WHICH of America’s social fault lines is most dangerous? Race remains as wide a rift as ever. Supporters of Bernie Sanders seethe at the richest 1%. Donald Trump won office exploiting the cultural chasm between an urban, cosmopolitan America and the rest. But if America’s woes are rooted in the inaccessibility of the American dream, the increasingly impenetrable barrier around those who manage to achieve it is the place to probe. (The Economist)
I haven’t read Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem, and What to Do About It yet, but I’ve been listening to and reading about Richard V. Reeves and his book a lot recently. I was particularly struck by how he describes his motivation in writing the book to his countrymen at the British newspaper The Guardian:
I have always been acutely sensitive to class distinctions and their role in perpetuating inequality. In fact, one of the reasons I came to the United States was to escape the cramped feeling of living in a nation still so dominated by class. I knew enough not to think I was moving to a socially mobile utopia: I’d read some of the research. It has nonetheless come as something of a shock to discover that, in some important respects, the American class system is functioning more ruthlessly than the British one I escaped.
(If you’re not going to read the book, I highly recommend Reeves’ encapsulation of it in The Guardian.)
The Atlantic succinctly lays out Reeves’ argument that America is not the meritocracy we say it is, because parents in the top 20% of wage earners
ensure [that their kids] grow up in nice zip codes, provide social connections that make a difference when entering the labor force, help with internships, aid with tuition and home-buying, and schmooze with college admissions officers. All the while, they support policies and practices that protect their economic position and prevent poorer kids from climbing the income ladder: legacy admissions, the preferential tax treatment of investment income, 529 college savings plans, exclusionary zoning, occupational licensing, and restrictions on the immigration of white-collar professionals.
As a result, America is becoming a class-based society, more like fin-de-siècle England than most would care to admit, Reeves argues. Higher income kids stay up at the sticky top of the income distribution. Lower income kids stay down at the bottom. The one percent have well and truly trounced the 99 percent, but the 20 percent have done their part to immiserate the 80 percent, as well—an arguably more relevant but less recognized class distinction.
Reeves sees this as a kind of hoarding, as his publisher describes:
Various forms of “opportunity hoarding” among the upper middle class make it harder for others to rise up to the top rung. Examples include zoning laws and schooling, occupational licensing, college application procedures, and the allocation of internships. Upper middle class opportunity hoarding, Reeves argues, results in a less competitive economy as well as a less open society.
The more I’ve read about the history (and present) of red-lining and “ghetto-ization,” and the Community Reinvestment Act‘s attempts to counterbalance that inequity; inequitable application of the GI Bill in housing and education; mass incarceration and the school-to-prison pipeline; the Black and Latino wealth gap….
The more I have read, the more I have thought about exactly this. I don’t just have White Privilege. I occupy a rarefied place in a culture and system of White Supremacy, and continuing white ascendancy.
I didn’t choose it, I didn’t consciously perpetuate it, I have even made a conscious effort to make some tiny degree of reparation for it, but I benefit from it. Even though I make less than half the minimum salary to be counted in the 20%, nevertheless advantages have been incurred. The generational advantages of my family’s whiteness is one key to how I became one of the only 38% of Americans who have at least $1,000 in savings.
Reeves is not coy about drawing this comparison, either. In an interview on NPR, he said in part,
Many of the mechanisms actually have racist roots. So the zoning laws quite often … had racist origins. Legacy preferences are one way college admissions are rigged. Legacy preferences are genuinely extraordinary in the sense that no other country in the world does that.
They’re actually an attempt by elite colleges to keep Jewish students out, and so what you see is these sort of mechanisms that were evolved for different reasons. Now they interweave with each other to create a deeply unequal society.
I don’t know what we do about this on the individual level. I tried my hand at the New York City Public Schools but didn’t last. I paid university fees for a friend’s daughter for awhile, got her a second-hand laptop, but in the end she had to drop out anyway. I give to the legal defense funds of Lambda Legal, the NAACP, Southern Poverty Law Center, and CAIR. I’ve been grant writing for Neighborhood Trust, which helps the poorest NYC people, mostly people of color, reduce or eliminate debt and save for an emergency.
I know that systemic change is needed. I’ve loudly supported Medicare for All, free community college, broader public service forgiveness, the Fight for $15, and more money for public schools. I would go for increases to TANF, CHIP, SNAP, EITC and Americorps stipends, even if it meant paying more taxes for me. I’m intrigued by the Universal Basic Income movement. I’ve argued against eliminating tax-free status for churches, knowing how many churches spend as much money supporting the less fortunate as they would pay in taxes, which barely scratches the surface of what’s needed. All of these are big changes that seem beyond my capacity to have much effect.
I don’t know what to do, but I know that what Reeves says is absolutely true. (UPDATE: Reeves has 5 suggestions for what we can do in an article for Brookings.)
I’ll just leave you with this conversation with Reeves at the Aspen Institute.