Someone passed on an article to me from the New York Times a few years ago that explored class mobility in the U.S. Apparently, currenly there isn't much real mobility at all, at least not in the upward direction. The article basically pointed out that my generation or perhaps the generation just under mine (I am 30) are going to be the first folks who will not make in lifetime earnings more than our parents -- as a whole -- in many, many generations.
I think it is important to look at stuff like this because Americans come from a very individualistic culture. Heck, the "American Dream" is based on the premise that anyone can pull themselves up by the boot straps. We tend to blame folks who fall short, but in fact, there may be something bigger than us at play at all times, and our ability to control our circumstances may be less than we think.
It reminds me of an open house I attended last year at one of Harvard's graduate schools. A prospective student asked a faculty member her thoughts regarding Harvard's reputation for elitism. The professor went on at length about the admissions process being "blind," and how there is no way to know, for example, a "Rockefeller from a Smith." She *insisted* that *maybe* the reputation had some basis in reality on the undergrad level, but it certainly had no basis on the graduate level.
What she completely missed is that the elitism is institutionalized. Who, for instance, will be more likely to have recommendation letters from someone associated with Harvard, whether an alumn or even a current faculty member? Those letters are of course given more weight than someone unknown to everyone on the admissions committee. And the admissions department flat out admitted (no pun intended) to me that when they look at undergraduate degrees they look to see how the student did, but they don't give it all the weight it might deserve unless it is a "known school." And since we know that the high school (and even a middle school) a person attends can influence college admissions, it is pretty clear that status and access are at play.
I guess what I am driving at is that I think when people attribute doing well financially with individual action, the flip must also be true, in a general sense...that people not doing so well must not be doing so well because of flaws on their part. This is a pretty limited understanding of economics and mobility, and I think it leads to "blaming the victim" in some cases.
I'm all for personal financial responsibility, but we tend to frame our experiences with language that goes a step beyond that.
As for me, my parents were able to shift from working class to lower and finally solid middle class while I was growing up, but they have the advantage of coming from middle class families themselves (my mom's was middle middle class and my dad's was upper middle class), and more importantly they come from families with advanced education traditions. So it isn't a surprise. My mom graduated high school, but has only a little college experience (gained with kids under foot). Her income would be working-class level if not for my dad. My dad did not graduate from high school but later went back to school and now has at least one masters degrees. His was a middle class income until recently when he decided to pursue his own dream for a business. He currently has no income and a fair number of expenses.
We spent a lot of my childhood living in the lower end of the economic rungs for our community. I saw most of my peers as "rich," but I realize looking back now that they would have simply been considered middle class by most standards. I *do* think each class has its culture, though there are certainly some variations according to other factors such as, for example, race or nationality...and certainly some people will break the mold wherever they are.
As a kid, I had trouble relating to my solidly middle class peers for reasons that were for all intents and purposes, cultural. To this day, I cringe when forced to choose a wine, attend any party where what you wear is important, order food at a nice (but not outrageously nice) restaurant, or any number of other typically middle class activities. I can feel, palpably, that I don't know all the "rules."
I have spent my adulthood in varying places between working class and low-middle middle class. I relate well to people along the economic-cultural spectrum, but tend to feel most at home when with other folks in the lower middle class or with people who have some advantages of education (their own or family background) but happen to be in the working class.
My wife has only a small amount of college under her belt, and that is far more than her immigrant father or her second-generation-American mother. dw was one of seven. Her parents were working class for many, many years, and they have one of those "American Dream" stories that centers on investing a very small amount of money in what turned out to be lucrative ways. dw's mother never worked, but dw's father worked 60-90 hour weeks for years and years. He eventually retired due to an on-the-job injury in his factory (during my dw's childhood), and even through the first part of his retirement, he and his wife lived very comfortably (solid middle to upper middle class). Only very recently, in their mid to late 70s, did they begin to live a more frugal existence on a fixed income. Of course, I don't know how much credit card debt they may have from various points, but I understand they have generally kept their cards paid off through their investment money.