Who’s hoard­ing the Amer­i­can Dream?

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - NATION & WORLD - Robert Sa­muel­son may be con­tacted through his syn­di­cate at writ­ers.group@wash­post.com. © 2017, Washington Post Writ­ers Group

WASHINGTON o hear Richard Reeves tell it, the up­per mid­dle class is fast be­com­ing the bane of Amer­i­can so­ci­ety. Its mem­bers have en­trenched them­selves just be­low the top 1 per­cent and pro­tect their priv­i­leged po­si­tion through pub­lic pol­icy and pri­vate be­hav­ior. Amer­i­cans cher­ish the be­lief that they live in a mobile so­ci­ety, where hard work and imag­i­na­tion are re­warded. The up­per mid­dle class is de­stroy­ing this faith, be­cause it’s im­ped­ing poorer Amer­i­cans from get­ting ahead.

That con­clu­sion is dead wrong, but it con­tains just enough truth to seem plau­si­ble. We need to sep­a­rate fact from fic­tion.

Reeves, a scholar at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion, makes his case in a new book ti­tled “Dream Hoard­ers,” as in the Amer­i­can Dream. The hoard­ing refers to all the eco­nomic op­por­tu­ni­ties that the up­per mid­dle class is al­legedly ma­nip­u­lat­ing for it­self. Zon­ing re­stric­tions seg­re­gate the up­per mid­dle class into eco­nom­i­cally

TThe hoard­ing refers to all the eco­nomic op­por­tu­ni­ties that the up­per mid­dle class is al­legedly ma­nip­u­lat­ing for it­self . ... The trou­ble is that the facts don’t fit the the­ory. ho­mo­ge­neous neigh­bor­hoods, with the best schools. This pro­vides an ad­van­tage in get­ting into se­lec­tive col­leges, lead­ing to bet­ter in­tern­ships and jobs.

All this is self-per­pet­u­at­ing, Reeves says. Class struc­ture is be­com­ing frozen. Down­ward mo­bil­ity from the top is lim­ited. Up­per-mid­dle-class par­ents are ob­sessed with sup­port­ing their chil­dren, from help­ing with home­work to teach­ing bike-rid­ing. The story seems so com­pelling that it could be­come con­ven­tional wis­dom. Par­ents are destiny. Just re­cently, David Brooks, the in­flu­en­tial New York Times colum­nist, bought into most of Reeves’ the­ory.

“Up­per-mid­dle-class par­ents have the means to spend two to three times more time with their preschool chil­dren than less af­flu­ent par­ents,” he wrote. He also ex­co­ri­ated “the struc­tural ways the well-ed­u­cated rig the sys­tem” — mainly re­stric­tive zon­ing and eas­ier col­lege ad­mis­sions, in­clud­ing le­gacy pref­er­ences.

The trou­ble is that the facts don’t fit the the­ory. Reeves de­fines the up­per mid­dle class as house­holds with pre­tax in­come from $117,000 to $355,000, rep­re­sent­ing the rich­est 20 per­cent of Amer­i­cans ex­clud­ing the top 1 per­cent (whose sta­tus he con­sid­ers a sep­a­rate prob­lem). It’s doubt­ful whether fam­i­lies at the bot­tom end of this range feel rich. For ex­am­ple, a house­hold with two teach­ers earn­ing av­er­age salaries ($56,000 in 2013) would nearly make the cut­off. (Dis­clo­sure: Reeves ac­knowl­edges be­long­ing to the up­per mid­dle class, as do I.)

By Reeves’ arith­metic, his up­per mid­dle class — again, a fifth of the pop­u­la­tion mi­nus the top 1 per­cent — ac­counted for 39 per­cent of in­come gains from 1979 to 2013, only slightly lower than the 43 per­cent share of the bot­tom 80 per­cent. (The top 1 per­cent’s share was 18 per­cent.) This grow­ing in­come gap is wor­ri­some, be­cause it im­plies dra­mat­i­cally dif­fer­ent life ex­pe­ri­ences among Amer­i­cans. The dif­fer­ences “can be seen in ed­u­ca­tion, fam­ily struc­ture, health and longevity,” writes Reeves.

But these un­de­sir­able trends aren’t caused by a rigid up­per-mid­dle-class oli­garchy that’s hoard­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties for it­self. Con­trary to Reeves’ ar­gu­ment — but in­cluded in his book — is one study finding that among chil­dren born into the rich­est fifth, only 37 per­cent re­mained there as adults. Roughly twothirds dropped out of the up­per mid­dle class. How much more down­ward mo­bil­ity does Reeves want? He doesn’t say.

Sim­i­larly, some ad­van­tages claimed for the up­per mid­dle class are weaker than ad­ver­tised. Ac­cess to the best schools? Sure, but that doesn’t cover all up­per-mid­dle-class stu­dents. Reeves reports that nearly two-fifths of the rich­est 20 per­cent of fam­i­lies live near schools ranked in the top fifth of their states by test scores. But that means that about three-fifths of these wealth­ier fam­i­lies don’t live near such schools. It’s also true, as Reeves notes, that the cau­sa­tion works in the other di­rec­tion: Good stu­dents make good schools.

Though eco­nomic op­por­tu­ni­ties abound, the ca­pac­ity to take ad­van­tage of them does not. That’s our real prob­lem, not hoard­ing. Reeves reports that fewer than half the stu­dents at com­mu­nity col­leges “make it through their first year.” Sim­i­larly, only six out of 10 chil­dren raised in top in­come fam­i­lies have bach­e­lor’s de­grees. If par­ents are so ob­sessed with — and con­trol­ling of — their chil­dren’s fates, why isn’t the share nine out of 10 or higher?

The irony is that Reeves has the story al­most back­ward. As a so­ci­ety, we shouldn’t try to re­strict the up­per mid­dle class, but to ex­pand it. In gen­eral, it’s do­ing what we ought to want the rest of so­ci­ety to do. Its mar­riage rates are higher, its out-of-wed­lock births are lower, its ed­u­ca­tion lev­els are higher.

As for par­ents, why make them feel guilty for want­ing to help their chil­dren? What are par­ents for, af­ter all? To be sure, there are (and will be) ex­cesses and ex­am­ples of un­de­served priv­i­lege — brats. Life is messy. But let’s not blame the strug­gle of the lower mid­dle class and poor on the suc­cess of the up­per mid­dle class. The two are only loosely con­nected, if at all.

THINKSTOCK

Sa­muel­son

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