancement, but rather the diametric opposite: a dystopian social order wherein bureaucratic rank outstripped wealth and title as the measure of human advancement. The irony in Young’s book, of course, was that the egalitarian nomenclature of this brave new order — of which the word meritocracy was itself a prime example — masked a system of spoils and rewards that was fast becoming much less fair and balanced than the old British class society it was thought to have supplanted. Only in America — or more precisely, only in the A section of the New York Times — could a bitter term of Old World satire gain traction as a straight-faced descriptor of a sunny status quo.
NOT SURPRISINGLY, the twinned notions of Right Conduct and Meritocratic Worth have shaped every subsequent installment of "Class Matters." The first reported piece, by the redoubtable Janny Scott, explores the consequences of unequal access to quality health care, by reconstructing three heart-attack cases — affecting, in socially descending order, a well-heeled architect, an electric-company office worker, and an immigrant Polish maid. This comparative exercise does a pretty good job — how could it not? — of showing what happens when the basic right to critical health care is submitted to the market’s less-than-tender mercies.
Until, that is, Scott joins the hapless maid on a grocery-shopping junket and loses all patience: "Cruising the 99 Cent Wonder store in [Brooklyn’s] Williamsburg, where the freezers were filled with products like Budget Gourmet Rigatoni with Cream Sauce, [the maid, Ms. Gora] pulled down a small package of pistachios: two and a half servings, 13 grams of fat per serving. ‘I can eat five of these,’ she confessed, ignoring the nutrition label. Not servings. Bags."
Not servings, people! Bags! When Times scribes are reduced to sentence fragments, you know their patrician forbearance is running dangerously low. And how can you blame them, considering that the pistachio episode follows a sobering litany of other trespasses? When first stricken with her heart attack, Gora dismissed her husband’s suggestion that she was seriously ill and needed an ambulance, and instead tried to collect herself with a glass of vodka; against explicit doctors’ advice, she sneaks cigarettes and doughnuts, and even clips a cockamamie diet from a Polish magazine that permits her to eat generous portions of fried food and steak. And so Scott’s telltale moment of exasperation carries an unmistakable subtext: There’s just nothing to be done with these people. Never mind that Gora’s behavior suggests that she is also suffering an extended, and completely understandable, bout of depression — an all-too-common health affliction among the working poor. Why extend anything like universally available health care to a group of people so willfully perverse?

Likewise, the next series installment, on marriage and class, completely neglects the subject抯 most historically significant recent development: how more affluent mates postpone marriage and childrearing through what抯 known euphemistically as "assortative mating" (i.e., the sort of closely vetted, intraclass pairings of the privileged featured every week in the Vows section of the Times), versus the considerable pressures within poor communities to marry early and procreate often. Instead, the main dispatch by Times reporter Tamar Lewin sets up elaborate social quandaries better suited to a Victorian novel than to 21st-century American life. It describes the course of a second marriage for both partners that抯 taken them beyond the reach of their familiar social stations: wife Cate Woolner is a rich heiress, husband Dan Croteau is a working-class car salesman. It抯 hard to suss out just what the social lesson of such a plainly atypical union is supposed to be. Apart, that is, from the manifest truth that, left to their own devices, the rich will always raise the most irritating children on earth ("[Woolner抯 son] Isaac fantasizes about opening a brewery-cum-performance space, traveling through South America, or operating a sunset massage cruise on the Caribbean").
By Sunday, May 22抯 entry, a piece by Laurie Goodstein and David Kirkpatrick on the evangelical mission called the Christian Union, which is targeting the Ivy League elite, the Times reverts to full-on barbarians-at-the-gates-style culture alarmism. The piece is not even, in any clear way, about social class (at least not the destiny-inhibiting type adumbrated in the series抯 mission statement), since Matt Bennett, the principal force behind the Christian Union, is heir to a Dallas-based hotel empire, and the one quasi-needy case in the piece, a sophomore missionary at Brown named Tim Havens, rather inconveniently declares himself pre-med by the story抯 end. And what is clearly meant to be a spit-take moment for Sunday-morning Times coffee drinkers ?Bennett抯 claim that God came to him in a vision and "was speaking to me very strongly that he wanted to see an increasing and dramatic spiritual revival in a place like Princeton" ?actually makes a good deal of sense when one recalls (as Kirkpatrick and Goodstein apparently do not) that Princeton was the intellectual capital of American fundamentalist theology in the early part of the last century. The reporters do mention briefly that most Ivy League schools in fact began life as "expressly Christian," but dwelling too long on such facts would clearly contradict the piece抯 half-baked social premise: that newer, and traditionally down-market, evangelical faiths are now storming the citadels of American intellectual privilege.
For May 24抯 installment ?the midpoint entry in the series ?Leonhardt offers a predictably baffled piece on the most perverse of working-class mores: the refusal to attend college for full four-year terms. Leonhardt telescopes this chilling trend through the saga of Andy Blevins, a 29-year-old produce buyer for a big-box retail warehouse in small-town rural Virginia. Blevins dropped out after his freshman year at Radford University; he plans to return to school part-time, though, in order to earn a degree and teaching credentials in elementary education, even though the vast majority of returning college dropouts never complete their degrees. The overall high failure and dropout rates among America抯 poor and working class admit to no "simple answer," Leonhardt writes. There is, to be sure, the vulgar question of money, he notes. Tuitions that routinely outstrip the rate of inflation, and the specter of contracting long-term five- or six-figure loans, are strong, sobering deterrents.
For Leonhardt, however, economic inequality can provide only a glancing explanation of class inequities ?culture has to be where the real action is. After ticking off the formidable financial obstacles posed by higher education, Leonhardt primly announces that "the deterrents to a [college] degree can also be homegrown. Many low-income teenagers know few people who have made it through college. A majority of the non-graduates are young men, and some come from towns where the factory work ethic, to get working as soon as possible, remains strong, even if the factories themselves are vanishing. Whatever the reason, college just does not feel normal." It抯 worth noting that such cultural delicacy did not seem to prevent FDR from signing the GI Bill into law, thereby dispatching the largest-ever contingent of working-class American men to elite university campuses. There was little apparent fuss about how these entering students processed their unfamiliar cultural surroundings, once the federal government brought tuition costs into reasonable alignment with their living standards.
Nonetheless, the paper of record, with its condescending cultural exoticism, once again dwells lovingly on behavior and culture rather than on cold economic facts. Leonhardt mentions the gruesome inequity that, thanks to the Bush administration抯 recent cuts to the Pell-grant program, "high-income students, on average, actually get slightly more financial aid than low-income students." But apart from some vague discussion of the emerging vogue for need-conscious class-based affirmative action, he can抰 connect the obvious dots here: that without universal, federally funded support, the prospect of a full tour in the world of higher education ranks somewhere alongside winning the lottery in the pantheon of plausible working-class life outcomes.
Instead, Leonhardt frets on and on about the boneheaded call the 19-year-old Blevins made when he dropped out, and the extreme unlikelihood, despite the guy抯 professed best intentions, that any good will come of his pitiful bid to reinvent himself. And should the wall-eyed voyeurism of the piece leave any doubt, the front-page photo speaks volumes: it shows Blevins indolently sprawled on his living-room sofa, gaping at a football game on TV, while keeping a bottle shoved in the gullet of his three-year-old son, Luke, whose head dangles perilously over the edge of the couch. This, the casual reader is urged to conclude, is just the sort of layabout behavioral pathology that keeps working-class families from achieving serious upward mobility. Yet the text makes clear that Blevins doesn抰 have a great deal of time to devote to semiconscious gridiron gawking, since he routinely works six-day weeks, at shifts of 10 hours or more. This image, like most feature subjects in "Class Matters," seems clearly intended to trigger a quiet shudder of patrician thanksgiving that Times readers really do not go there but for the grace of God.
SUBSEQUENT SERIES installments perform the same reassuring alchemy, transmuting the raw stuff of material deprivation into judiciously arm抯-length cultural perplexity. A May 25 dispatch on immigrant-laborer tensions at Uma Thurman抯 favorite diner trails off into puzzlement over how immigrant managers resist unionization of other immigrant workers in their employ. (Don抰 they know that social diversity abolishes class distinction? That a Greek restaurant owner is supposed to embrace his Latino busboys and waitstaff in a gorgeous mosaic of service-economy unity?) Another blowout Sunday entry, on May 29, found the Times returning with palpable relief to a subject on which it wields genuine authority: how and why luxury shopping is failing to perfectly mirror hard-core American socioeconomic divisions. Jennifer Steinhauer registers the perfect ruffled tone of disbelief as she reports on the decline of true luxury consumption in America, as more middle-class people get into deeper debt to make high-end purchases like cruises and designer chocolates. For a paper that routinely lavishes acres of adoring prose on the shopping preferences of the fabulously well-to-do, this sort of news has roughly the same effect that Andres Serrano抯 Piss Christ photograph exercised on the Catholic League: "Rising incomes, flattening prices, and easily available credit have given so many Americans access to such a wide array of high-end goods that traditional markers of status have lost much of their meanings." For devout Times scribes, this, truly, is the world turned upside down. An unintentionally hilarious graphic accompanying the main body of the piece ?"Swells and Ne抏r-Do-Wells: A Class Timeline" ?echoes the same clear longing for the snappy, superficial navigation of social distinction. Here is one of its final bullet points: "1989: The Berlin Wall falls. Marxism抯 vision of a classless society is out; global capitalism is in."
There you have it: a watershed moment in modern democratic revolution worded in the style of an America Idol ballot. Don抰 dare remind our glib Times editors that Marx himself foresaw the triumph of global capitalism as the precursor to his vision of a classless society. They抮e telling you what抯 in, and there could be no more fitting final word on the subject from a journalistic oracle of the Times?stature ?except, that is, to turn from all this messy, unresolved class nastiness to the crisp and clean business-as-usual digests in the Sunday抯 Vows column.

Chris Lehman is a writer based in Washington, DC, and author of Revolt of the Masscult (Prickly Paradigm, 2003). He can be reached at lehmannchris@mac.com

Monday, June 06, 2005








Herbert G. Giles' translation (A History of Chinese Literature, 1901):
Green grows the grass upon the bank,
The willow-shoots are long and lank;
A lady in a glistening gawn
Opens the casement and looks down
The roses on her cheek blush bright,
Her rounded arm is dazzling white;
A singing-girl in early life...
Ah, if he does not mind his own,
He'll find some day the bird had flown!

Ezra Pound's translation (Cathay):
The Beautiful Toilet (Mei Sheng, 140 BC)
Blue, blue is the grass about the river
And the willows have overfilled the close garden.
And within, the mistress, in the midmost of her youth,
White, white of face, hesitates, passing the door.
Slender, she puts forth a slender hand;
And she was a courtezan in the old days,
And she has married a sot,
Who now goes drunkly out
And leaves her too much alone.

[Why that title? Pound's translation was
based on Ernest Fenollosa's translation in
his notebook. The 5th line was translated
as: "beauty of (ditto) red powder toilet face".
Pound added a title to the poem, and omitted
the above line from the poem.

Pound knew Giles' translation. No idea why
Pound deleted "face" from "toilet face", and
no idea what he intended to mean by "the
beautiful toilet".]




































Sunday, June 05, 2005

Class Matters

The New York Times


A team of reporters spent more than a year exploring ways that class - defined as a combination of income, education, wealth and occupation - influences destiny in a society that likes to think of itself as a land of unbounded opportunity.

May 15, 2005
Shadowy Lines That Still Divide


There was a time when Americans thought they understood class. The upper crust vacationed in Europe and worshiped an Episcopal God. The middle class drove Ford Fairlanes, settled the San Fernando Valley and enlisted as company men. The working class belonged to the A.F.L.-C.I.O., voted Democratic and did not take cruises to the Caribbean.
Today, the country has gone a long way toward an appearance of classlessness. Americans of all sorts are awash in luxuries that would have dazzled their grandparents. Social diversity has erased many of the old markers. It has become harder to read people's status in the clothes they wear, the cars they drive, the votes they cast, the god they worship, the color of their skin. The contours of class have blurred; some say they have disappeared.
But class is still a powerful force in American life. Over the past three decades, it has come to play a greater, not lesser, role in important ways. At a time when education matters more than ever, success in school remains linked tightly to class. At a time when the country is increasingly integrated racially, the rich are isolating themselves more and more. At a time of extraordinary advances in medicine, class differences in health and lifespan are wide and appear to be widening.
And new research on mobility, the movement of families up and down the economic ladder, shows there is far less of it than economists once thought and less than most people believe. [Click here for more information on income mobility.] In fact, mobility, which once buoyed the working lives of Americans as it rose in the decades after World War II, has lately flattened out or possibly even declined, many researchers say.
Mobility is the promise that lies at the heart of the American dream. It is supposed to take the sting out of the widening gulf between the have-mores and the have-nots. There are poor and rich in the United States, of course, the argument goes; but as long as one can become the other, as long as there is something close to equality of opportunity, the differences between them do not add up to class barriers.
Over the next three weeks, The Times will publish a series of articles on class in America, a dimension of the national experience that tends to go unexamined, if acknowledged at all. With class now seeming more elusive than ever, the articles take stock of its influence in the lives of individuals: a lawyer who rose out of an impoverished Kentucky hollow; an unemployed metal worker in Spokane, Wash., regretting his decision to skip college; a multimillionaire in Nantucket, Mass., musing over the cachet of his 200-foot yacht.
The series does not purport to be all-inclusive or the last word on class. It offers no nifty formulas for pigeonholing people or decoding folkways and manners. Instead, it represents an inquiry into class as Americans encounter it: indistinct, ambiguous, the half-seen hand that upon closer examination holds some Americans down while giving others a boost.
The trends are broad and seemingly contradictory: the blurring of the landscape of class and the simultaneous hardening of certain class lines; the rise in standards of living while most people remain moored in their relative places.
Even as mobility seems to have stagnated, the ranks of the elite are opening. Today, anyone may have a shot at becoming a United States Supreme Court justice or a C.E.O., and there are more and more self-made billionaires. Only 37 members of last year's Forbes 400, a list of the richest Americans, inherited their wealth, down from almost 200 in the mid-1980's.
So it appears that while it is easier for a few high achievers to scale the summits of wealth, for many others it has become harder to move up from one economic class to another. Americans are arguably more likely than they were 30 years ago to end up in the class into which they were born.
A paradox lies at the heart of this new American meritocracy. Merit has replaced the old system of inherited privilege, in which parents to the manner born handed down the manor to their children. But merit, it turns out, is at least partly class-based. Parents with money, education and connections cultivate in their children the habits that the meritocracy rewards. When their children then succeed, their success is seen as earned.
The scramble to scoop up a house in the best school district, channel a child into the right preschool program or land the best medical specialist are all part of a quiet contest among social groups that the affluent and educated are winning in a rout.
"The old system of hereditary barriers and clubby barriers has pretty much vanished," said Eric Wanner, president of the Russell Sage Foundation, a social science research group in New York City that recently published a series of studies on the social effects of economic inequality.
In place of the old system, Dr. Wanner said, have arisen "new ways of transmitting advantage that are beginning to assert themselves."
Faith in the System
Most Americans remain upbeat about their prospects for getting ahead. A recent New York Times poll on class found that 40 percent of Americans believed that the chance of moving up from one class to another had risen over the last 30 years, a period in which the new research shows that it has not. Thirty-five percent said it had not changed, and only 23 percent said it had dropped.
More Americans than 20 years ago believe it possible to start out poor, work hard and become rich. They say hard work and a good education are more important to getting ahead than connections or a wealthy background.
"I think the system is as fair as you can make it," Ernie Frazier, a 65-year-old real estate investor in Houston, said in an interview after participating in the poll. "I don't think life is necessarily fair. But if you persevere, you can overcome adversity. It has to do with a person's willingness to work hard, and I think it's always been that way."
Most say their standard of living is better than their parents' and imagine that their children will do better still. Even families making less than $30,000 a year subscribe to the American dream; more than half say they have achieved it or will do so.
But most do not see a level playing field. They say the very rich have too much power, and they favor the idea of class-based affirmative action to help those at the bottom. Even so, most say they oppose the government's taxing the assets a person leaves at death.
"They call it the land of opportunity, and I don't think that's changed much," said Diana Lackey, a 60-year-old homemaker and wife of a retired contractor in Fulton, N.Y., near Syracuse. "Times are much, much harder with all the downsizing, but we're still a wonderful country."
The Attributes of Class
One difficulty in talking about class is that the word means different things to different people. Class is rank, it is tribe, it is culture and taste. It is attitudes and assumptions, a source of identity, a system of exclusion. To some, it is just money. It is an accident of birth that can influence the outcome of a life. Some Americans barely notice it; others feel its weight in powerful ways.
At its most basic, class is one way societies sort themselves out. Even societies built on the idea of eliminating class have had stark differences in rank. Classes are groups of people of similar economic and social position; people who, for that reason, may share political attitudes, lifestyles, consumption patterns, cultural interests and opportunities to get ahead. Put 10 people in a room and a pecking order soon emerges.
When societies were simpler, the class landscape was easier to read. Marx divided 19th-century societies into just two classes; Max Weber added a few more. As societies grew increasingly complex, the old classes became more heterogeneous. As some sociologists and marketing consultants see it, the commonly accepted big three - the upper, middle and working classes - have broken down into dozens of microclasses, defined by occupations or lifestyles.
A few sociologists go so far as to say that social complexity has made the concept of class meaningless. Conventional big classes have become so diverse - in income, lifestyle, political views - that they have ceased to be classes at all, said Paul W. Kingston, a professor of sociology at the University of Virginia. To him, American society is a "ladder with lots and lots of rungs."
"There is not one decisive break saying that the people below this all have this common experience," Professor Kingston said. "Each step is equal-sized. Sure, for the people higher up this ladder, their kids are more apt to get more education, better health insurance. But that doesn't mean there are classes."
Many other researchers disagree. "Class awareness and the class language is receding at the very moment that class has reorganized American society," said Michael Hout, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. "I find these 'end of class' discussions naïve and ironic, because we are at a time of booming inequality and this massive reorganization of where we live and how we feel, even in the dynamics of our politics. Yet people say, 'Well, the era of class is over.' "
One way to think of a person's position in society is to imagine a hand of cards. Everyone is dealt four cards, one from each suit: education, income, occupation and wealth, the four commonly used criteria for gauging class. [Click here to see where you fit in the American population.] Face cards in a few categories may land a player in the upper middle class. At first, a person's class is his parents' class. Later, he may pick up a new hand of his own; it is likely to resemble that of his parents, but not always.
Bill Clinton traded in a hand of low cards with the help of a college education and a Rhodes scholarship and emerged decades later with four face cards. Bill Gates, who started off squarely in the upper middle class, made a fortune without finishing college, drawing three aces.
Many Americans say that they too have moved up the nation's class ladder. In the Times poll, 45 percent of respondents said they were in a higher class than when they grew up, while just 16 percent said they were in a lower one. Over all, 1 percent described themselves as upper class, 15 percent as upper middle class, 42 percent as middle, 35 percent as working and 7 percent as lower.
"I grew up very poor and so did my husband," said Wanda Brown, the 58-year-old wife of a retired planner for the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard who lives in Puyallup, Wash., near Tacoma. "We're not rich but we are comfortable and we are middle class and our son is better off than we are."
The American Ideal
The original exemplar of American social mobility was almost certainly Benjamin Franklin, one of 17 children of a candle maker. About 20 years ago, when researchers first began to study mobility in a rigorous way, Franklin seemed representative of a truly fluid society, in which the rags-to-riches trajectory was the readily achievable ideal, just as the nation's self-image promised.
In a 1987 speech, Gary S. Becker, a University of Chicago economist who would later win a Nobel Prize, summed up the research by saying that mobility in the United States was so high that very little advantage was passed down from one generation to the next. In fact, researchers seemed to agree that the grandchildren of privilege and of poverty would be on nearly equal footing.
If that had been the case, the rise in income inequality beginning in the mid-1970's should not have been all that worrisome. The wealthy might have looked as if they were pulling way ahead, but if families were moving in and out of poverty and prosperity all the time, how much did the gap between the top and bottom matter?
But the initial mobility studies were flawed, economists now say. Some studies relied on children's fuzzy recollections of their parents' income. Others compared single years of income, which fluctuate considerably. Still others misread the normal progress people make as they advance in their careers, like from young lawyer to senior partner, as social mobility.
The new studies of mobility, which methodically track peoples' earnings over decades, have found far less movement. The economic advantage once believed to last only two or three generations is now believed to last closer to five. Mobility happens, just not as rapidly as was once thought.
"We all know stories of poor families in which the next generation did much better," said Gary Solon, a University of Michigan economist who is a leading mobility researcher. "It isn't that poor families have no chance."
But in the past, Professor Solon added, "people would say, 'Don't worry about inequality. The offspring of the poor have chances as good as the chances of the offspring of the rich.' Well, that's not true. It's not respectable in scholarly circles anymore to make that argument."
One study, by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, found that fewer families moved from one quintile, or fifth, of the income ladder to another during the 1980's than during the 1970's and that still fewer moved in the 90's than in the 80's. A study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics also found that mobility declined from the 80's to the 90's.
The incomes of brothers born around 1960 have followed a more similar path than the incomes of brothers born in the late 1940's, researchers at the Chicago Federal Reserve and the University of California, Berkeley, have found. Whatever children inherit from their parents - habits, skills, genes, contacts, money - seems to matter more today.
Studies on mobility over generations are notoriously difficult, because they require researchers to match the earnings records of parents with those of their children. Some economists consider the findings of the new studies murky; it cannot be definitively shown that mobility has fallen during the last generation, they say, only that it has not risen. The data will probably not be conclusive for years.
Nor do people agree on the implications. Liberals say the findings are evidence of the need for better early-education and antipoverty programs to try to redress an imbalance in opportunities. Conservatives tend to assert that mobility remains quite high, even if it has tailed off a little.
But there is broad consensus about what an optimal range of mobility is. It should be high enough for fluid movement between economic levels but not so high that success is barely tied to achievement and seemingly random, economists on both the right and left say.
As Phillip Swagel, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, put it, "We want to give people all the opportunities they want. We want to remove the barriers to upward mobility."
Yet there should remain an incentive for parents to cultivate their children. "Most people are working very hard to transmit their advantages to their children," said David I. Levine, a Berkeley economist and mobility researcher. "And that's quite a good thing."
One surprising finding about mobility is that it is not higher in the United States than in Britain or France. It is lower here than in Canada and some Scandinavian countries but not as low as in developing countries like Brazil, where escape from poverty is so difficult that the lower class is all but frozen in place.
Those comparisons may seem hard to believe. Britain and France had hereditary nobilities; Britain still has a queen. The founding document of the United States proclaims all men to be created equal. The American economy has also grown more quickly than Europe's in recent decades, leaving an impression of boundless opportunity.
But the United States differs from Europe in ways that can gum up the mobility machine. Because income inequality is greater here, there is a wider disparity between what rich and poor parents can invest in their children. Perhaps as a result, a child's economic background is a better predictor of school performance in the United States than in Denmark, the Netherlands or France, one recent study found.
"Being born in the elite in the U.S. gives you a constellation of privileges that very few people in the world have ever experienced," Professor Levine said. "Being born poor in the U.S. gives you disadvantages unlike anything in Western Europe and Japan and Canada."
Blurring the Landscape
Why does it appear that class is fading as a force in American life?
For one thing, it is harder to read position in possessions. Factories in China and elsewhere churn out picture-taking cellphones and other luxuries that are now affordable to almost everyone. Federal deregulation has done the same for plane tickets and long-distance phone calls. Banks, more confident about measuring risk, now extend credit to low-income families, so that owning a home or driving a new car is no longer evidence that someone is middle class.
The economic changes making material goods cheaper have forced businesses to seek out new opportunities so that they now market to groups they once ignored. Cruise ships, years ago a symbol of the high life, have become the ocean-going equivalent of the Jersey Shore. BMW produces a cheaper model with the same insignia. Martha Stewart sells chenille jacquard drapery and scallop-embossed ceramic dinnerware at Kmart.
"The level of material comfort in this country is numbing," said Paul Bellew, executive director for market and industry analysis at General Motors. "You can make a case that the upper half lives as well as the upper 5 percent did 50 years ago."
Like consumption patterns, class alignments in politics have become jumbled. In the 1950's, professionals were reliably Republican; today they lean Democratic. Meanwhile, skilled labor has gone from being heavily Democratic to almost evenly split.
People in both parties have attributed the shift to the rise of social issues, like gun control and same-sex marriage, which have tilted many working-class voters rightward and upper income voters toward the left. But increasing affluence plays an important role, too. When there is not only a chicken, but an organic, free-range chicken, in every pot, the traditional economic appeal to the working class can sound off key.
Religious affiliation, too, is no longer the reliable class marker it once was. The growing economic power of the South has helped lift evangelical Christians into the middle and upper middle classes, just as earlier generations of Roman Catholics moved up in the mid-20th century. It is no longer necessary to switch one's church membership to Episcopal or Presbyterian as proof that one has arrived.
"You go to Charlotte, N.C., and the Baptists are the establishment," said Mark A. Chaves, a sociologist at the University of Arizona. "To imagine that for reasons of respectability, if you lived in North Carolina, you would want to be a Presbyterian rather than a Baptist doesn't play anymore."
The once tight connection between race and class has weakened, too, as many African-Americans have moved into the middle and upper middle classes. Diversity of all sorts - racial, ethnic and gender - has complicated the class picture. And high rates of immigration and immigrant success stories seem to hammer home the point: The rules of advancement have changed.
The American elite, too, is more diverse than it was. The number of corporate chief executives who went to Ivy League colleges has dropped over the past 15 years. There are many more Catholics, Jews and Mormons in the Senate than there were a generation or two ago. Because of the economic earthquakes of the last few decades, a small but growing number of people have shot to the top.
"Anything that creates turbulence creates the opportunity for people to get rich," said Christopher S. Jencks, a professor of social policy at Harvard. "But that isn't necessarily a big influence on the 99 percent of people who are not entrepreneurs."
These success stories reinforce perceptions of mobility, as does cultural myth-making in the form of television programs like "American Idol" and "The Apprentice."
But beneath all that murkiness and flux, some of the same forces have deepened the hidden divisions of class. Globalization and technological change have shuttered factories, killing jobs that were once stepping-stones to the middle class. Now that manual labor can be done in developing countries for $2 a day, skills and education have become more essential than ever.
This has helped produce the extraordinary jump in income inequality. The after-tax income of the top 1 percent of American households jumped 139 percent, to more than $700,000, from 1979 to 2001, according to the Congressional Budget Office, which adjusted its numbers to account for inflation. The income of the middle fifth rose by just 17 percent, to $43,700, and the income of the poorest fifth rose only 9 percent.
For most workers, the only time in the last three decades when the rise in hourly pay beat inflation was during the speculative bubble of the 90's. Reduced pensions have made retirement less secure.
Clearly, a degree from a four-year college makes even more difference than it once did. More people are getting those degrees than did a generation ago, but class still plays a big role in determining who does or does not. At 250 of the most selective colleges in the country, the proportion of students from upper-income families has grown, not shrunk.
Some colleges, worried about the trend, are adopting programs to enroll more lower-income students. One is Amherst, whose president, Anthony W. Marx, explained: "If economic mobility continues to shut down, not only will we be losing the talent and leadership we need, but we will face a risk of a society of alienation and unhappiness. Even the most privileged among us will suffer the consequences of people not believing in the American dream."
Class differences in health, too, are widening, recent research shows. Life expectancy has increased over all; but upper-middle-class Americans live longer and in better health than middle-class Americans, who live longer and in better health than those at the bottom.
Class plays an increased role, too, in determining where and with whom affluent Americans live. More than in the past, they tend to live apart from everyone else, cocooned in their exurban chateaus. Researchers who have studied data from the 1980, 1990 and 2000 censuses say the isolation of the affluent has increased.
Family structure, too, differs increasingly along class lines. The educated and affluent are more likely than others to have their children while married. They have fewer children and have them later, when their earning power is high. On average, according to one study, college-educated women have their first child at 30, up from 25 in the early 1970's. The average age among women who have never gone to college has stayed at about 22.
Those widening differences have left the educated and affluent in a superior position when it comes to investing in their children. "There is no reason to doubt the old saw that the most important decision you make is choosing your parents," said Professor Levine, the Berkeley economist and mobility researcher. "While it's always been important, it's probably a little more important now."
The benefits of the new meritocracy do come at a price. It once seemed that people worked hard and got rich in order to relax, but a new class marker in upper-income families is having at least one parent who works extremely long hours (and often boasts about it). In 1973, one study found, the highest-paid tenth of the country worked fewer hours than the bottom tenth. Today, those at the top work more.
In downtown Manhattan, black cars line up outside Goldman Sachs's headquarters every weeknight around 9. Employees who work that late get a free ride home, and there are plenty of them. Until 1976, a limousine waited at 4:30 p.m. to ferry partners to Grand Central Terminal. But a new management team eliminated the late-afternoon limo to send a message: 4:30 is the middle of the workday, not the end.
A Rags-to-Riches Faith
Will the trends that have reinforced class lines while papering over the distinctions persist?
The economic forces that caused jobs to migrate to low-wage countries are still active. The gaps in pay, education and health have not become a major political issue. The slicing of society's pie is more unequal than it used to be, but most Americans have a bigger piece than they or their parents once did. They appear to accept the tradeoffs.
Faith in mobility, after all, has been consciously woven into the national self-image. Horatio Alger's books have made his name synonymous with rags-to-riches success, but that was not his personal story. He was a second-generation Harvard man, who became a writer only after losing his Unitarian ministry because of allegations of sexual misconduct. Ben Franklin's autobiography was punched up after his death to underscore his rise from obscurity.
The idea of fixed class positions, on the other hand, rubs many the wrong way. Americans have never been comfortable with the notion of a pecking order based on anything other than talent and hard work. Class contradicts their assumptions about the American dream, equal opportunity and the reasons for their own successes and even failures. Americans, constitutionally optimistic, are disinclined to see themselves as stuck.
Blind optimism has its pitfalls. If opportunity is taken for granted, as something that will be there no matter what, then the country is less likely to do the hard work to make it happen. But defiant optimism has its strengths. Without confidence in the possibility of moving up, there would almost certainly be fewer success stories.

A Bibliography

Following is a selection of books that were consulted by reporters and editors working on this series.
Bourdieu, PierreDistinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (1984, Harvard University Press)
Bowen, William G., et alEquity and Excellence in American Higher Education (Thomas Jefferson Foundation Distinguished Lecture Series)
Bowles, Samuel, et al (Editors)Unequal Chances: Family Background and Economic Success (2005, Princeton University Press)
Conley, DaltonThe Pecking Order: Which Siblings Succeed and Why (2004, Pantheon)
Corak, Miles (editor)Generational Income Mobility in North America and Europe (2004, Cambridge)
Franklin, BenjaminThe Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (Dover Publications)
Frank, Robert; Cook, Phillip J.The Winner-Take-All Society: Why the Few at the Top Get So Much More Than the Rest of Us (1996, Penguin)
Fussell, PaulClass: A Guide Through the American Status System (1983, Touchstone Books)
Herberg, WillProtestant Catholic Jew: An Essay in American Religious Sociology (1955, 1960, 1983, The University of Chicago Press)
Kingston, Paul W. The Classless Society (2000, Stanford University Press)
Lamont, MicheleMoney, Morals, & Manners: The Culture of the French and the American Upper-Middle Class (1992, The University of Chicago Press)
Lareau, AnnetteUnequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life (2003, University of California Press)
Neckerman, Kathryn M. (Editor)Social Inequality (2004, Russell Sage Foundation) [Chapter 2, on family structure, and Chapter 10, on working hours, are especially relevant.]
Niebuhr, H. RichardThe Social Sources of Denominationalism (1929)
Poloma, Margaret M.The Assemblies of God at the Crossroads: Charisma and Institutional Dilemmas (1989, The University of Tennessee Press)
Scharnhorst, Gary, with Jack BalesThe Lost Life of Horatio Alger Jr. (Indiana University Press, 1992)
Wood, Gordon S.The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin (2004, Penguin Press)