A University of Tampa class on socioeconomic class

03/13/12 Janelle Irwin
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A University of Tampa professor said it’s not true that Americans don’t like to talk about class. Paul Hillier is an assistant professor in the department of communication and he tells students that examples of socioeconomic class are everywhere, especially in the media. During an honors symposium at the University of Tampa in February, Hillier said he thinks the way it’s portrayed is all wrong.

"If you’re in a particular class, it’s your fault, it’s your problem. It’s not society’s problem. And it masks and erases the notion that it’s something that we can address together; something that we can address socially."

Hillier used the sitcom Weeds as an example of pop culture display of class. It’s about a widow who takes to selling marijuana to maintain her lifestyle after her husband’s death. Hillier said the protagonist in that show could have made ends meet without resorting to slinging drugs if she had been willing to downsize.

"Class isn’t a choice. Class is a social condition. Class is a product of the economic system by which we live and that’s what needs to be challenged."

He also brought up a statistical analysis by the U.S. Department of Energy that shows what types of household amenities are found in poor households. A conservative think tank called the Heritage Foundation demonized the fact that, according to the study, almost all low income homes had a refrigerator, stove and oven. Hilliar said that study ignores important economic impacts.

"You probably don’t have good healthcare. You probably go to a poor school. You probably see or face things in your daily lives that a number of people, upper class, middle class people never encounter."

Hilliar said that the most common answer to bridging the gap between classes is education. He quoted an article by John Marsh.

"We seek to decrease inequality and poverty by improving educational enrollment, performance and attainment. A good deal of evidence, however, suggests that we should do just the opposite. Only by first decreasing inequality and poverty might we then improve educational outcome."

Obtaining higher education seems like a pretty good way to break free of poverty, but Hilliar said it doesn’t always work out quite so well.

"People go and get the education, but then they become saddled with enormous amounts of debt. They don’t get the kinds of jobs that they initially think that they’re going to get and it doesn’t work the way that we think it works."

So what then? Hilliar said his answer classifies him as something of a Marxist because class, he said, is a social problem, not an individual one that needs to be addressed collectively.

"You address social inequality. That’s what you address. You address economic disparity. There’s so much attention in the media and everywhere. And people talk about jobs and jobs and jobs and it’s right to do that because jobs are important. What you don’t hear anybody talking about, rarely hear anybody talking about, is kinds of jobs. What kinds of jobs are people getting? Kinds of jobs that provide livable incomes. Kinds of jobs where you’re not a slave. Kinds of jobs where you have opportunities to have an active, leisurely lifestyle. That’s the crisis in America as far as I’m concerned."

Other examples used in Hilliar’s talk included reality television shows like Sweet 16 and MTV’s Cribs. Though he used those as examples of misclassified class; rather they portrayed luxury and fame. Hilliar said class is not all about what a person owns or how much they make and again emphasized, it’s about social status.

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