Wealth as a source of social status in America

February 23, 2012

Wealth, past or present, contributes to social status.

“Even where wealth is not a direct and immediate condition of high status, not a means by which status may be achieved directly, the presence of wealth, or the fact that one’s lineage was at one time connected with wealth is taken commonly as a manifestation of high status…. So is our own age in the United States and much of Western Europe. For some time now wealth, measured either as annual income or as fixed capital, has been a major criterion used in the ranking of status in the social order.”1

Henry Francis du Pont

However, not all wealth confers equal social status. Warner distinguishes various types of wealth, each conferring a successively lower level of social status. Inherited wealth carries the most prestige, because it signifies that the family has been rich for several generations. Wealth acquired through business, which permits its possessor to live from its revenue, characterizes the next level of social status. The lowest level is of those who must work to earn a living.2

Coleman and Rainwater confirm that inherited wealth confers the most prestige: “This was true up and down the social ladder; inheritors at all economic levels were named by their acquaintances as examples of persons standing socially higher…. Nowhere is this more so than in Upper America.”3

Sources of wealth can make a substantial difference in status. As Robert Bierstedt, a sociology professor at the University of Virginia, comments:

“Even if wealth is earned in legal and ethical ways, there are additional differences to be noted. Money acquired in laxatives, depilatories, cosmetics, gadgets, patent medicines, motion pictures, or retail trade may not have the ‘rank’ attributed to money acquired in steel, railroads, lumber, shipping, finance, or heavy industry.”4

Sociological studies show that those who steer the ship of American society are generally from the wealthier classes. Prewitt and Stone affirm:

Richard Chichester du Pont, businessman, aviation & glider pioneer

“The tiny group, consisting primarily of men, that directs the political economy of the United States is overwhelmingly recruited from the wealthier families of society. Few persons reach elite positions in political and economic life unless they are born to wealth, acquire it fairly early in life, or at least have access to it….

“…It is not wrong, however, to claim that the wealthiest strata of the population supply a very disproportionate number of those recruited into the elite. Top positions are nearly always held by men from prosperous business or professional families, or by men who themselves have become leading businessmen and professionals.”5

However, one should not make the mistake of overestimating the importance of wealth as a criterion of higher social status in the United States. As Vance Packard points out:

“These people of the real upper class would have you believe that wealth has little bearing on their social preeminence. Rather, it is the gracious, leisurely way of life they have achieved as a result of their innate good taste and high breeding. In smaller communities, ‘old’ family background is especially important.”6

Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, Nobility and Analogous Traditional Elites in the Allocutions of Pius XII: A Theme Illuminating American Social History (York, Penn.: The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family, and Property, 1993), Appendix I, pp. 165-166.



1 Robert A. Nisbet, The Social Bond: An Introduction to the Study of Society (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970), p. 53.

2 Cf. Warner, Social Class in America, pp. 139-142.

3 Richard Coleman and Lee Rainwater, Social Standing in America: New Dimensions of Class (New York: Basic Books, 1978), p. 50.

4 Robert Bierstedt, The Social Order, 4th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974), p. 469.

5 Kenneth Prewitt and Alan Stone, The Ruling Elites: Elite Theory, Power and American Democracy (New York: Harper and Row, 1973), pp. 136-137.

6 Vance Packard, The Status Seekers (New York: David McKay Co., 1959), p. 6.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Previous post:

Next post: