In order to fully understand either Bickford or Duncan, we need to think about the ways in which they use the word "class." In everyday use, it's become almost meaningless -- if you're not homeless and you're not Bill Gates, then you're "middle class." If the word is to have any utility, it has to make finer distinctions than that.
In most academic work, "class" is used to mean not merely an amount of money, but more importantly an attitude and set of expectations toward money. So we might consider the terms "working class," "professional class," and "capital class." For the working class, money is drawn from wage income derived from (mostly) physical labor, and for the most part spent at about the same rate that it's earned. For the professional class, money is drawn from salary income derived from (mostly) information labor, and there's often enough left to invest for future needs like housing purchases or college tuition. For the capital class, money is drawn from income on investment, and with any smarts at all, most of it gets reinvested and becomes increased capital. (A side note -- "money" is used for transactions for goods and services; "capital" is used for investment to make more money.) My middle brother is a case in point -- he's a small building contractor who does spec houses and pole barns and the occasional commercial/retail building. He's the only millionaire in the family, but he's squarely working class in his view of the world. I have far less money, but I'm a member of the professional class in these terms (and to some extent in my attitudes as well, but more on that in a minute).
So Duncan's alpha and beta landscapes aren't a division between raw amounts of money but a division between a capital-class and a working-class culture.
There has been a lot of research on the ways in which class is transmitted through families through the language used, the economic habits taught, and external reinforcement by people who see a child as a member of a certain class and treat them accordingly. In one brilliant study done in the late 1970s, four teams of researchers were sent to four different schools in the same district during the same two-week period. The schools were neighborhood-based, which is to say that they were divided by social class since housing (as we've seen) is divided by social class. The researchers focused on fifth-grade, and during the two weeks they were there, the entire district fifth-grade was doing a social studies unit on Ancient Greece. You would expect , given a common curriculum, that the experiences in these schools would have been similar. But no. In the poorest school, the curriculum for the most part was "Sit down. Put that away. Be quiet." In the working-class school, the curriculum was procedural: "In order to do your project, here are the steps you need to follow." In the professional-class school, the curriculum was creative -- making drama masks, putting on plays, making sugar-cube models of the Acropolis. And in the capital-class school, the curriculum was strategic: "What do you think the Athenians would have done if Sparta hadn't been such a military power?"
In each case, the children were being trained to replicate their parents, to take on the same roles and attitudes and kinds of work.
And social class endures strongly. In his 2004 book Limbo, journalist Alfred Lubrano describes what it means to be a working-class kid who grew up and took a professional-class job. His dad was a Brooklyn bricklayer, but sent his kids to college (and for the working class, college is not a place to become a sophisticated thinker -- which is seen as both threatening and frivolous -- but rather economic preparation that allows your kids to work indoors and not get hurt on the job). So Alfred graduates from Columbia University's journalism school, and lives at home for a few months after graduation. One day, he gets a call that he's got a job offer. When his dad comes home, Alfred says, "Dad! I got a job!"
Dad's thrilled. "That's great. What paper are you gonna be working for?"
Alfred says, "It's in Youngstown, Ohio."
"OHIO?!? Where the fuck is Ohio?"
"No, Dad, it's not that far away. I'll be able to come home for holidays."
"How much they payin' you?"
"It's really good for a starting salary -- $18,500." (this was in the mid-'70s)
Dad looks Alfred square in the face, and says, "I make more than that. There's only two things important in the world -- money and your family. And you ain't gettin' either one of 'em."
Limbo is about half drawn from Lubrano's personal experience, and half from over a hundred interviews he did with other working-class kids who entered professions. And they're not at home in either world. They don't understand the unwritten rules that all of their colleagues seem to have internalized, but they've changed enough that their families seem somehow unsophisticated and uneducated, maybe even a little embarassing.
I'm in that boat, one of the people whom Lubrano calls "straddlers." My dad dropped out of school in 10th grade and worked as a machinist his entire adult life. I was the first of my family to go to a four-year college, and I hung around long enough to get a Ph.D. and stay in the college/professional environment. When I visit with my brothers, whom I love, we have almost nothing to talk about. I dwell in the world of ideas, and they dwell in the world of labor and the objects that it allows them to buy. But when I spend too much time with my colleagues at work, I sometimes get tired of the strategizing and office politics, and don't understand why we don't just DO something.
This is the kind of tension that both Bickford and Duncan intend to convey through their use of a simple, small word.