January 23, 2012

Cars and Class

ksternheimerBy Karen Sternheimer

As I recently wrote, cars can teach us about symbolic interactionism, a micro sociological way of thinking about how we construct meaning through interactions with others. Cars also reflect macro sociological issues, particularly in the way buying and owning a car both reflects and helps produce someone’s economic reality.

Yes, many of us often try and project a particular economic status with our car. Driving a luxury automobile, whether we can afford to or not, is a way to create an image of affluence and make a statement about who we are to others. This is a micro sociological phenomenon. How we actually purchase the car reflects larger issues of social structure.

The Los Angeles Times recently ran a series of articles about the challenges low-income people face purchasing—and maintaining—an automobile. For those with low incomes who might have poor credit or no credit history, owning a car can be a major financial challenge.

clip_image002In many cities like Los Angeles, a car is practically required to get and keep a job. Because the public transportation system here can be unreliable and time-consuming (a few years ago I blogged about how it took me two hours on the bus to travel a distance that takes about 30 minutes by car), some employers won’t even hire someone who doesn’t have a car for fear that they will frequently be late or absent from work.

Jobs are often located a great distance from central cities. As sociologist William Julius Wilson describes in his book More than Just Race, there is often a spatial mismatch between where people live and where work opportunities exist. A car then can become a prerequisite for employment, and those without the funds to buy and maintain a car can get caught in a vicious cycle.

As the Los Angeles Times series details, people with low incomes or bad credit can buy cars from dealerships that specialize in providing financing themselves. While interest rates are generally low right now due to the struggling economy, low-income customers might pay an interest rate as high as 30 percent to own a car. (By contrast, the rates for used auto loans listed on bankrate.com are between four and five percent for those with good credit scores. Some dealerships offer zero percent financing for those with stellar credit.)

Owning a car, especially an older one, can come with costly repair bills. Car insurance might cost more too, as a low credit score can lead to higher insurance premiums, even if someone has never had a ticket or an accident.

Someone with a low income who is living paycheck to paycheck might find themselves in a financial bind if their car needs to be fixed or another major car-related expense arises. For those that fall behind on payments, their car can be quickly repossessed. The Times investigation found that sometimes the same car has been sold over and over to a variety of low income buyers, in some cases for more money than the previous owner paid for the car.

Ironically, the dealer can actually make more money if an owner falls behind on payments and the car is repossessed. Not only can they resell the car, but the person who defaulted can be sued for non-payment. According to the Times’ research, there are actually more used car dealerships catering to low income people nationwide than traditional dealerships: about 33,000 compared with 20,000 dealerships that sell new cars. And business is thriving since the economic downturn has affected more people’s incomes and credit.

For someone who already experienced financial difficulty, having a car repossessed will further damage their credit score, making it even harder to buy another car. In some cases, prospective employers run credit checks and refuse to hire people with bad credit, fearing that they might be less responsible or more likely to be desperate enough to steal on the job. Losing a car can create many of the problems that owning a car were meant to solve.

Yes, people make bad choices and sometimes are to blame for their circumstances. But examining social structure requires us to look at broader issues beyond individuals’ control to understand the relationship between cars and socio-economic status.

Cities that have reliable and affordable public transportation create an environment where cars are less connected with class. Living in New York City, for instance, does not require a car, nor would the lack of one disqualify many of its residents from a job. In fact, owning any car, and paying for a place to park is a marker of high status in New York because of the city’s convenient transportation system. Its high population density means that subways and buses can easily be routed to take people from where they live to where they work. Cities with low population density—where populations are spread out geographically—find it harder to create effective public transportation systems.

Cars can be used to make personal statements about who we are (microsociology) and also reflect our economic stratification (macrosociology). How else might cars reflect our social structure?


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Strangely enough I've actually heard some people with good jobs and high incomes in L.A claim they would much rather walk and take public transportation than drive. I am serious about this too; these are people with money. However, I am the opposite. I can't imagine taking the bus from Hollywood into the Valley; would probably take hours and very time consuming.

I think that car dealerships are very sneaky and two faced, But at the same time i believe that people can be smart with their auto purchases. In the town i live near public transportation is in the rough and makes travel between work and home difficult for the people of the city. Although cars are expensive they still remain a vital asset to the working American.

I do agree that driving luxury cars can affect social structure. However, my dad is a successful business man and drives a luxury car, but he'd rather drive a lower class car to work. He feels as if he's showing off materialistic items. But then again, there are some people that I know who spend all their money on just cars; they don't have as nice of a house or extra money to do anything. Driving differs from person to person; either they care about what cars they drive, or they are happy enough to take public transportation.

I agree with Scott Reiss, people can be smart when purchasing a car. If people with low income need to purchase a car, they should plan first. Maybe saving some money before buying a car or understanding the difference between wanting a luxury car and needing a car. If a person can afford a luxury car, by all means, they are allowed to buy one. But if a person isn't economically able to purchase a luxury car they can still buy a good economical car at a good price without feeling overwhelmed. In my opinion, people just need to know how to manage their money and know what they can and can't afford. They shouldn't be worring about what society thinks.

I agree,The automobile’s capacity to create social distance appealed to early car buyers.

I agree with how this article says that the car we drive directly correlates with statements about who we are (microsociology) and about our economic stratification (macrosociology. This is a simple way for our society to look at a person, whether it in a good way or bad way.

Cars are a huge status symbol in the United States, and a way we project ourselves into the social structure. Cars can be something to put someone at an achieved status in society, which many try to do. Even when people cant afford it they want to be seen at a higher status, and trying to get their status set "higher" in the eyes of others.

Of course the car is accepted as good status in united State. In our society always follow to some other person those have well status and reputation. I support your opinion, it is commonly happening in our society and which is reflected on our society.

Truly it is considering as good status means you have branded car.Definitely the race of car competition is harmful for our social life according to economical view.So It is needed to use the money proper way which is very important for us.Thanks for beautiful article.

Hi Karen,
The facts you discussing in this article is very true. Some people are really do show off for being rich and by owing luxury car. I ain't understand that why they what to prove. We just having that car which we can afford...

nice article

Class is mostly to do with with your status as a person and your occupation
Which has no reflection on the type of car you drive because some working
Class people drive luxury cars because their on ridiculous wages

What we drive is definitely a reflection on the person driving the car! Some good points made in this read :)

I agree that having a car can reflect your economic status and on my opinion it can also boots you self-esteem.

I agree with you Karen that public transportation system can be unreliable and time-consuming which some times causes me to be late at work. That is why I did my best in order to get a car. Even do its a second hand car I got from a buy and sell cars website. It really help me to be on time at work.

agree with you Karen that public transportation system can be unreliable and time-consuming which some times causes me to be late at work.


Great tips! It’s very informative information. I would definitely try to follow these tips in order to maintain the long lasting of my car repair and maintenance. You have shared very informative post with us.
Automotive car repair wake forest nc

Your article was too much informative to read
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Nice article

Hey Karen Sternheimer
I agree with you. Thanks for sharing these great tips with us. Cars are a huge status symbol in our society.
After all, If anyone is looking to buy a new luxury car then you can contact with Lance Cook .I Recommend him because of my personal experience with him. He is a professional in this field and has years of experience.

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