“[American] Dream Hoarders”

A Brookings Institution scholar examines the upper-middle class and how their choices separate themselves from the middle class:

A great, short book by Richard V. Reeves of the Brookings Institution helps to flesh out why these stories provoke such rage. In Dream Hoarders, released this week, Reeves agrees that the 20 percent are not the one percent: The higher you go up the income or wealth distribution, the bigger the gains made in the past three or four decades. Still, the top quintile of earners—those making more than roughly $112,000 a year—have been big beneficiaries of the country’s growth. To make matters worse, this group of Americans engages in a variety of practices that don’t just help their families, but harm the other 80 percent of Americans…

The book traces the way that the upper-middle class has pulled away from the middle class and the poor on five dimensions: income and wealth, educational attainment, family structure, geography, and health and longevity. The top 20 percent of earners might not have seen the kinds of income gains made by the top one percent and America’s billionaires. Still, their wage and investment increases have proven sizable. They dominate the country’s top colleges, sequester themselves in wealthy neighborhoods with excellent public schools and public services, and enjoy healthy bodies and long lives. “It would be an exaggeration to say that the upper-middle class is full of gluten-avoiding, normal-BMI joggers who are only marginally more likely to smoke a cigarette than to hit their children,” Reeves writes. “But it would be just that—an exaggeration, not a fiction.”

They then pass those advantages onto their children, with parents placing a “glass floor” under their kids. They ensure they 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.

The anxiety of being upper middle class: never quite wealthy enough to have all the goods and experiences of the highest group and always striving to stay above the normal/middle people.

Four quick thoughts:

  1. There is a certain lifestyle to be had here. See, my post a few days ago about a healthy lifestyle may have had some merit…
  2. As described here, many of the efforts appear aimed at avoiding downward mobility. In other words, there is some point in income, education, and lifestyle that cannot be crossed going the wrong way. But, there must be people who have this happen through events like losing a job or a major illness. What happens to them? For the “average” upper middle class person, what really are the odds that they would fall down a rung?
  3. There is a suggestion from the author that Americans shouldn’t and/or can’t just ask the 1% to sacrifice; the top 20% need to sacrifice as well. To put it mildly, this would not go over well. Given their anxieties as well as their tendencies to pull up the bridge after crossing the moat, efforts like affordable housing or school integration or significant increases in taxes will be met with opposition. They would use the rhetoric of the middle class – “we worked hard to get here – anyone could do it” – while pushing hard to protect their own status.
  4. Is the ultimate goal of this group to become truly wealthy? Most of them won’t have that opportunity and must know it. Or, is the goal is to simply not be middle class and have some more advantages than most people? Perhaps it really is about the children: is this the group that more than any other tries to give their kids every advantage as a supposed act of sacrifice?

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