May 27, 2010

Ascribed Status vs. Achieved Status: The Case of Homelessness

todd_S_2010a By Todd Schoepflin

Every so often the terms we encounter in an Introduction to Sociology textbook are a little boring. Sometimes the examples are outdated, other times the discussion just lies flat on the page. As much as I love teaching an introductory course, I even tire of the material occasionally. But then a student speaks up and the concepts jump off the page.

While teaching two basic concepts in sociology this semester-- ascribed status and achieved status --I gave the usual examples for each. An ascribed status is involuntary, something we cannot choose. Race, ethnicity, and the social class of our parents are examples of ascribed statuses.

On the other hand, an achieved status is something we accomplish in the course of our lives. To some extent, achieved status reflects our work and effort. College student, college dropout, CEO, and thief are examples of achieved statuses. (I made a sarcastic comment in class that some CEOs are thieves, but no one laughed. I’ll try that joke again next semester.)

Then I brought up homelessness as an interesting status to think about. Many people think homelessness is definitely an achieved status. They see homelessness as a result of a poor work ethic or irresponsible lifestyle choices. But when you think more deeply about homelessness, you gain an understanding that homelessness can be considered an ascribed status in many cases.

When I asked students about their understanding of the causes of homelessness, they were able to identify some of them, including substance abuse and mental illness. The cause of mental illness makes for an interesting debate. If we accept the premise that we don’t choose mental illness, I think we can make the argument that homelessness is an ascribed status when it’s the result of mental illness. By the way, one major reason for homelessness cited by mayors of U.S. cities is so obvious that most people wouldn’t think of it: a lack of affordable housing.

Anyway, the discussion continued when a student raised her hand and talked about how she was homeless as a child. I was stunned. Having taught college students for ten years, I thought I’d heard everything. But Ayla is my first student I know of that has experienced homelessness. In talking about her Ayla background she made an essential point: homeless children should be thought of as an example of ascribed status. Obviously, children don’t choose to be homeless, as circumstances beyond their control leave them without housing.

Throughout the semester, Ayla told me details about her childhood. Her mother, who had a drinking problem and other personal issues, could not provide for her on a consistent basis.The oldest of four children, Ayla had to take charge of family matters. She remembers paying bills as early as age nine. She would go to a check-cashing store and pay the rent (her family received SSI assistance). She would buy groceries. She’d get out of school and do a mental check (“What do I do now?”). Her first objective was to find her mom to make sure she was okay, and then she would get her brothers from school. Sometimes they would stay at a friend’s house, sometimes at a shelter.

This stretch of time in her life was roughly from age nine to thirteen in Rochester, New York. Through it all, she always attended school. Things settled in her life when she moved to Niagara Falls, New York to live with her grandmother. She graduated from high school in Niagara Falls and earned a scholarship to nearby Niagara University.

Ayla’s transition from being homeless as a child to attending college reminded me of the movie Homeless to Harvard, based on the true story of Liz Murray, who was homeless as a teenager and whose parents suffered from substance abuse. When I mentioned this movie in class, a student remarked “That’s why they don’t make movies called From Prep School to Harvard.” Now that was funny (the class laughed) but there was tremendous insight behind the humor. Making it to Harvard after prep school training is not nearly as impressive a feat compared with someone who has spent time on the streets as a child.

house_-_es I remain awestruck by Ayla’s story, especially when I consider the relative advantages I enjoyed growing up in a solid middle-class household. We were well provided for. There was always plenty of food in the house and on the table. My father had a steady job my entire life. My mother stayed home to take care of my brother and me and to run the household. She didn’t return to the paid workforce until I attended middle school. I spent most of my childhood and adolescence in the house that is pictured, a very nice house my parents still live in today.

Reflecting back, the stability they provided was priceless. I took for granted not only material comfort but also consistency of care, discipline, and structure. I think I underestimate how much that consistency developed me into the person I am today. And I think of Ayla, who has come so far from so little, never knowing her father, not being able to count on her mother, having to be an adult during childhood. Ayla’s story continues to inspire me. I think it’s extraordinary that she became a college student (achieved status) after spending part of her life homeless (in her case, ascribed status). Since learning from Ayla about her life story, achieved status has taken on a new meaning for me.


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It is awesome that some people are mentally and emotionally strong enough to take on such responsibilities at such a young age. Having to step-up and play the role of an adult as a child is not an easy task. After growing up with such a rough childhood and then making it onto college takes hard work, dedication and determination. I wonder how some people can be mentally strong enough to overcome such hardships and make it someplace better while others can't. I have great respect for those who can come out on top after living a life on bottom. Having an ascribed status linked to homelessness is tough to deal with and being able to earn an achieved status of success and education is amazing.

Achieved status and ascribed status implies dichotomy, that is why I prefer the terms degree of ascription and degree of achievement, where some statuses are both largely ascribed as well as largely achieved, for example, prep school to Harvard, and some statuses are not ascribed nor achieved, just dumb luck, for example, Jed Clampett.

Every person can take on a new meaning depending on how strong their mental adn physical cabillity is. Alya was menatally and physiaclly strong. I am in awe as i read this article. Just by looking at her, you probably would have never guessed that she was homeless. When they say you can acheive anything you put your mind to, now i know that is true. She acheived what people could only dream of acheiving. At such a tendor age of 9-13 she did the unthinkable. It is truely insane how far a person can go to excced thier limits. She has accomplished more than many people that were not homeless have. She is a strong intellegent woman, and it clearly shows. Status is represente in so many different ways, now that i know her story, i'm going to think about everything i have in a different light.

While I initially expected homelessness to be an achieved status, reading this article has shown me that it is actually an ascribed status. Homeless people would never choose to be homeless, and it is often the result of uncontrollable factors (i.e. mental illness). Learning about Ayla’s story has shown me that people do have the power to change their statuses. Children such as Ayla who are born into a bad ascribed status are often judged as lost causes who can never reach a better achieved status. This is completely untrue, and individuals such as Liz Murray and Ayla are proof that ascribed statuses are changeable.

I look at Ayla and see a women who has made something for herself. I don't know if you were going for this part of sociology, but the aspect of common assumptions. We just assume that people who are homeless put themselves in that position, and do not have a bright future. Your student Ayla shows that this is a common assumption that isn't always true. She was a child who became homeless because of her mother, she didn't put herself in that position. Then she got herself into college, and a lot of people think that once you are homeless you have no future, well she proved everyone wrong. We cannot assume things about people because of their past, we need to look at them as a person and recognize what they can do for themselves.

Ayla truly is an inspiration. While I always thought homelessness was an achieved status, I have come to realize that most cases are ascribed statuses. People do not get to choose their parents, and some children are born into a homeless family. Ayla's determination and strength led her to success that she earned. She defied the odds and achieved her dreams.

I definitely agree with the idea that homelessness is sometimes result of mental illness and substance abuse but sometimes is as a result of all the disasters are coming at the same time and you don’t have any choice except becoming a homeless and live in the street. For example the Katrina in Louisiana had a lot of homeless people .I am really glad that there are people outside like Ayla that they have enough power mentally that they can change their family and themselves ‘ life.

I agree that being homeless is sometimes an effect of a illness or substance abuse. Some disasters do happen like going bankrupt or a tornado, or hurricane. Ayla is a strong person and has enough will to change lives.

I've always thought that homelessness was always an achieved status. But hearing Ayla's story made me realize that even things such as being homeless is in some cases an ascribed status. It was cool to read about someone being in such a horrible situation and making it better for themself and all by theirself.

I believe that homelessness is an achieved status for most homeless people. Most people are homeless because they choose to waste their money not beecause they just are that way.

Wow. I never would have thought of homelessness as being an ascribed status. I would be like those other students in the class and think it was achieved. That people didn't work hard enough or at all to be able to afford a home. Ayla's story would be a great one for ever sociology teacher to tell about. It would help show that some achieved statuses may be ascribed.

Ayla's story just goes to show that when things are not going the right way as a child and then as an adult when we put our minds to something that we are able to achieve it (such as her going to college from being homeless as a child) I truly admire her for what she has done as a child and as an adult. Being homeless is not a situation that we all want to be in. However I believe being homeless has a lot to do with our state of mind (our mental capabilities), or environment as a child or a teen, or even mother nature (such hurricanes), it does go hand in hand with drug abuse and alcohol abuse as well, when you spend the money on the drugs you are taking away from a stable home. Ayla's story is amazing how she had to become an adult at such a young age and went onto bigger things as an adult.
I always believed it was an ascribed status because there are a lot of forces in this world that makes someone become homeless, unstable home as a child, drugs, mental stability. There are a lot of things that prevents a person from having a stable home but in some senses it is a choice. You can choose to put the bottle down and spend the money on rent and food, you can choose to get the mental help from the doctors. I just think her story is an amazing one.

I thought that homelssness was originally anachieved status but after reading this article I've come to see that many times it's more of an ascribed status. Most people don't choose to be homeless certain circumstances force them to be. And as was stated int eh article, kids certainly don't choose to be homeless. The fact that Ayla was able to make it into college after being homeless as a child is amazing and shows everyone that your status isn't set into stone, especially if it's an ascribed status.

It is really interesting to hear of a case where a person is given an ascribed status of homeless and how they dealt with that. Reading about Alya's story opened my eyes as to how impressive it is that she actually came out of being homeless and turned herself into a college student. This story really helped demostrate the meaning of ascribed and achieved statuses to me. This was a very good article, thank you!

I thought this article provided a particularly poignant example of overcoming an unfortunate ascribed status to realizing a dreamed of achieved status. It showed that no matter what your original circumstances are, you are still the one who has control over your own life and things are never completely hopeless. It is also important to remember that the people around you have stories that you could never even guess. You may all be in the same place but the paths you took to get there could be drastically different and some were probably miles more difficult than others.

People deserve very good life and credit loans or just bank loan would make it much better. Just because people's freedom is grounded on money state.

Thank you for sharing this inspiring story with us. It’s incredible to think that someone can go from such little, to obtaining so much. Many children are given an ascribed status that is out of their control, for example, Ayla. It’s even more inspiring to see a girl like Ayla transform and obtain an achieved status. Her successes are incredible. It just comes to show that anyone can maintain an achieved status through hard work and perseverance.

Reading this really hit home for me. I'm currently taking my first Sociology course in college (it's already my major though).

Like Ayla, I was homeless from the ages of eight to thirteen. Last semester my guardian stole all of my financial aid and savings, destroyed my things and left me with nothing. I'm now working sixty hour weeks and going to school twice a week to be able to afford it, but it is completely worth it. Nothing in the world is better than learning, and although a lot of learning was taken from me as a child due to my circumstances, I refuse to let my past circumstances define me.

As you can probably guess, I wholeheartedly agree with this and definitely believe that homelessness is an ascribed status for many of us. I really appreciate this article, thank you for sharing this story! You go Ayla!

This story will probably change everyones view of ascribed, and achieved statuses after reading it. it is a very good story, and makes people think about things more.

An update: yesterday, Ayla graduated from Niagara University. It was wonderful to watch her walk across the stage and become a college graduate.

I am so proud of Ayla!

That is very inspirational. All because your parents are less fortune does not mean you have to take the same route. This story should inspire a lot of people because it goes to show how you do have the choice to become of whatever you like with hard work and dedication regardless of your situation. She didnt make excuses she learned from experience.

This is absolute gold. I was not expecting that I’d get so much out of reading your write up! You’ve just got yourself a returning visitor.

I am so proud of Ayla that she was able to graduate and walk across stage. Had to be one of the most memorable thing that happened for her.

I am so proud of Ayla that she was able to graduate and walk across stage. Had to be one of the most memorable thing that happened for her.

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