- Tracie Guy-Decker
Several months ago, I wrote about the young adult title, Stamped, noting that “sometimes you’re just not the target consumer of a particular [resource].” The opposite is true of Richard V. Reeve’s 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.
In the very beginning of this text, after referring to the upper middle class in the first person plural, Reeves writes, “You may have noticed that I am often using the term ‘we’ to describe the upper middle class, rather than ‘they.’ … This is not one of those books about inequality that is about other people--either the super-rich or the struggling poor. This is a book about me and, likely, you, too.” (p 7)
This direct inclusion of himself and the reader (i.e. the kind of person likely to be reading a wonky book from the Brookings Institution about inequality) is agitational in the best kind of way. It is an easy temptation to assume the problems with society are inherently “out there,” that they are the result of other people’s bad action, not the impact of your own “normal” behavior. This trap is particularly sticky for those of us with a consciousness and desire for justice. We like to think that it the people who “aren’t in the room” who are the real problem. We set our sights on the “one percenters”--the super rich--as those most benefiting from the gross inequity of this society. But Reeves is quick to disabuse us: “Most of us think the upper class as the thin slice at the very top, but the tectonic plates are separating lower down. It is not just the top 1 percent pulling away, but the top 20 percent.” (p22)
Reeves goes on to systematically prove his point about the stratification of the American class system. Though we are a country who prides itself on the potential for social mobility, we are participating in policies and practices that reify the current class structure. We upper middle class folks work hard to stack the deck to ensure our children stay upper middle class, and because class mobility -- that is the up or downness one experiences in the hierarchy--is inherently a zero sum game (there are only 5 quintiles, so if someone moves up someone else must move down), our deck-stacking is fundamentally a stacking not just for our kids, but against others’ kids.
To be clear, Reeves isn’t taking issue with America’s fundamental meritocratic market. “America has a meritocratic market, but an unfair society. The labor market does a good job of rewarding the kind of ‘merit’ that adds economic value--skills, knowledge, intelligence. The unfairness lies not in the competition itself, but in the chances to prepare for it.” (77) Said a slightly different way, “the goal should not be to reduce market competition; it should be to create more competitors.” (79) In particular, Reeves singles out common (and, frankly, well-guarded) practices of the upper middle class that he dubs, borrowing from Charles Tilly, “opportunity hoarding.” “Opportunity hoarding takes place when valuable, scare opportunities, are allocated in an anti-competitive manner: that is, influenced by factors unrelated to an individual’s performance.” (102-103)
The specific practices Reeves unpacks are exclusionary zoning (i.e. the Not In My Backyard reactions upper middle class folks have to the creation of low-income or mixed-income housing), legacy admissions to top colleges, and nepotism in internships.
To be honest, these three practices lived in my imagination somewhere between elitist and relatively harmless. Reeves knows this, and disabuses me (after all, he is including me in his “we”) of that “relatively harmless” assessment. Exclusionary zoning ensures that those of us with more money are able to live in the best school districts.
Making sure I don’t underestimate the impact of this, Reeves notes, “Unsurprisingly, homes near good elementary schools are more expensive: about two and a half times as much as those near poorer-performing schools, according to an analysis by Jonathan Rothwell. But the gap is much wider in metropolitan areas with more restrictive zoning. ‘A change in permitted zoning from the most restrictive to the least would close 50% of the observed gap between the most unequal metropolitan areas and the least, in terms of neighborhood inequality,’ Rothwell finds. Loosening zoning regulations would reduce the housing cost gap and by extension narrow educational inequalities.” (106) And, in case that wasn’t enough, he goes on to point out how, within the system we’ve created whereby school quality follows housing values, the mortgage interest deduction is itself a form of opportunity hoarding. “We are using the tax system to help richer people buy bigger houses near the best schools.” (107).
Significantly, all three of the key policies Reeves is looking to eliminate (restrictive zoning, legacy college admissions, and helping our kids get coveted internships) are things upper middle class folks do to help our kids get and stay ahead. They are done not to keep other people’s children down, but to lift our children up. One of the things this book really has me thinking about is the fact that part of the urgency we feel around protecting and boosting our kids’ futures is just how far there is to fall if they fall out of the upper middle class.
Reeves makes the point through examining a quote from President Barack Obama’s second inaugural address: “We are true to our cree when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American.” (59) About this quote, Reeves points out “Note that the president implicitly accepted that children will be born into bleak poverty. The question is whether or not they get stuck there. …. I make the argument that has ruined a few dinner parties: we need more downward mobility from the top. To say that downward mobility is not popular is an understatement. We would likely be more relaxed if society were more equal, since the fall would not be so great. Likewise, if everyone was getting general better off, slipping a quintile or two might not seem like the end of the world.” (59 ff)
In the conclusion, Reeves writes of the upper middle class, “having convinced ourselves of our own merit, we have become--and there is no way to say this nicely--kind of selfish. Not in the way we conduct ourselves in the thick of everyday life with our neighbors or colleagues, but selfish in terms of the bigger picture: the way we treat tax breaks as an entitlement and the way we exclude others from opportunity to serve our own ends.” (156)
Ultimately, the challenge Reeves is making to the upper middle class is to understand and take accountability for our impact, and stop hiding behind our intention. That challenge is one I’m used to receiving and endeavor to live up to. At the same time, because our kids’ well-being is ultimately at issue, I understand why this intention/impact misalignment is so well defended. For me, I’m going to hold on to the insight about President Obama’s speech: I don’t want to just envision a world where a child can overcome poverty; I want to manifest a world where poverty is no more. Where the floor of the bottom quintile is in the same building as the ceiling of the top quintile.