Income Inequality and its Function in Society

There exists a large income gap between various races of people in America today. Despite many efforts, and attempts to lessen this gap, it is still prevalent in modern society. This can be explained by the functionalist perspective in order to understand why this difference still exists, as well as many different sociological concepts. Whether this is due to implicit biases and social mobility, education and credentialed societies, families and single parent households, prevalence of an oppositional identity, or social stratification, these all overlap and explain why there is still an income gap between people in modern society.

The functionalist perspective on inequality supports the idea that in order for a society to be healthy and survive, there must be different roles taken up by different people. The functionalist perspective, also called functionalism, is one of the major theoretical perspectives in sociology. It has its origins in the works of Emile Durkheim, who was especially interested in how social order is possible or how society remains relatively stable (Crossman 2018). Society is a system that needs different positions in order to remain healthy. The higher, more important roles are occupied by the most qualified and highest skilled people, while the lower (yet still essential) roles are occupied by those who arent as qualified or those who may not have put in as much time, money, or effort. Inequality is inevitable because it has a positive contribution to a societys ability to function overall (Tumin 1953). The functionalist perspective doesnt place a label of successful or unsuccessful on these roles. Instead of looking at success based on someones income, it acknowledges the importance of all roles.

Functionalism relies on the metaphor that society is a body or a living system (Rigney 2001, p. 17). Take a marshland ecosystem for instance, each living organism within that ecosystem plays a distinct role in keeping every other organism alive. The algae that grows in the water provides oxygen for the mosquito larvae, which get eaten by the frogs, which then get eaten by a bigger animal, and so forth. If everything took on the role of any one organism in that system, the ecosystem would die out. If a member of that system was no longer there, all the others would also see great consequences. The same concept can be related to humans and society. Everyone is constantly contributing to one another and keeping the society functioning. Garbage men are essential just like surgeons; however, one requires more training and specialization. In order to determine who gets to be a surgeon, it is decided on some key factors that may not be as accessible for some groups of people. The functionalist perspective acknowledges this, but doesnt say take a stance based on fairness. A surgeon may make more money due to having a more functionally important role, but this doesnt make the garbage man any less important in his personal role.

Education is a great indicator of future income and what role someone will have later in life. Credentialed societies or the insistence and overemphasis on academic or educational qualifications (e.g. certificates, degrees, and diplomas) as evidence of an individuals qualification in hiring people for a job and for promotion, (ASA American Sociological Association (5th edition)) make it so those who want to assume specific roles must do specific things. Living in a credentialed society determines someones access to desired work and social status based on the possession of a certificate. Some of the highest paying jobs are only accessible to those who receive a higher level of education and becoming a symbolic analyst (e.g. lawyer, doctor, engineer). The path to becoming a symbolic analyst is not the same for anyone. There are many factors that contribute to whether someone can even get this education. White people are far more likely to hold a bachelors degree than blacks. More than a third (36%) of whites ages 25 and older do, compared with 23% of blacks, according to analyses of the Current Population Survey. These numbers are also greatly similar among Hispanic people. Some explanations for these statistics involve the level of education a parent completed, parents income, personal work demands, and many more. In 2005 according to the US Census Bureaus Current Population Surveys, 35.8% of Hispanic college students were first generation, which is 23.1% more than the amount of . These statistics can help explain why college completion rate among races is uneven. If a student comes from a poor family, with a , they are even more unlikely to not attend or complete. This results in a positive feedback loop where generations of people dont get a college degree. While those who do get a degree are more likely to have children who do the same. They are presented options that make more money and allow them to fill the higher roles in society. This pattern will continue to exist, to which a functionalist may argue that it must serve an essential role in society.

Family and parents serve as great role models for shaping the youth. If a child observes and is constantly surrounded by something, they are likely to reflect the same behavior. According to Dr. Alvin Poussaint, a psychiatrist with Harvard Medical School, The absence of fathers corresponds with a host of social ills, including dropping out of school and serving time in jail. Single parent households are more frequent amongst minority groups. Black children are more than twice as likely as white children to be living with just one parent. More than half (54%) of black children did so in 2014, compared with 19% of whites (American Community Surveys 2014). With a less educated, single parent population, the overall birth rate and nonmarital birth rate increases, leading to less people being able to become specialized in a field, resulting in lower wages.

With a society based around money, success, and roles, it can be easy for someone in a group that commonly fills the lower roles to develop an oppositional identity. Oppositional identity, meaning that minorities define themselves not by who they are, but by how theydiffer fromor oppose mainstream culture (Ogbu & Davis, 2003; Carter, 2005). In the book; Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together In the Cafeteria? by Beverly Daniel Tatum, this oppositional identity is the result of the anger and resentment adolescents feel in response to their growing awareness of the systematic exclusion of Black people from full participation in U.S. society leads to the development of an oppositional social identity (60). This phenomenon can lead to minorities unconsciously making decisions that differ from the majority, leading to them not taking on higher roles in society based on principle. Social deviance can stem from this, prompting outrage in others experiencing the same things. The deviant can clarify and reinforce social norms while strengthening a groups sense of community (Harris p. 5). The way the system is set up in the eyes of a functionalist, promotes different important interactions that a range of people may experience.

A large contributor to the income gap among races is the implicit biases most people have towards certain races. An implicit bias refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. These biases, encompass both favorable and unfavorable assessments, are activated involuntarily and without an individuals awareness or intentional control (Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity 2015). Findings from the works of Anthony G. Greenwald and Mahzarin R. Banaji revealed that a large amount of people had an implicit bias when comparing black people to others. Most people, regardless of color, associated bad with black more often than not while taking an IAT test. This can influence an employers perceptions about an employee before ever meeting them. Quick reflex behaviors and biases can serve to be in the favor of potential white employees over black. In a study by Bertrand and Mullainathan, about 5,000 resumes were sent to 1,300 job advertisements they found in newspapers in Boston and Chicago from made up applicants with very white-sounding names like Emily Walsh and Greg Baker and very like Lakisha Washington and Jamal Jones. The names were randomly assigned to higher-quality and lower-quality resumes and submitted. (Bertrand, Mullainathan 2004). They found that the white names got about 50 percent more callbacks than the black names, regardless of the industry or occupation. Regardless of qualification, blacks are more disadvantaged when it comes to getting a job. This leads to further income inequality between races. The function this serves can be related to the idea that if everyone is qualified for a job, there would be no one else to do other necessary ones. When the playing field is even, decisions tend to be based off of stigmas and implicit biases that they possess or have heard in the past.

Social stratification refers to a system by which a society ranks categories of people in a hierarchy. In the United States, it is perfectly clear that some groups have greater status, power, and wealth than other groups (Moffitt Ch. 1) According to functionalist theory, poverty and dysfunction are positively correlated. This is based off of how society is structured including laws, access to education, and many more factors. These things determine poverty level as opposed to individual responsibility. Positions that command a high pay check are most often more important to the survival of society than others are. However, the amount of available space for these positions are very limited, so they must be occupied by those who are the most fit for the job (those who were fortunate enough to have more talent or education). Hierarchical arrangements, then, are unconsciously evolved systems by which a society fills its most important jobs with the most capable people (Davis and Moore 1945). Functionalist perspective is more focused on the unconscious operation of a working social system rather than worrying about who gets what. If a specific race or group is on an unfavorable end, there is a reason for it that doesnt have to do with the individual, but with the structure of society.

Overall, the income gap between races and people that exists in America today is due to many different reasons. Whether its implicit biases and social mobility, education and the expectation of being credentialed, family roots over generations and single parent households, prevalence of an oppositional identity, or social stratification, they all have a tremendous role in keeping society functioning. Each social role that is occupied must be done by someone and is still greatly important, no matter how much income they bring in.

Works Cited

  • Bell, Kenton, ed. 2013. credentialism. In Open Education Sociology Dictionary. Retrieved November 22, 2018 (
  • Bertrand, Marianne, and Sendhil Mullainathan. Are Emily and Greg More Employable Than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 2004,
  • Crossman, Ashley. Everything You Need to Know About Functionalist Theory.Thoughtco., Dotdash, 2018,
  • Davis, Kingsley, and Wilbert Moore. Some Principles of Stratification.American Sociological Review, Vol. 10, No. 2, American Sociological Association, 1945, .
  • Demographic Trends and Economic Well-Being. Pew Research Centers Social & Demographic Trends Project, 25 July 2016, www.pewsocialtrends.being/.Tumin, Melvin M. 1953. Some Principles of Stratification: A Critical Analysis.
    American Sociological Review18:387-394.
  • Foley, Douglas. Ogbus Theory of Academic Disengagement: Its Evolution and Its Critics.Intercultural Education, 2004,
  • Garry, Stephanie. Statistics Dont Lie in This Case.Politifact, 2008,
  • Greenwald, Anthony, and Mahzarin Banaji. Implicit Social Cognition: Attitudes, Self-Esteem, and Stereotypes. Psychological Review, 1995,
  • Rigney, Daniel. 2001.The Metaphorical Society: An Invitation to Social Theory.
    Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
  • Tatum, Beverly Daniel.Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? and Other Conversations about the Development of Racial Identity. BasicBooks, 1997.
  • The Ohio State University.Understanding Implicit Biases, Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, 2015,

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