The chapter begins with a description of a young, single-parent mother moving homes for the third time in seven months. Her welfare has been cut by the Ontario government and she has lost her funding for a college program she hoped would raise her out of poverty.
Hers is a common story that demonstrates the power of stratification to positively or negatively imprint people's lives regardless of their personal talents or ambitions. The popular perception of a bulging middle class does not square with reality.
Canadians tend to underestimate the amount of social inequality in our society; there is a general belief that equality of opportunity allows individual initiative to decide who gets ahead. Certainly, compared to most other societies, Canadians perceive themselves to be well off. In reality, however, we tend to interact with those who are close to us in the class system, insulating us from the true dimensions of social inequality. Although money is an important component of inequality, socioeconomic status encompasses, as well, power, occupational prestige, and schooling.
An important dimension of social inequality is income. The average family income in 2004 was $76,000, part of a sustained recovery from 1993 ( Figure 11-1, p. 267). Table 11-1 (p. 268) shows the disparity in earnings between the top and bottom 20% of Canadian earners, with the top 20% of families receiving 43.6% of the income, while the bottom 20% of families receive 5.2% of the income. While the disparity is larger in the U.S., the Canadian numbers are moving closer to the American distribution. Canada Map 11-1 (p. 269) indicates, as well, that income is not distributed equally across Canada. Figure11-2 (p. 268) shows that the income disparity in Canada is at about the middle of high income countries.
Wealth, which includes the total amount of money and valuable goods that a person or family controls, is even more unequally distributed than income.
Wealth is an important source of power in our society. Do the wealthy, in part through social links, dominate political and economic decisions?
Occupation, as well as being a major determinant of income, wealth, and power, is an important source of social prestige. Physicians have scored near the top for several decades and newspaper carriers near the bottom. In general, white-collar occupations are higher on prestige scales than blue-collar workers, but these differences are getting smaller. A recent study by John Goyder (see Figure 11-3, p. 270) indicates that fewer occupations are ranked at the top and bottom now compared to a quarter-century ago. The differences between male- and female-dominated jobs have lessened considerably.
Education is an important determinant of labour force participation, occupation, and income and is highly valued in Canada and other industrial societies. Although education is generally conceived to be a right, there has not always been equal participation by women. Lately, however, women have completed more schooling than men. There is a strong correlation between educational completion and level of income.
Who we are at birth greatly influences what we later become.
Our point of entry into the system of social inequality is determined, in large part, by our ancestry. Being born to privilege or poverty sets the stage for our future schooling, occupation, and income.
Race and ethnicity are important determinants of social position. Figure 11-4 (p. 271) shows that Canadians of Japanese origin have the highest average incomes followed by English, French, Chinese, Black, and Aboriginal peoples. Figure 11-5 (p. 272) looks only at those making $60 000 or more and the order is nearly the same, except that Aboriginal peoples are ranked higher than Blacks. The Thinking About Diversity Box (p. 273) indicates that while Aboriginal peoples as a group are at the bottom of the social class continuum, some are faring well in business ventures.
Women earn less income, accumulate less wealth, and enjoy less occupational prestige than men.
Despite the difficulty in clearly defining class levels in Canadian society because of low levels of status consistency and the fluidity provided by social mobility, it is possible to think of four general social classes in Canada. Increasingly, computer literacy is linked to employability. The Thinking It Through Box (p. 274) looks at computers and social class.
Perhaps 3-5% of Canadians fall into this class. Much of their wealth is inherited. Their children go to private schools and they exercise great power in occupational positions. Although this group has historically been primarily of British origin, it is now more widely distributed.
One percent belongs to an upper-upper class distinguished primarily by "old money."
The remaining 2-4% fall into the lower-upper class and depend more on earnings than inherited wealth. They are, for the most part, the "nouveau riche."
Roughly 40-50% of the Canadian population falls into this category. Because of its size, it has tremendous influence on patterns of Canadian culture. There is considerable racial and ethnic diversity in this class and it is not characterized by exclusiveness and familiarity. The top half of this category is termed the "upper-middle" class with family incomes of $50,000 to $100,000 earned from upper managerial or professional fields. The rest of the middle class (average middles) typically works in less prestigious white-collar occupations or highly skilled blue-collar jobs. According to the Applying Sociology Box (p. 277) the middle class dominate the Calgary Stampede.
This class comprises about one-third of the population and has lower incomes than the middle class and virtually no accumulated wealth. Their jobs provide less personal satisfaction.
The remaining 20% of our population is identified as the lower class. In 2001 roughly 16% of the Canadian population were labelled as poor. Many are supported entirely by welfare payments, while others are among the "working poor" whose incomes are insufficient to cover necessities like food, shelter, and clothing. They typically live in less desirable neighbourhoods-often racially or ethnically distinct-and their children are often resigned to living the same hopeless lives of their parents.
Above-average family income leads to healthier children and adults, better access to medical care and longer lives.
What class you are in can be linked to behaviour patterns and attitudes. Generally, the more affluent have greater tolerance for difference than the less affluent.
Middle-class parents encourage creativity in their children while working-class parents encourage conformity. This is connected to where they imagine their children will work. Spousal relationships also differ, with more rigid role segregation in the working class as compared to more egalitarian relationships in the middle class, which also contains more emotional intimacy.
Canada is characterized by a significant measure of social mobility. Social mobility can result from personal achievement or structural change in the society itself. It can be upward or downward and intragenerational or intergenerational. Intragenerational social mobility refers to a change in social position occurring during a person's lifetime. Intergenerational social mobility refers to upward or downward social mobility of children in relation to their parents.
Canadians have generally expected that each new generation will do better than the last. Recent data suggest that while there is much upward and downward activity, on balance not much shift takes place between generations. Men experience more occupational inheritance than women and education is the key to occupational mobility in Canada. Divorce is a good predictor of downward social mobility for women but not men.
Social stratification creates "haves" and "have-nots." The "have-nots" can experience relative poverty, a deprivation in relation to those who have more, or absolute poverty, a deprivation of resources that is life threatening. Roughly one in seven of the world's population lives in conditions of absolute poverty, while few Canadians do.
In 1995, 15.7% of the Canadian population fell below the poverty line. That figure had fallen to 11.2% by 2004. Even so, recent United Nations' reports have criticized Canada for having so much poverty in a wealthy society. More than 800 000 different people make use of food banks each month.
A generation ago, the elderly were at the greatest risk for poverty, but today it is children. In 2004, 12.8% of children under 18 years of age were below the low-income cut-off point. This is much lower than figures from the mid-1990s. While poverty is declining in Canada, there are huge differences between family types as indicated in Figure 11-6 (p. 282). Children in female lone-parent families are at greatest risk.
People who have higher levels of education are considerably less likely to be unemployed and experience poverty conditions.
While British and French-background Canadians are not at the top of the income categories as measured by average male income (Welsh, Scottish, Jewish, and Japanese are higher), Blacks, West Indians, Latin Americans, some Asian groups, and Aboriginal peoples are clearly near the bottom. Figure 11-7 (p. 283) also shows that recent immigrants are overrepresented in low-income categories.
Women who head households bear the brunt of poverty. They are less likely to be employed and when they are, they earn less than men. Figure 11-8 (p. 283) shows that female-headed, lone parent families have a low-average income. In fact, Figure 11-9 (p. 284) demonstrates that 45.4% of these families fall below the poverty line. This situation has been described as the feminization of poverty.
Sociologists generally agree that poverty is a product of social structure, but two distinct views about who is responsible are debated in the society.
On one side are those who suggest that the poor are responsible for their own poverty. Oscar Lewis speaks of a culture of poverty where diminished expectations are the rule. Edward Banfield identifies a "living for the moment" orientation that guarantees a perpetuation of poverty.
On the other side are those who suggest that society is primarily responsible for poverty. William Ryan holds that unequal distribution of resources is the problem and that any lack of ambition on the part of the poor is a consequence rather than a cause of their lack of opportunity.
There are advocates for both sides of this argument. Clearly individual initiative plays a role in shaping a person's social position, but many people work hard at minimum wages and find themselves below the poverty line. As well, a comprehensive child-care system would provide single-parent women with a better opportunity to seek training and/or find a job. Many of the poor depend on welfare. The Thinking Critically Box (p. 287) discusses Canada's welfare dilemma.
Not all poor people are jobless. Many work at jobs, sometimes several jobs, that do not provide enough resources to move above the poverty line.
Although estimates of the level of homelessness are difficult to make, the familiar stereotypes of men sleeping in doorways and women carrying all their possessions in a shopping bag are no longer appropriate when there are examples of whole families who can no longer afford housing because of job loss. All homeless people have one thing in common, poverty. While many of them are poverty-stricken because of personal problems, there are an increasing number who find themselves homeless because of societal dislocation and government cutbacks. The Media Perspectives Box (p. 286) looks at the effort to count the homeless in Canada.