Skip to main content
Social Sci LibreTexts

9.3B: The Upper Class

  • Page ID
    8207
  • The American upper class is the highest socioeconomic bracket in the social hierarchy and is defined by its members’ great wealth and power.

     

    LEARNING OBJECTIVES

     

    Discuss the most important characteristics of the upper class in the U.S.

     

    KEY TAKEAWAYS

    Key Points

     

    • Members of the upper class accumulate wealth through investments and capital gains, rather than through annual salaries.
    • Households with net worths of $1 million or more may be identified as members of the upper-most socioeconomic demographic, depending on the class model used.
    • Sociologist Leonard Beeghley asserts that all households with a net worth of $1 million or more are considered “rich. ” He divides the rich into two sub- groups: the rich and the super-rich.

     

    Key Terms

     

    • investment: The expenditure of capital in expectation of deriving income or profit from its use.
    • capital gain: An increase in the value of a capital asset, such as stock or real estate.

    The American upper class refers to the “top layer,” or highest socioeconomic bracket, of society in the United States. This social class is most commonly described as those with great wealth and power, and may also be referred to as the capitalist class, or simply as “the rich. ” People in this class commonly have immense influence in the nation’s political and economic institutions as well as in the media.

    Many politicians, heirs to fortunes, top business executives such as CEOs, successful venture capitalists, and celebrities are considered members of the upper class. Some prominent and high-rung professionals may also be included if they attain great influence and wealth. The main distinguishing feature of this class is their source of income. While the vast majority of people and households derive their income from salaries, those in the upper class derive their income primarily from investments and capital gains.

    Households with a net worth of $1 million or more may be identified as members of the upper-most socioeconomic demographic, depending on the class model used. While most contemporary sociologists estimate that only 1% of households are members of the upper class, sociologist Leonard Beeghley asserts that all households with a net worth of $1 million or more are considered “rich. ” He divides the rich into two sub-groups: the rich and the super-rich. The rich constitute roughly 5% of U.S. households and their wealth is largely in the form of home equity. Other contemporary sociologists, such as Dennis Gilbert, argue that this group is not part of the upper class but rather part of the upper middle class, as its standard of living is largely derived from occupation-generated income and its affluence falls far short of that attained by the top percentile. The super-rich, according to Beeghley, are those able to live off their wealth without depending on occupation-derived income. This demographic constitutes roughly 0.9% of American households. Beeghley’s definition of the super-rich is congruent with the definition of upper class employed by most other sociologists. The top.01% of the population, with an annual income of $9.5 million or more, received 5% of the income of the United States in 2007. These 15,000 families have been characterized as the “richest of the rich. ”