American upper class

The American upper class is a social group within the United States consisting of people who have the highest social rank, primarily due to the use of their wealth to achieve social status.[1][2] These criteria differ from those of the traditional "upper class" in Britain and Europe which favor landed gentry and aristocracy (although such class distinctions have been deteriorating in recent times).

The American upper class is seen by some as simply being composed of the wealthiest individuals and families in the country. Some would add that people within this social class need to make themselves socioeconomically distinguishable from other classes by demonstrating their greater wealth, influence and power. The American upper class can also be broken down into two groups: people of substantial means with a history of family wealth going back centuries (called "old money"); and those who have acquired their wealth more recently (e.g. since 1900), often referred to as "Nouveau riche" (borrowed from the European aristocratic system, though often without its derogatory historical connotation).[3][4][5] In a CNBC Millionaire Survey it can be observed that a majority of millionaires polled, representing the wealthiest 10 percent of Americans, described themselves as middle class (44%) or upper middle class (40%).[6][7][8]

Many politicians, heirs to fortunes, top business executives, CEOs, successful venture capitalists, those born into high society, and some celebrities may be considered members of this 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, which is estimated to constitute roughly 1% of the population, is the source of income. While the vast majority of people and households derive their income from wages or salaries, those in the upper class derive their income from investments and capital gains.[5] Estimates for the size of this group commonly vary from 1% to 2%,[4] while some surveys have indicated that as many as 6% of Americans identify as "upper class." Sociologist Leonard Beeghley sees wealth as the only significant distinguishing feature of this class and, therefore, refers to this group simply as "the rich."[1]

The members of the tiny capitalist class at the top of the hierarchy have an influence on economy and society far beyond their numbers. They make investment decisions that open or close employment opportunities for millions of others. They contribute money to political parties, and they often own media enterprises that allow them influence over the thinking of other classes... The capitalist class strives to perpetuate itself: Assets, lifestyles, values and social networks... are all passed from one generation to the next. –Dennis Gilbert, The American Class Structure, 1998[4]

Sociologists such as W. Lloyd Warner, William Thompson and Joseph Hickey recognize prestige differences between members of the upper class. Established families, prominent professionals and politicians may be deemed to have more prestige than some entertainment celebrities who in turn may have more prestige than the members of local elites.[5] Yet, contemporary sociologists argue that all members of the upper class share such great wealth, influence and assets as their main source of income as to be recognized as members of the same social class.[4] As great financial fortune is the main distinguishing feature of this class, sociologist Leonard Beeghley at the University of Florida identifies all "rich" households, those with incomes in the top 1% or so, as upper class.[1]

In 1998, Bob Herbert of The New York Times referred to modern American plutocrats as "The Donor Class"[9][10] (list of top donors)[11] and defined the class, for the first time,[12] as "a tiny group – just one-quarter of 1 percent of the population – and it is not representative of the rest of the nation. But its money buys plenty of access."[9]

Social class and income

Functional theorists in sociology and economics assert that the existence of social classes is necessary[5] in order to distribute persons so that only the most qualified are able to acquire positions of power, and so that all persons fulfill their occupational duties to the greatest extent of their ability. Notably, this view does not address wealth, which plays an important role in allocating status and power (see Affluence in the United States for more).

In order to make sure that important and complex tasks are handled by qualified and motivated personnel, society offers incentives such as income and prestige. The more scarce qualified applicants are and the more essential the given task is, the larger the incentive will be. Income and prestige which are often used to tell a person's social class, are merely the incentives given to that person for meeting all qualifications to complete an important task that is of high standing in society due to its functional value.[13]

It should be stressed... that a position does not bring power and prestige because it draws a high income. Rather, it draws a high income because it is functionally important and the available personnel is for one reason or another scarce. It is therefore superficial and erroneous to regard high income as the cause of a man's power and prestige, just as it is erroneous to think that a man's fever is the cause of his disease... The economic source of power and prestige is not income primarily, but the ownership of capital goods (including patents, good will, and professional reputation). Such ownership should be distinguished from the possession of consumers' goods, which is an index rather than a cause of social standing. – Kingsley Davis and Wilbert E. Moore, Principles of Stratification.

As mentioned above, income is one of the most prominent features of social class, but not necessarily one of its causes. In other words, income does not determine the status of an individual or household but rather reflects upon that status. Income and prestige are the incentives in order to fill all positions with the most qualified and motivated personnel possible.[13]

If... money and wealth [alone] determine class ranking... a cocaine dealer, a lottery winner, a rock star, and a member of the Rockefeller family-are all on the same rung of the social ladder... [yet most] Americans would be unwilling to accord equal rank to a lottery winner or rock star and a member of one of America's most distinguished families... wealth is not the only factor that determines a person's rank. – William Thompson, Joseph Hickey; Society in Focus, 2005.[5]


Members of the upper class in American society are typically knowledgeable and have been educated in "elite" settings.[14] Wealthy parents go above and beyond to ensure their children will also be a member of the upper class when they grow up. Upper class parents enroll their children in prestigious preschools and elementary schools leading to private middle schools and high schools, and finally elite, private colleges.[14] Often graduating from schools such as those in the Ivy League, upper class members have traditionally joined exclusive clubs or fraternities. Students at Yale University created the Skull and Bones social club. The Skull and Bones was a secret society that had members such as George H. W. Bush and John Kerry. These members obtained valuable social capital by joining the club.[14]


Individuals of a broad variety of religious backgrounds have become wealthy in America. However, the majority of these individuals follow Mainline Protestant denominations; Episcopalians[15] and Presbyterians are most prevalent,[16]

Empirical distribution of income

One 2009 empirical analysis analyzed an estimated 15–27% of the individuals in the top 0.1% of adjusted gross income (AGI), including top executives, asset managers, law firm partners, professional athletes and celebrities, and highly compensated employees of investment banks.[17] Among other results, the analysis found that individuals in the financial (Wall Street) sector constitute a greater percent of the top income earners in the United States than individuals from the non-financial sector, after adjusting for the relative sizes of the sectors.


Senate Income Votes
A study by Larry Bartels found a positive correlation between Senate votes and opinions of high income people, conversely, low income people's opinions had a negative correlation with senate votes.[18]

Households with net worths of $1 million or more may be identified as members of the upper-most socio-economic demographic, depending on the class model used. While most 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 0.01% 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".[19]

Top 5 states by HNWIs (more than $1 million, in 2009)[20]
State Percentage of millionaire households Number of millionaire households
Hawaii 6.4% 28,363
Maryland 6.3% 133,299
New Jersey 6.2% 197,694
Connecticut 6.2% 82,837
Virginia 5.5% 166,596
Bottom 5 states by HNWIs (more than $1 million, in 2009)[20]
State Percentage of millionaire households Number of millionaire households
South Dakota 3.4% 10,646
Kentucky 3.3% 57,059
West Virginia 3.3% 24,941
Arkansas 3.1% 35,286
Mississippi 3.1% 33,792

See also

Notes and references

  1. ^ a b c Beeghley, Leonard (2004). The Structure of Social Stratification in the United States. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon. ISBN 0-205-37558-8.
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^ a b c d Gilbert, Dennis (1998). The American Class Structure. New York: Wadsworth Publishing. ISBN 0-534-50520-1.
  5. ^ a b c d e Thompson, William; Joseph Hickey (2005). Society in Focus. Boston, MA: Pearson. ISBN 0-205-41365-X.
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^ a b Herbert, Bob (July 19, 1998). "The Donor Class". The New York Times. Retrieved March 10, 2016.
  10. ^ Confessore, Nicholas; Cohen, Sarah; Yourish, Karen (October 10, 2015). "The Families Funding the 2016 Presidential Election". The New York Times. Retrieved March 10, 2016.
  11. ^ Lichtblau, Eric; Confessore, Nicholas (October 10, 2015). "From Fracking to Finance, a Torrent of Campaign Cash – Top Donors List". The New York Times. Retrieved March 11, 2016.
  12. ^ McCutcheon, Chuck (December 26, 2014). "Why the 'donor class' matters, especially in the GOP presidential scrum". "The Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved March 10, 2016.
  13. ^ a b Levine, Rhonda (1998). Social Class and Stratification. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 0-8476-8543-8.
  14. ^ a b c Doob, B. Christopher (2013). Social Inequality and Social Stratification in US Society (1st ed.). Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education. ISBN 0-205-79241-3.
  15. ^ B. Drummond Ayres Jr. (2011-12-19). "The Episcopalians: An American Elite with Roots Going Back to Jamestown". The New York Times. Retrieved 2012-08-17.
  16. ^ Davidson, James D.; Pyle, Ralph E.; Reyes, David V. (1995). "Persistence and Change in the Protestant Establishment, 1930–1992". Social Forces. 74 (1): 157–75 [p. 164]. doi:10.1093/sf/74.1.157. JSTOR 2580627.
  17. ^ Kaplan SN, Rauh J. (2009). Wall Street and Main Street: What Contributes to the Rise in the Highest Incomes?. Review of Financial Studies.
  18. ^ Based on Larry Bartels's study Economic Inequality and Political Representation Archived 2011-09-15 at the Wayback Machine, Table 1: Differential Responsiveness of Senators to Constituency Opinion.
  19. ^ "The Richest of the Rich, Proud of a New Gilded Age", article by Louis Uchitelle, The New York Times, July 15, 2007.
  20. ^ a b Phoenix Marketing International Research Shows Steep Decline In Millionaires in U.S.

Further reading

  • Baltzell, E. Digby. Philadelphia Gentlemen: The Making of a New Upper Class (1958).
  • Beckert, Sven. The monied metropolis: New York City and the consolidation of the American bourgeoisie, 1850-1896 (2003).
  • Brooks, David. Bobos in paradise: The new upper class and how they got there (2010)
  • Burt, Nathaniel. The Perennial Philadelphians: The Anatomy of an American Aristocracy (1999).
  • Cookson, Peter W. and Caroline Hodges Persell: Preparing for Power: America's Elite Boarding Schools, Basic Books, 1989, ISBN 0-465-06269-5
  • Davis, Donald F. "The Price of Conspicious Production: The Detroit Elite and the Automobile Industry, 1900-1933." Journal of Social History 16.1 (1982): 21-46. online
  • Farnum, Richard. "Prestige in the Ivy League: Democratization and discrimination at Penn and Columbia, 1890-1970." in Paul W. Kingston and Lionel S. Lewis, eds. The high-status track: Studies of elite schools and stratification (1990).
  • Foulkes, Nick. High Society – The History of America's Upper Class, (Assouline, 2008) ISBN 2759402886
  • Fraser, Steve and Gary Gerstle, eds. Ruling America: A History of Wealth and Power in a Democracy, Harvard UP, 2005, ISBN 0-674-01747-1
  • Ghent, Jocelyn Maynard, and Frederic Cople Jaher. "The Chicago Business Elite: 1830–1930. A Collective Biography." Business History Review 50.3 (1976): 288-328. online
  • Hood. Clifton. In Pursuit of Privilege: A History of New York City's Upper Class and the Making of a Metropolis (2016). covers 1760-1970.
  • Ingham, John N. The Iron Barons: A Social Analysis of an American Urban Elite, 1874-1965 (1978)
  • Jaher, Frederic Cople, ed. The Rich, the Well Born, and the Powerful: Elites and Upper Classes in History (1973), essays by scholars
  • Jaher, Frederick Cople. The Urban Establishment: Upper Strata in Boston, New York, Chicago, Charleston, and Los Angeles (1982).
  • Jensen, Richard. "Family, Career, and Reform: Women Leaders of the Progressive Era." in Michael Gordon, ed., The American Family in Social-Historical Perspective,(1973): 267-80.
  • Lundberg, Ferdinand: The Rich and the Super-Rich: A Study in the Power of Money Today (1968)
  • McConachie, Bruce A. "New York operagoing, 1825-50: creating an elite social ritual." American Music (1988): 181-192. online
  • Ostrander, Susan A. (1986). Women of the Upper Class. Temple University Press. ISBN 978-0-87722-475-4.
  • Phillips, Kevin P. Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich, Broadway Books 2003, ISBN 0-7679-0534-2
  • Story, Ronald. (1980) The forging of an aristocracy: Harvard & the Boston upper class, 1800-1870
  • Synnott, Marcia. The half-opened door: Discrimination and admissions at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, 1900-1970 (2010).
  • Williams, Peter W. Religion, Art, and Money: Episcopalians and American Culture from the Civil War to the Great Depression (2016), especially in New York City
African-American upper class

The African-American upper class consists of African-American engineers, lawyers, accountants, doctors, politicians, business executives, venture capitalists, CEOs, celebrities, entertainers, entrepreneurs and heirs who have incomes amounting to $200,000 or more. This class, sometimes referred to as the black upper class, the African-American upper middle class or black elite, represents less than 1 percent of the total black population in the United States. This group of African Americans has a history of organizations and activities that distinguish it from other classes within the black community as well as from the white upper class. Many of these traditions, which have persisted for several generations, are discussed in Lawrence Otis Graham’s 2000 book, Our Kind of People: Inside America’s Black Upper Class.

Scholarship on this class from a sociological perspective is generally traced to E. Franklin Frazier's Black Bourgeoisie (first edition in English in 1957 translated from the 1955 French original).

Benning Ridge

Benning Ridge is a residential neighborhood located in Southeast Washington, D.C. It is bounded by Fort Chaplin Park to the northwest, Southern Avenue to the south, Benning Road to the east, and Ridge Road SE to the west. Benning Ridge is an unusual neighborhood for its location east of the Anacostia River: although it is surrounded by working-class and low-income African American neighborhoods, Benning Ridge is rather affluent, with a diverse population of middle- and upper-middle-class white and black residents.

Beverly Road Historic District

The Beverly Road Historic District is a historic district consisting of fifteen residential buildings located between 23 and 45 Beverly Road in Grosse Pointe Farms, Michigan. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1995.

Black American princess

Black American princess (BAP) is a (sometimes) pejorative term for black women of upper and upper middle class background, who possess (or are perceived to possess) a spoiled or materialistic attitude.

Bremond Block Historic District (Austin, Texas)

The Bremond Block Historic District is a collection of eleven historic homes in downtown Austin, Texas, United States, constructed from the 1850s to 1910.

The block was added to National Register of Historic Places in 1970, and is considered one of the few remaining upper-class Victorian neighborhoods of the middle to late nineteenth century in Texas. Six of these houses were built or expanded for members of the families of brothers Eugene and John Bremond, who were prominent in late-nineteenth-century Austin social, merchandising, and banking circles. They are located within the square block bordered by West Seventh, West Eighth, Guadalupe, and San Antonio streets. The district also includes several houses on the west side of San Antonio and the south side of West Seventh, at least three of which were built or altered by the North family. The John and Pierre Bremond houses are currently owned by the Texas Classroom Teachers Association, and the John Bremond house serves as the headquarters for the association. TCTA website

Brookmont, Maryland

Brookmont is a census-designated place and an unincorporated area in Montgomery County, Maryland, United States. Brookmont is often considered part of neighboring Bethesda because it falls within Bethesda's 20816 zip code.

Cabin John, Maryland

Cabin John is a census-designated place and an unincorporated area in Montgomery County, Maryland, United States.

Chevy Chase, Maryland

Chevy Chase is the name of both a town and an unincorporated census-designated place (Chevy Chase (CDP), Maryland) that straddle the northwest border of Washington, D.C. and Montgomery County, Maryland. Several settlements in the same area of Montgomery County and one neighborhood of Washington, D.C. include "Chevy Chase" in their names. These villages, the town, and the CDP share a common history and together form a larger community colloquially referred to as "Chevy Chase".

Primarily a residential suburb, Chevy Chase adjoins Friendship Heights, a popular shopping district. It includes the National 4-H Youth Conference Center, which hosts the National Science Bowl annually in either late April or early May.The name "Chevy Chase" is derived from "Cheivy Chace", the name of the land patented to Colonel Joseph Belt from Charles Calvert, 5th Baron Baltimore on July 10, 1725. It has historic associations to a 1388 battle between Lord Percy of England and Earl Douglas of Scotland, the subject of the ballad entitled "The Ballad of Chevy Chase". At issue in this "chevauchée" (a French word describing a border raid) were hunting grounds or a "chace" in the Cheviot Hills of Northumberland and Otterburn.

Gold Coast (Connecticut)

The Gold Coast, also known as Lower Fairfield County or Southwestern Connecticut not limited to the Connecticut Panhandle, is a part of Western Connecticut that includes the entire southern portion of Fairfield County as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau, Super-Public Use Microdata Area (Super-PUMA) Region 09600. The area is about 50 miles northeast of New York City, and is home to many wealthy NYC-based business people. Parts of the region are served by the Western Connecticut Council of Governments.

This area is often portrayed in culture as a bastion of wealth. Since the mid-20th century, a number of novels and films have been set here, including Gentleman's Agreement, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, The Swimmer, The Stepford Wives, and The Ice Storm.

The Gold Coast generally includes landlocked towns like New Canaan, Wilton, and Weston as well, with the scenic Merritt Parkway as its centerpiece.

Gold Coast Historic District (Omaha, Nebraska)

The Gold Coast Historic District is located in Midtown Omaha, Nebraska. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1997, this historic district covers approximately a 30 block area roughly bounded by 36th, 40th, Jones, and Cuming Streets. The neighborhood housed many of Omaha's cultural and financial leaders between 1900 and 1920, taking over from Omaha's original Gold Coast in prominence.

Greater Danbury

Greater Danbury, also known as the Housatonic Valley Region, is a region in the state of Connecticut centered on the city of Danbury. It consists of the city of Danbury and adjacent towns in the areas around the Housatonic River and the Still River.

Housatonic Valley

The Housatonic Valley is a geographic region of Connecticut and Massachusetts in the United States, associated with the valley and watershed of the Housatonic River.

The Greater Danbury metropolitan area in western Connecticut is also known as the Housatonic Valley Region.

The Housatonic Valley Watershed spans 1,948 square miles including 83 towns from the Berkshires region of Massachusetts to the Long Island Sound.

The Upper Housatonic Valley National Heritage Area is a designated National Heritage Area consisting of an 848-square-mile (2,200 km2) area in the watershed of the upper Housatonic River, extending from Kent, Connecticut, to Lanesborough, Massachusetts, including eight towns in Connecticut and eighteen in Massachusetts.

Northeast Harbor, Maine

Northeast Harbor is a village on Mount Desert Island, located in the town of Mount Desert in Hancock County, Maine, United States. The village has a significant summer population, and has long been a quiet enclave of the rich and famous. Summer residents include the Rockefeller family. The village was once so popular as a summer resort among Philadelphians that it was sometimes known as "Philadelphia on the rocks".ZIP Code 04662 - Area Code 207 Exchange: 276

The village is home to the Asticou Inn, the Asticou Azalea Garden, and Thuya Garden.

Pasadena Apartments

The Pasadena Apartments is an apartment building located at 2170 East Jefferson Avenue in Detroit, Michigan. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985.

Potomac, Maryland

Potomac (listen ) is a census-designated place (CDP) in Montgomery County, Maryland, United States, named for the nearby Potomac River. In 2013, CNNMoney listed Potomac as the most affluent town in all the United States, based on median household income. Potomac is also the seventh-most top-educated American small town according to Forbes. Bloomberg Businessweek labeled Potomac as the twenty-ninth-richest zip code in the United States in 2011, stating that it had the largest population of any U.S. town with a median income of more than $240,000. In 2012, The Higley Elite 100 published a list of highest-income neighborhoods by mean household income, which included four neighborhoods in Potomac; one of these neighborhoods, "Carderock-The Palisades" was ranked the highest-income neighborhood in the United States, followed by "Beverly Hills-North of Sunset" in Beverly Hills, California, and "Swinks Mill-Dominion Reserve" of McLean, Virginia. More recently, two Potomac neighborhoods were ranked among the ten wealthiest neighborhoods in the country by CNBC in 2014. In 2018, data from the American Community Survey revealed that Potomac was the sixth-wealthiest city in the United States. Many Potomac residents work in nearby Washington, D.C.

Roberts House (Mobile, Alabama)

The Roberts House is a historic Tudor Revival style residence and two dependencies in Mobile, Alabama, United States. Built in the 1920s upper-class suburb of County Club Estates, the complex was designed by J. F. Pate. The rambling two-story red brick mansion was completed in 1929. The exterior architecture features steeply pitched gables, prominent chimneys, casement windows, and an elaborate Tudor arch door surround.

Purchased by the John A. Roberts Jr. family in 1988, it was subsequently placed on the National Register of Historic Places on July 29, 1994. It was sold to Dr. Charles F. and Janice M. Jones in 2001.

Ross Knox House

The Ross Knox House is a historic Tudor Revival style residence in Mobile, Alabama, United States. The two-story brick and stucco house was completed in 1929. It is considered one of the best Tudor Revival houses in Mobile by the Alabama Historical Commission. Built in the 1920s upper-class suburb of County Club Estates, it was designed by architect John Platt Roberts.

Southern belle

The Southern belle (derived from the French word belle, 'beautiful') is a stock character representing a young woman of the American South's upper socioeconomic class.

Western Connecticut

Western Connecticut is a geographic region of Connecticut, defined by the Connecticut Council of Governments as being located in the southwest corner of the state. Within this region, there are two Metropolitan Planning Organizations, those being the South Western CT MPO and the Housatonic Valley MPO. Western Connecticut encompasses the most densely populated region in the state, as well as the Connecticut Panhandle and the Gold Coast.

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