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What is Social Class

What is social class?

Social Class can be defined by:

  • economic factors (wealth, income, occupation)
  • political factors (status, power)
  • cultural factors (lifestyle, education, values, beliefs).

Despite arguments that the class system has changed over the past 50 years it is still the case that important differences in shared beliefs and values relate more obviously to class than any other social category.

Social class leads to inequalities of resources, whether that is income, education, housing or health.

Social Class and Discrimination

People’s experience of class and poverty can lead to their views not being heard, being left out when decisions are being made, isolation and humiliation.

A recent poll showed that poor people in particular think that class, not ability, greatly affects the way they are seen.

In the last 25 years the number of people in the top two social classes has doubled in Glasgow. However while the city’s middle class has grown and prospered, other parts have seen little improvement. Many people are dependent on sickness or unemployment benefits or low paid work. This has led to growing inequality.

Social class discrimination can affect many areas of people lives; access to education, housing, social mobility and job opportunities and pay. Numerous studies have been carried out into the effect being working class might have on an individual’s working life. In 2017, the Social Mobility Commission found there was a class pay gap where professionals from working class backgrounds earn an average of £6,800 less than professionals from higher classes.

There is currently no specific protection within the Equality Act 2010 on the grounds of class; although the Fairer Scotland Duty does offer some protection.  

How are we addressing social class issues

NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde is carrying out a range of work to tackle inequality as a result of income inequality, poverty and social issues.

These include:

  • Monitoring the impact of the recession and welfare reform on health
  • Increasing referrals to employability and money advice services
  • The Healthier, Wealthier Children project which is exploring ways of tackling child poverty at local level 
  • Measuring the health gap so that we know that specific programmes of work are making the gap better or worse

In ‘Turning the Tide through Prevention’, the Public Health Strategy 2018-2022, we can see that the determinants of health are well documented and many of them lie outside the direct influence of the NHS, such as relieving poverty, improving housing or education. A crucial element of this strategy is therefore the effectiveness of our influence on these factors through community planning partnerships and the way we work with Scottish and UK governments and the people who use our services.

Local health and social care partnerships mean that staff work together to give people support with health and social issues to reduce health inequality.

More information at:

Addressing Income Inequality, Poverty & Social Issues

Social Class and Other Protected Characteristics

There is a strong link between social class and groups with other protected characteristics, as they are often denied access to power, wealth, status, resources and opportunities.

For example:

  • Employment among all black/minority ethnic groups in Glasgow is 10% lower than for white Glaswegians
  • 68% of disabled people have an income of less than £10,000
  • Women are more likely to be poor than men due to lower paid jobs, part-time jobs and the fact that 90% of lone parents are women
  • In Scotland today the pay gap between women and men can translate to a loss of over £330,000 in a woman’s working life – just because she is a woman.

Social class is not a protected characteristic in the Equality Act 2010 however it has close links to poor health and other forms of inequality. 

The Fairer Scotland Duty came into force on 1 April 2018. It places a legal responsibility on named public bodies in Scotland to actively consider how they can reduce inequalities caused by socio-economic disadvantage when making strategic decisions.

Scottish Government guidance (2021) Fairer Scotland Duty: guidance for public bodies provides a comprehensive explanation of the Duty together with useful tools to assess decision making processes.

People’s Experiences

Tina’s Story

Tina lives with her husband and two children. Two years ago she suffered a serious brain haemorrhage. The consequences of her illness, which was completely unexpected, were devastating.

In order to care for Tina and the children her husband had to leave his job. But when he tried to claim benefits he was told that he wasn’t entitled and would have to wait 10-16 weeks before they would be given any money at all. They said he had made himself voluntarily unemployed. This advice was wrong.

For four months the family had no income at all except for a small amount of Child Benefit and Tax Credit. They didn’t receive Housing Benefit, although entitled to it, and their rent wasn’t being paid. They sunk deeper and deeper into debt.

The family were struggling to survive on less than £50 a week. Through social services they were put in touch with the Family Support Unit (FSU) who helped with food parcels and Home Start, who were able to offer some support.

Tina’s situation has improved now. Her husband is back in work and they still receive support from Home Start, but the debt is still a major concern and the family still has some way to go before it’s back on track.

Courtesy of Joseph Rowntree Foundation

Support and Resources
Why social class matters to Health

Social class leads inequalities of resources, whether that is income, education, housing or health. This has led to widely varying but predictable life chances and health outcomes across Greater Glasgow and Clyde.

The link between social class and health was identified almost 40 years ago. In 1980, there was found to be a clear inequality in life expectancy between men in social class 1 (managers and professionals) and social class 5 (unskilled workers).

The reasons for the link between social class and health includes things such as health risks in low paid, unsafe jobs and stress caused by having low status and lack of power.

Upward and downward social mobility can improve or decrease people’s life chances. Certain events such as such as leaving home, becoming a parent, losing your job or bereavement can make us vulnerable to falling into a low income or low status in society.

Social class inequality has an impact on the whole of society. Research shows that more equal societies have better health rather than richer societies where there is a bigger gap between rich and poor.