03/11/2012 02:01 pm ET Updated May 11, 2012

Class Consciousness and Social Mobility

I just returned from three weeks traveling in Argentina and Chile with a group from my university alumni association.

Whenever I travel, I revisit certain recurring themes -- how little I really need to be happy, the quality of food in other countries, the relative costs of things around the world, and the nature of wealth. This trip, the theme that ran most through my travels was the concept of class.

One night in Santiago, Chile, our group of 14 split into two groups of seven. Each group went to a different local family's home for dinner.

The hosts for our dinner were lovely. They were smart and funny and charming. Their English was excellent. But I'm not convinced this family was typical. They lived in downtown Santiago, near the top of a gated (and secure) high-rise apartment building. Their apartment contained many rooms and fancy furniture. I got the impression that this family was wealthy.

The other people in our tour group went further afield. They dined on the back patio of a home in the suburbs of Santiago. Over their meal, the conversation drifted to politics. The father of the family opined that Chile and Argentina and Uruguay are superior to the countries of northern Latin America because they're more European, there are fewer indigenous people.

I was shocked when I heard about this discussion. I loved Peru when I visited in October, and much of that was because the native population is prominent, the native culture is strong. I had just been complaining that one thing I didn't like about Argentina and Chile was the lack of personality. The countries do feel European, but a very vanilla sort of European. Besides, this man's comment seemed very classist, if not outright racist.

A few nights later, lounging under the tropical stars of Easter Island, I asked our guide, Ignacio, about the concept of class in South America. "The class system here is very strong," he told me. "There's certainly a wealthy class, and everyone knows it. Not just in Chile, but in other countries too, even Peru. Especially Peru."

The next morning, our local guide, Matu'a, talked a little about class as we rode the bus to the next set of moai. Matu'a told us that, like most kids from the island, he'd been sent to school in Santiago as a boy. He didn't like it.

"People in Santiago are rich," he told us. "They have big houses but all they see are walls. Here on the island, you're surrounded by people, you have small houses filled with families: uncles, aunties, lots of kids. When I lived in Santiago, I cried every night. People were afraid to go outside because they'd be robbed. Here, people go anywhere they like. They're free."

Matu'a's comments prompted Florence, a retired school teacher, to mention her experience with class in India. Her husband was from India, and she's spent a lot of time there, and she says that although things seem to be slowly changing, the caste system is still a part of society.

By chance, last Friday (my first full day back from the trip) I listened to a Spanish-language podcast about social status in Spain.

One of the hosts noted that when people meet each other in some countries (such as the U.S.), it's common to ask, "What do you do?" In Spain, he says, that's not the case. Instead, people ask "How is your family?" This is partly because family is much more important in Hispanic cultures, but it's also because of questions of class. When you ask what a person does for a living, you risk touching on class differences, and that's frowned upon.

Also on Friday, I asked my Spanish tutor a little about this subject. She confirmed that, in Peru at least, these class differences do exist, and that everyone is well aware to which class they belong. And often it's possible to tell to which class others belong.

"But, J.D., it's the same here in the U.S.," she said, which I found interesting. I think many of us -- including me -- like to believe that there aren't huge class differences in the U.S. But deep down, I realize that's not the case.

Four years ago, I read some info from the Economic Mobility Project, a nonpartisan group exploring "the ability to move up or down the income ladder within a lifetime, or from one generation to the next."

Among the findings from the Economic Mobility Project's research are these:
  • You are four times more likely to move from poverty to wealth if you earn a college degree than if you do not
  • If you are born into wealth, you have a 23% chance of remaining wealthy if you don't obtain an education. Yet if you're born into poverty, you only have a 19% chance of moving to the top, and that's if you earn a college degree. (There's only a 5% chance if you don't get an education.)
  • About one-third of those born into poverty remain in poverty. About one-third of those born into wealth remain wealthy.
As I always do in these discussions, I'll point out that if you're reading this from the U.S., it's very likely that while you may be part of the 99% here, on a worldwide scale you're probably one of the 1%. Check out the Global Rich List for more info.

I'm curious: Does the concept of class play a role in your life? When are you aware of class differences? All the time? Never? How do you feel when you become aware of these differences in any given situation? Is class defined by your income? Is it defined by how much money you have? Both? Or is it something else entirely? Is it an attitude? A way of life? Or do you think that social status in the U.S. has vanished?

The original article can be found at"Class Consciousness and Social Mobility."