The U.S. has no hard and fast divisions between classes. Some people grow up in one class and live as adults in another, traveling a mobile class path. For immigrants,  their class status in their country of origin is often different from their class status in the U.S. Nevertheless, it can be useful for understanding class dynamics to clump people roughly into these categories of class paths:

Definitions of class paths

Persistent poverty: Less than high school education; relying on public assistance or erratic low-paid work outside mainstream labor market; so low-income that basic needs unmet; public or substandard housing or homeless.

Working class: High school degree and sometimes vocational education; supervised wage jobs or hands-on small business; renting or modest homeownership.

          Subcategories: Lower-middle-class; working poor

Professional-middle class: 4-year college degree or more; professional/managerial jobs with relatively more autonomy and often higher income and security; homeownership trading up to bigger homes.

Subcategories: Lower-professionals; upper-middle-class.

Owning class – Enough assets and investment income that paid work is not essential between ages 22 and 65; elite private schools and colleges; often multiple homes or luxury homes.


Straddler: Upwardly mobile from working-class or poor childhood, first generation college degree; having or seeking a professional career (assimilated straddler) or not (unassimilated straddler)

Voluntarily downwardly mobile: From professional-middle-class or upper-middle-class background, college degree, then choices not to pursue professional career due to political, artistic or environmental values.

Involuntarily downwardly mobile: From professional-middle-class or upper-middle-class background, impacted by health crises and disabilities, addictions, crashed economy, war or other traumas, so in poverty or working class as an adult.

Mixed class: Many people have complicated stories that don’t fit into one of these categories.

                                                                                   Throughout this site, class paths are marked with colors.

                                                                                   Throughout this site, class paths are marked with colors.

Class Definitions

Class: relative rank in terms of income, wealth, education, status, and/or power.

Class background: Class life experience during formative childhood years

Class path: Class background plus adult class; upward or downward mobility or staying in the same class

Classism: the institutional, cultural, and individual practices and beliefs that assign different value to people according to their class; and the economic system that creates excessive inequality and causes basic human needs to go unmet. Classism is woven together with racism and other systems of inequality.