18 Charts that Illustrate America's Insane Class System from Birth till Death

Personal Health

I am not usually one for a long charticle, but occasionally it's worthwhile to step back and summarize what we know. Here, I tackle America's class system, across the life cycle.

1. Poverty Spikes Stress in Children

It starts in the womb. It never lets up.

2. Income Inequality Means Enrichment Inequality

More money, more activities.

3. Rapid Schooling Divergence

Although there is essentially no observed class-based difference in the cognitive abilities of children in their first year of life, that ends quickly.

4. Logical Consequence of Divergence: Drop Outs

Little to no enrichment activities, cognitive abilities stunted by poverty-related stress, and years of falling behind does what you would think it does.

5. Further Behind Than Ever Come College Time

These figures probably understate the severity of the gap as well because those on the low end who’d score the worst probably never bother to take the SAT anyways.

6. Traditional College Students: Rich Kids

The richer your parents are, the more likely you are to be in college at 19.

There is severe inequality in who attends college and equally severe inequality in where those who do attend go.

This inequality is most severe at the top, with the top 147 colleges having a rich-to-poor ratio of 25-to-1.

7. Getting In Doesn’t Mean Finishing

Fifty-four percent of rich kids get a four-year degree by age 25, six times the percentage of poor kids who do so.

8. Surprise: Poor Kids = Poor Adults

Obviously there are exceptions, but the overall trend is clear: the richer your parents are, the richer you are.

9. Even The Strivers Don’t Do As Well

Poor kids who push through all of the stuff above and get through to college are still less likely to wind up on top than rich kids who never even got a college degree. Rich kids without college are 2.5x more likely to wind up in the richest fifth than poor kids with college.

10. Inheritance Flows In

If that wasn’t enough, rich adults get some extra help, usually mid-life, in the form of inheritance and other wealth transfers from their rich parents. The wealthiest 1 percent (in the SCF survey, which is less wealthy than the real 1 percent no doubt) have inherited an average of $2.7 million, 447 times more than the least wealthy group of adults.

11. An Adulthood of Serious Inequality

The fact that class is transmitted down generations might not be so bad if differences between classes were pretty minor. But they aren’t. We are a remarkably unequal country compared to those at similar levels of development.

Even after taxes, the richest fifth captures nearly half the national income, while the poorest fifth captures barely 6 percent of it.

The bottom half own basically nothing, while the top 10 percent own nearly three-fourths of the things.

12. And Then You Die Early

First graph is men. Second graph is women.


Class haunts people from womb to grave, limiting their ability to flourish and pursue the good life as they define it. Confronted with the reality of our society’s entrenched class system, our national politics in its present state offers three responses. The first response is to deny reality altogether, usually in favor of an anecdote or two. The second is to accept that it exists, but pretend there is nothing you can do about it because those on the bottom are inferior (see Murray, Ryan). And the last response is to note it exists and offer lukewarm solutions that nibble around the margins of the problem without ever doing anything that might actually even things out.

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