A Brookings Institution scholar examines the upper-middle class and how their choices separate themselves from the middle class:
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.
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.
Four quick thoughts:
- 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…
- 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?
- 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.
- 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?
Recent data shows who in America is smoking and who is not:
Among the nation’s less-educated people — those with a high-school-equivalency diploma — the smoking rate remains more than 40 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Today, rural residents are diagnosed with lung cancer at rates 18 to 20 percent above those of city dwellers. By nearly every statistical measure, researchers say, America’s lower class now smokes more and dies more from cigarettes than other Americans.
This widening gap between classes carries huge health implications and is already reshaping the country’s battle over tobacco control. Cigarette companies are focusing their marketing on lower socioeconomic communities to retain their customer base, researchers say. Nonprofit and advocacy groups are retooling their programs for the complex and more difficult work of reaching and treating marginalized groups…
When smoking first gained popularity in the early 20th century, it was a habit of the rich, a token of luxury dusted with Hollywood glamour. Then came the 1964 surgeon general’s report on its deadly effects, and during the next 3½ decades, smoking among the nation’s highest-income families plummeted by 62 percent. But among families of the lowest income, it decreased by just 9 percent.
It is remarkable how little one encounters smoking in wealthier communities compared to less well off places. Would smoking be one of the single best lifestyle indicators of someone who has less education? Imagine a game where you had to guess someone’s education/social class based on observing their normal behavior in public.
Thinking more broadly, perhaps the newest major marker of having more education and a higher social class is good health and the lifestyle associated with it, everything from gym membership to regular jogging to eating patterns to having intense outdoor sports/hobbies. It is not just smoking; these class differences go across a variety of conditions and behaviors.
Truly cheap yet good housing is hard to find. Here is a group who thinks they found an answer though the construction may be the least of their issues:
For over a decade, architecture students at Rural Studio, Auburn University’s design-build program in a tiny town in West Alabama, have worked on a nearly impossible problem. How do you design a home that someone living below the poverty line can afford, but that anyone would want–while also providing a living wage for the local construction team that builds it?
In January, after years of building prototypes, the team finished their first pilot project in the real world. Partnering with a commercial developer outside Atlanta, in a tiny community called Serenbe, they built two one-bedroom houses, with materials that cost just $14,000 each.
The goal: To figure out how to bring the ultra-low-cost homes, called the 20K Home, to the broader market. “We’re in a kind of experimental stage of the program, where we’re really trying to find out the best practice of getting this house out into the public’s hands,” says Rusty Smith, associate director of Rural Studio. “Really this first field test was to find out all the things that we didn’t know, and to find out all of the kind of wrong assumptions that we had made, and really find out how we had screwed up, honestly.”…
In Serenbe, their first problem was a zoning issue: The houses were too small. (It’s a common problem for anyone trying to build a tiny home.) But they also realized there were numerous other issues, from dealing with insurance, to the bank. In the pilot project, the homes will be owned by the community and shared with artists as part of a residency program. But in a typical case, when someone is buying the house on a limited income and can’t afford the $20,000, banks won’t finance a mortgage for such a small amount of money.
It is worthwhile to consider that the actual construction is not the issue. Rather, how many communities and institutions really want to have cheap housing nearby? This is a common problem with creating cheaper housing: it is often within communities that are already cheaper, leading to issues like a lack of property value appreciation, a concentration of lower income residents, limited local tax revenues, and a stigma for the community.
The real trick with cheaper housing, then, is to be able to intersperse it among more expensive housing. We know this is especially helpful for young kids. (Thinking of the larger picture, this is why school integration wouldn’t go far enough – you don’t just want to bus students to go to school together but you want a range of incomes and groups to live near each other.) Again, who is really open to this?
I recently read anthropologist Rachel Heiman’s Driving After Class: Anxious Times in an American Suburb. Here are some thoughts about the study:
- I was drawn to this because even though a majority of Americans live in suburbs, there is a lack of in-depth studies of their experiences and social lives. I realize it is not a sexy topic – everyone thinks they know everything about suburbs – but there are plenty of interesting topics to pursue.
- The book is a little unusual in that it seems to be published a good amount of time after the research was done. Heiman undertook the research for her dissertation but the book was not published until 2015. This is not necessarily bad as time can give a researcher an opportunity to truly think about what they have found. At the same time, Heiman interprets some of her findings in light of the housing bubble and economic crisis of the late 2000s even though her research was from an earlier period.
- The best part of the analysis in my opinion was the chapter on a battle in the local school district. The New Jersey residents were part of a district that included a number of communities and when the district had to decide how to spread resources and which schools students should attend, the communities fought each other. In particular, the wealthier parts of the district generally did not want their children to have to attend the other schools which either had populations of lower-class or minority residents. Another chapter looked at how a community negotiated a request from a homeowner to place a gate across his driveway, a move interpreted by his neighbors and local leaders as an exclusionary effort. At other points, Heiman noted how residents reacted when she mentioned that she was living in a more affordable but less well regarded nearby suburb. More broadly, the analysis was better when it pointed out inter-suburban differences and how suburbanites negotiated their various statuses.
- The overall argument was that these suburbanites are trapped in a destabilizing neoliberal system. While this argument makes sense, I’m not sure it is too much different than critiques of suburbia dating back to the mid-1950s. Some of the same themes are present: conformity, squabbles over local class differences rather than looking at the larger social and economic system, anxiety, an emphasis on children, etc. While there are not enough studies of suburbs, we also need new approaches and arguments. And, there is still a basic question for studies of suburbs to consider: if life is so problematic in suburbs, why do many Americans still seek them out? If they are not dupes and have agency, what are viable alternatives to sprawling suburbs that offer what many Americans say they want?
- One topic I would have enjoyed reading more about: experiences inside housing. There is a chapter that takes an unconventional approach to this topic through examining the portions of homes with new carpet that is intended to impress visitors (and that children must not walk on with shoes).
In the end, I’m not sure this text would make my short list of excellent ethnographies of suburban life. At the same time, it has some strong moments and I could imagine using the chapter on school districts in courses.
Here is an overview of the Fair Housing Act which was passed in 1968. An excerpt from my favorite section of the guide:
Did it work?
While the Fair Housing Act made housing discrimination illegal in practice, in reality, significant degrees of segregation still exist across much of the country. According to a 2012 study by the American Constitution Society, “fair housing in the United States remains a pressing civil rights issue.”
Despite the passage of the law, a generation of politicians from both parties have failed to fully enforce the law, as documented in a lengthy ProPublica series. There are also significant social and economic costs to continued segregation: A recent study showed that Chicago segregation costs residents $4.4 billion every year in potential earnings.
The Obama administration made a handful of moves in its final years to address this historic inequality. The Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Rule, introduced in 2015, asks cities to do more to protect the non-discrimination policies enshrined in the Fair Housing Act.
In other words, the move to make illegal housing discrimination has not exactly led to the end of residential segregation. The guide suggests earlier that “the act is meant to create a unitary housing market, where only your financial resources, not your background, can prevent you from renting or purchasing a home.” However, because financial resources are so closely tied to other dimensions of social groups – including race and gender – we wouldn’t exactly have a level playing field even if there was no discrimination at all present.
On one hand, we might think that this 1968 legislation was a big step forward. It is one thing to acknowledge equal rights for a certain group but another to allow the possibility that they might live next door. On the other hand, I’m not sure there has been much advancement beyond this act and there is very little current discussion about seeing housing as a right or even seriously addressing a lack of affordable housing.
An interesting article about intentional communities includes this insight into why they might not be available to everyone:
To truly get away from big government, big society, and capitalism, it really helps to be pretty well off. This is one of the disadvantages of being powerless: you are at the mercy of others rather than having options.
And perhaps these communities are not as immune from worldly flaws as they might like. For example: Many of them struggle to be accessible to people other than middle-class white folks. Sky Blue, a Twin Oaks resident who also serves as the executive director of the Fellowship for Intentional Community, said there are “a lot of racial [problems] and racism that are embedded in intentional communities.” Even despite good intentions, “Liberal white people who have a desire for diversity don’t necessarily understand what it means to be inclusive,” he said. “They’re going to create culture in [their] intentional community that is going to be comfortable for them, which isn’t necessarily comfortable for people of color, or people with disabilities, or people who are gay or trans.” Ethan Tupelo, a doctoral candidate at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who lived at Twin Oaks before he began studying intentional communities academically, said residents talked about this issue a lot when he was there. “It’s a bunch of white people sitting around wondering where all the people of color are,” he said. “It’s nice that you’re thinking about that, but it’s also frustrating.”
Tupelo sees a structural explanation for the inaccessibility of intentional communities: It takes a lot of cash to get off the grid. “Even when starting a new community, you need the capital to do it in the first place if you want it to be a legally recognized thing, as opposed to squats,” he said. As Nicolas and Rachel Sarah’s experience at the Downstream Project shows, becoming untangled from capitalism also means becoming much more vulnerable. It’s tough to imagine a comprehensive way of replacing health insurance, not to mention programs like welfare, in a world without government.
This reminds me of some of the attention I see given to tiny houses: it seems like many of those interested are not working-class people struggling to get by who need affordable housing but rather educated white people who want to minimize some distractions in life and focus on what they really want to do (pay attention to family, travel, etc.). Or, those interested in minimalism: they appear to be middle and upper-class people who are seeking a new way of living because of unhappiness with the “typical” American/Western consumeristic lifestyle.
How about a foundation starts giving away money and resources to those who don’t have their own means to form intentional communities?
One blogger connects the case of Brock Turner to the suburban house to which he returned:
I googled the address. I don’t know why I did that– morbid curiosity always gets the better of me. I clicked the satellite image and squinted at the blurry photo of a roof. It’s just an ordinary upper-class McMansion, one of many, on a spastic squiggle of a street in the middle of a wealthy suburban development. The kind of place where people can have every luxury they want, unless what they want isn’t kitsch. True luxury that isn’t kitsch is reserved for the richer still, the astonishingly wealthy whose sons would not go to trial at all for rape– not for the Suburban-McMansion Rich whose sons serve three months if the press is bad enough.
A suburban McMansion fits the story a number of people have told regarding Turner’s actions and subsequent treatment by the criminal justice system. McMansion owners are typically white suburban people with money – not really rich, as this post suggests, but rich enough to expect others to be impressed with their standing (and home). In this narrative, the McMansion signals their posture to the world: we aren’t bad people and should be treated with respect.
It is tempting to link a house to a narrative in this way. On the other hand, what if Turner had returned to a more modest 1950s suburban ranch? Would we then see a connection to white conformity? Or, how about a early 20th century suburban bungalow that hints at the fastidious nature of whites who want to preserve some golden era? Or, would a pricey downtown condo conjure up images of high-flying urban nightlife? Since Turner is an unlikable figure to many, I suspect detractors could find all sorts of evidence from the consumer goods in his life – clothes, appearance, vehicle, shopping patterns, and home – to illustrate their dislike. Some of these objects may indeed be connected to white, middle/upper-middle class suburbanites.
This is the not the first time McMansions have been linked to immorality and crime. See, for example, the suggestions in Gone Girl. And such narratives have a much longer history in novels, films, and TV shows that in the postwar era loved to peel back the facade of suburban life to find its truly seemly underbelly. Whether such links and depictions are connected to demonstrable patterns of morality and criminality is another story…