Illustration of building with glass floor

The Glass Floor

Heather Johnson studies the inverse of the glass ceiling—an “invisible safety net” that keeps children from historically advantaged groups from falling down the ladder of success.

Story by

Linda Harbrecht

The concept of a “glass ceiling” in America describes an invisible barrier that prevents many from rising to the top of the socio-economic ladder. Heather Johnson, an associate professor of sociology, argues that the inverse of that barrier exists as well, and that many in historically advantaged groups benefit from a “glass floor” that prevents their children from falling too far down the ladder of success.

Teacher and students at private school

Johnson’s focus is on those families that fall into the top two to 20 percentile, whose children often attend either very well-regarded public schools or private schools and enjoy a relatively privileged lifestyle.

Johnson has been examining issues related to wealth and privilege in her teaching and research for nearly two decades, and a two-year New Directions Fellowship through the College of Arts and Sciences allowed her to further explore the beliefs, perspectives and behaviors that are embraced by those who enjoy those advantages.

With the fellowship, Johnson built a team of researchers to conduct in-depth interviews with roughly 40 families from Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley. The area’s demographic make-up, she says, is strikingly similar to the nation’s, with nearly identical percentages of the population falling into categories that span poverty to extreme wealth.

Johnson’s focus is on those families that fall into the top two to 20 percentile, and enjoy a relatively privileged lifestyle. “Those in this upper quintile have household incomes of between $150,000 to $400,000, they own a single-family home, they are well-educated, they have college degrees, there is often some intergenerational transfer of wealth, and the men in the households generally work in white-collar, high-prestige professions,” she says. Many of the women in these households are well-educated as well, and either work in a demanding profession or put their careers on hold to focus on raising their children. Generally speaking, the children attend either very well-regarded public schools or private schools, and enjoy what she describes as “incredibly enriched childhood experiences” that include multiple sports and recreational activities and clubs, summer camps and family travel.

In their conversations with the research subjects, Johnson’s team probed perspectives on privilege and their understanding of their own position in the social class stratification. They also discussed ways in which they have socialized and prepared their children for lives of success.

“It’s almost an indoctrination,” Johnson says, “where the parents encourage their children to believe that they are responsible for their destiny, that they are so extraordinary and special that they deserve success. In reality, they are so supported and so socialized for success that it is almost impossible for those in this position to crash to the bottom. Much as those who overcome extreme adversity to rise to the very top of the socioeconomic ladder are exceptions, these children would be the exceptions in reverse.”

Johnson also found that the motivation for ensuring a child’s success was grounded in the simplest of concepts: “They truly love their children,” she says. “They want them to do well. It’s not necessarily racist or classist or elitist. So as a sociologist, addressing this is much more complicated.”

In an increasingly polarized America, recognizing how unearned advantages for certain groups only perpetuate inequity is an even more urgent and important discussion, Johnson says.

“We talk about inequity, we talk about upward and downward mobility, and we spend an enormous amount of time—and rightly so—studying what many social scientists have called the ‘culture of poverty,’” she says. “But this glass floor, this invisible safety net that practically nobody talks about, does exist. And a ‘culture of wealth’ does exist. These are just as socially powerful and structurally real. And those that benefit from them understand them intuitively.”

Illustration by Mike Ellis

Story by

Linda Harbrecht

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