The late 1800s and early 1900s were a time of impressive innovation and growth for America. Unfortunately, the progress America enjoyed was unevenly shared with its people. Due to their living and working conditions, and lack of educational and economic opportunities, the sharecropper and working classes were virtually hopeless to rise to the middle class, while the middle class had every advantage to maintain status.
Sharecroppers lived in small, dirty shacks on the edge of their landowner’s territory. They ate off the land (usually whatever vegetables they grew). The entire family (children included) worked 10-14-hour days, 6 days per week to support the family. As such, the children were afforded little or often no access to education, which then limited their future ability to find better paying work in adulthood. The farmers were perpetually in debt due to the sharecropping arrangement — they were forced to plant whatever crops the landowner demanded (often inedible crops like cotton), they had no ownership of the land itself, and they had to give the landowner 50% share or more of the crop yielded. Furthermore, they often had to rent the farming equipment and take out loans to purchase the seeds, leaving them indebted from year to year. Since most sharecroppers were also African American, they were also treated as second-class citizens and forced to obey unfair and highly restrictive laws such as The Black Codes and Jim Crow Laws.
The working class, like the sharecroppers, lived in dilapidated conditions. Typically residing in tenements or shacks, their homes were cramped, dirty, and sometimes contained only but a handful personal items, as in a photo of an Italian immigrant living under the Rivington Street Dump, seen with barely a bed to sleep on, a few tattered blankets, a tin can, and a small trunk (all appearing utterly filthy). Disease ran rampant among them and nearly 25% of children born in cities died before age 1. Their diet, also like the sharecroppers, was limited to whatever they could afford, like potatoes ($0.01/potato) and oatmeal ($0.03/pound). Considering food for a family of 2 parents and 1 child could cost about $0.70/day, families had little choice but to sometimes forgo expensive steak or chops ($0.10/pound) in lieu of more affordable fish ($0.08/pound) or no meat at all. When work was in season, often the entire family worked 10-14-hour days, 6 to 7 days a week in jobs like mining, canning factory work, or building the Brooklyn Bridge for $2-5 per day — none of which offered unemployment or health insurance in precariously unsafe work environments, so when a worker was injured by workplace accident (which happened frequently as in the case of the Brooklyn Bridge leaving men invalid), they were simply left out of work and out of pay. While there were some non-obligatory opportunities for education (both for children and adults), the exhaustingly laborious days often left them too tired to attend. Those that did had unequal experiences due to America’s disjointed public education system, which left more than 4.5 million people illiterate in 1870 and 5.6 million people unable to write. Like the sharecropper families, these families were stuck in a cycle of poverty.
The middle class was a different story. They lived a Victorian lifestyle — the father worked a comfortable white-collar job such as an attorney, doctor, or banker, while the wife stayed home to care for a tidy household and children attended school. A patent attorney’s advertisement of the time listed agency fees starting at $10 for a single document, a hefty wage compared to the sharecroppers and working class. These jobs were less physically strenuous and usually had better working hours (perhaps 8-10 hours/day), leaving more time for family and leisure. The better pay meant they could save money and afford concrete block construction homes such as the modern home advertised by Sears for $1,995, filled well-made furnishings like couches, chairs, hutches, rugs, bookshelves, and curtains. Their cleaner surroundings meant a generally healthier lifestyle than their sharecropper and working-class counterparts. As their children became educated, they too had better odds of professional advancement.
With so many more advantages (educational, economic, or otherwise), the middle class was far-better positioned for success than the sharecropping and working classes, who could hardly ascend from debt, let alone into the middle class. Though some still fell out of the middle class, these families clearly had opportunities the lower classes couldn’t dream of, and this made it vastly more likely for them to find a long-lasting position in middle class life.