Class in America is a difficult subject, because the major categories of thought on the subject don't seem to fit reality. The traditional Marxist-based analysis, for example (see the works of William Domhoff), finds a European class structure in America.
Class is obvious and palpable in Europe, even in countries like Sweden that have tried hard to reduce distinctions. But the European model has no parallels in the United States. We are an immigrant society that came almost entirely from Europe's lower classes and which, during the War of Independence, drove out the remnants of an upper class, mostly to Canada. That country still retains a semblance of European class structure.
Conversely, a view of America as devoid of classes is patently wrong. Princeton University is not the same as New Mexico State University. The problem of the differences between class theory and observation arises because the real classes in America are small and on the periphery of the mainstream. We are one great undifferentiated mainstream population, with a tiny "elite" class, a tiny "outcast" class, and a small "under" class. Only the outcast class is clearly visible.
Each of our classes can be explicated and is empirically definable, but empirical work on the subject is scanty. The American elite published its own press releases one hundred years ago; they were called the society Blue Books. Such efforts were self-serving bravado and not truly applicable to America, even at the time. (The Blue Books often excluded the important elite movers and shakers for reasons of ethnicity or religion).
The contemporary American elite class can be defined as: a group of individuals in which each member of the group knows fifty other elites who consider the original individual to be a fellow member of the elite. This definition is not circular. A person who was a not a member of the elite could list fifty others but would not be mentioned by the people on his list. Elite membership comes from mutual acknowledgement of membership.
First, the elite individual must be on close terms with fifty other people, a behavioral characteristic not commonly found among most people in the vast mainstream population. Most people have a smaller number of close friends. Second, all the members of this elite group are able to recognize other members of the elite class through a complex set of characteristics.
An empirical study of this class has been done; it was published as The American Elite, by Lehman, Brown, et al. (Yale University Press, 1996). The study found that the elite class does not have common political, economic, or social values. They do act in their own class interest when they are able, on rare occasions, to perceive it. They do not all recognize, appreciate, or socialize with each other (but they do have more than fifty friends who are fellow members). The elite class comprises several different professional and social nodes, or specialties, within which the members interact. These nodes include academia, law, religion, military, foreign relations, entertainment, Wall Street, the corporate top echelon, the arts, and a few others.
The elite population is less than 1 percent of the country's total population, with new members flowing in and fallen members flowing out at the rate of 100,000+ each generation. No one can enter directly, although the children of powerful and well-to-do can enter via the elite school system. My sources for this information are a few friends who are elites and several elite families for whom I have served as a financial consultant.
The other two classes in America are the outcast class and the under class. The outcast class can be empirically identified. It consists of all adults who cannot find another person to testify in a court of law as to their economic and moral integrity. This includes many people who are in jail and prison and a few who are homeless. This class is small, under 1 percent of the total American population. This is the group of people we often see on the streets.
A large proportion of this class has skin color that is darker than the national average and has poor dental hygiene and a high incidence of physical disabilities. Nearly all the members of this class lack impulse control and tend toward addictive behavior; they also have problems with concentration. From a decade of working with people in this class, my personal observations are that most of these people are born into this class and few move out of it, probably fewer than 100,000 per generation.
The under class is the hardest to explicate and observe empirically. I define the members of this class as those who not have or cannot borrow $10,000 (even under emergency circumstances). Most male members of this class are unemployed, even when the unemployment rate drops below 5 percent.
The under class is not readily visible, but it does include a high percentage of people with darker-than-average skin color and first-generation immigrants. The size of this population is hard to estimate, because it does experience some upward and downward mobility. A rough guess would be that it consists of 2 percent of the total American population. The number of people moving upwards and out of this class is in excess of 200,000 per generation. The new members of this class come from from the outcast class (only a few) and down from the mainstream (only a few); most new members arrive mainly through immigration.
For the under class, the three most common vehicles for upward mobility are the direct personal patronage of a middle-class supporter, educational attainment, and marriage to a member of the mainstream.
The three classes in the U.S., that are outside the mainstream , are very small. The elite class and the outcast class are each less than 1 percent of the population. The elite is permeable at a slow rate and is quite different from its popular conception. This class is diverse and not cohesive; however, it can on occasion act in its own interest. The outcast class seems to be largely determined at birth, and there is little movement out of it. The under class is about 2 percent of our population and not very visible, but its members are steadily moving into the mainstream of the American population. The American mainstream consists of about 96 percent of the population and has no distinct or enduring classlike stratification.