WMU News

WMU researcher finds perception of class formed early

Aug. 1, 2001

KALAMAZOO -- It is a deeply imbedded part of the American dream that anyone who is willing to work hard can grow up and be successful, and as a society Americans disapprove of a rigid class structure.

Yet perceptions of such a class structure are strong and evident at a very early age, and they may be putting limits on the future of many lower-income children, according to research by a Western Michigan University faculty member.

Dr. Susan Weinger, a WMU associate professor of social work, recently studied the views of social class in children and has found that perceptions of class are firmly established as early as age 5. Weinger's findings were published recently in the scholarly journals Children and Youth Services Review and Children and Society.

Weinger interviewed 48 children living in Southwest Michigan-24 middle-class children and 24 low-income children equally distributed across an age range of 5 to 14 years old. She showed the children two pictures, one of a rundown, "fixer-upper" home costing less than $20,000 and another of a suburban ranch-style home with a well-manicured lawn costing about $100,000. Weinger then asked the children questions about the career choices and future chances of obtaining that career for an imagined child living in each of the homes.

Weinger found that both groups were very aware of socio-economic class and that this would have a strong influence on the career opportunities for the imaginary child in either home.

"They had some really amazing viewpoints on social class," Weinger says. "They had already gotten powerful messages about social class and when you hear it in their own words, its just stinging."

One-half of middle-class children and one-third of the low-income children thought that the child in the rundown home would want to be a professional so they could afford a better home, but both groups agreed that the imagined poor child would be unlikely to achieve their career goal. Only 21 percent of low-income children and 13 percent of middle-class children predicted that the poor child would "surely" obtain his or her career goal.

The main reason children cited for the lack of success prospects for the poor child was a lack of money--money that would be needed to pay for a good education or to "buy" the job that they would like. In addition to money, low-income children cited discrimination against poor people and

lack of opportunities early in life as preventing the child from succeeding, while middle-class children mentioned the poor child might be tainted by his or her parents or lack a solid work ethic.

When imagining a child in a fairly modest, $100,000 middle-class home, three-fourths of the children in both groups thought the middle-income child would choose to be a professional, business manager, business owner or administrator. In all, 83 percent of the low-income children and 79 percent of the middle-class children predicted that the middle-income child would achieve his or her career goal.

Both groups of children acknowledged the middle-class child's greater financial resources and enriching childhood opportunities as reasons for that child's probable success. Children said the middle-class child might have access to advantageous material goods, education, role modeling and exposure to a variety of learning experiences.

When asked about their own career opportunities, children tended to give answers consistent with their preconceived attitudes toward class. The middle-income children chose professional career tracks twice as often as their low-income counterparts. In addition, 8 percent of the middle-class children chose business ownership or management, as opposed to none of the low-income children. Low-income children were three times more likely to see themselves as law-enforcement officers, firefighters or laborers and twice as likely to rely on the improbability of professional sports or show business careers. While two middle-income children said they would become a teacher or scientist if they could not achieve their entertainment career goals, low-income children who chose glamour jobs had no such back-up plans.

On a more positive note, low-income children expected to obtain their career choices just as frequently as middle-income children. In fact, nearly all the children (88 percent) expected to achieve their career goals.

"It seemed as if the poorer kids were still trying to hold onto hope," Weinger said. "Despite believing that they were at a disadvantage, they thought that their inner talent and ability would carry them through."

Weinger says the study shows that perceptions of class are alive and well at a very early age and that these preconceptions have a profound impact on what career opportunities children think are open to them.

"Very young children are aware of the class structure," Weinger says, "and they believe that their parents' financial status will, to a large extent, determine their future."

Weinger supports working toward a more equitable, democratic society in which advantages are offered more universally.

"Just as the environment is helping to uplift and make middle-class kids more optimistic, we are putting the possibility of failure in the hearts and minds of poor kids at very young ages," Weinger says. "We have to be politically active and say that government has a legitimate role in providing adequate jobs and support services, such as day care. Then we need to keep these kids' hopes alive as we try to make the system more democratic."

Children also need to be better educated about careers that are open to them, Weinger adds. Career counselors could work with children to assess their interests and abilities and talk to children about what careers would be good for them.

"It's important to help children be more aware of their choices and options so they don't just think they can be a doctor, a teacher or an NBA basketball player, that there are a lot of different options open to them," Weinger says. "We need to expose them to the possibilities and we need to teach them about different career paths early on."

Media contact: Mark Schwerin, 616 387-8400, mark.schwerin@wmich.edu

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