How the middle class hoards wealth and opportunity for itself

American society is dominated by an upper-class 20% that ruthlessly protects its own interests

When I was growing up, my mother would sometimes threaten my brother and me with electrocution. Well, thats not quite right. In fact, security threats was of lessons in elocution, but we wittily, we guessed renamed them.

Growing up in a very ordinary township simply north of London and attending a very ordinary high school, one of our several linguistic atrocities was failing to pronounce the t in certain words. My mom, who was raised in rural north Wales and left school at 16, did not want us to find doors closed in a class-sensitive society simply because we didnt speak what is still called the Queens English. I will never forget the look on her face when I managed to say the word computer with neither a p nor a t.

Still, the lessons never materialised. Any lingering working-class tracings in my own accent were wiped away by three disinfectant years at Oxford University.( My spouse claims the adolescent accent resurfaces when I drink, but she doesnt know what shes talking about shes American .) We also had to learn how to waltz. My mom didnt want us to put a foot incorrect there either.

In fact, we did just fine, in no small component because of the stable, loving home in which we were raised. But 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: Id read some of the research. It has nonetheless gone as something of a shock to discover that, in some significant respects, the American class system is functioning more ruthlessly than the British one I escaped.

In the upper-middle-class America I now inhabit, I witness extraordinary endeavors by parents to secure an elite future status for their children: tutors, coach-and-fours and weekend lessons in everything from French to fencing. But I have never heard any of my peers try to change the style their children speak. Perhaps this is simply because they know they are surrounded by other upper-middle-class kids, so there is nothing to worry about. Perhaps it is a regional thing.

But I think there is a better explain. Americans tend to think their children will be judged by their accomplishments rather than their accents. Class position is earned, rather than simply expressed. The route to secure a higher status in a market meritocracy is by acquiring lots of merit and ensuring that our kids do, too. What ones mothers are like is wholly a matter of luck, points out the philosopher Adam Swift. But he adds: What ones children are like is not. Children raised in upper-middle-class families do well in life. As a result, there is a lot of intergenerational stickiness at the opening of the American income distribution more, in fact, than at the bottom with upper-middle-class status passed from one generation to the next.

Drawing class distinctions feels almost un-American. The nations self-image is of a classless society, one in which every individual is of equal moral worth, regardless of his or her economic status. This has been how the world insures the United States, too. Historian Alexis de Tocqueville observed in the early 19 th century that Americans were find to be more equal in luck and intelligence more equally strong, in other words than they were in any other country, or were at any other time in recorded history. So different to the countries of old Europe, still weighed down by the legacies of feudalism.

British legislators have often felt the need to advise the creation of a classless society, looking to America for inspiration as, what historian David Cannadine once called it, the pioneering and prototypical classless society. European progressives have long seemed enviously at social relations in the New world. George Orwell noted the lack of servile tradition in America; the German socialist Werner Sombart “ve noticed that” the bowing and rubbing before the upper class, which produces such an unpleasant impression in Europe, is wholly unknown.

This is one of many reasons socialist politics struggled to take root in the United States. A key attraction of socialist systems the main one, according to Orwell is the eradication of class distinctions. There were few to eradicate in America. I am sure that one reason Downton Abbey and The Crown so delight American audiences is their depictions of an alien world of class-based status. One reason class distinctions are less obvious in America is that pretty much everyone defines themselves as the states members of the same class: the one in the middle. Nine in ten adults select the label middle class, exactly the same proportion as in 1939, according to the pollsters Gallup. No wonder that legislators have always fallen over one another to be on their side.

But in recent decades Americans at the top of the ladder have been entrenching their class stance. The convenient fiction that the middle class can stretch up that far has become a difficult one to sustain. As a result, the modifications upper or lower to the general middle class category have become more important.

Class is not just about money, though it is about that. The class gap can be seen from every slant: education, security, family, health, you name it. There will also be inequalities on each of these dimensions, of course. But inequality becomes class division when all these varied elements money, education, wealth, occupation cluster together so tightly that, in practice, almost any one of them will suffice from the operation of class definition. Class division becomes class stratification when these advantages and thus status endure across generations. In fact, upper-middle-class status is passed down to the next generation more effectively than in the past, and in the United States more than in other countries.

One benefit of the multidimensional nature of this separation is that it has reduced interdisciplinary bickering over how to define class. While economists typically focus on categorisation by income and wealth, and sociologists tend more towards occupational status and education, and anthropologists are typically more interested in culture and norms, right now it doesnt truly matter, because all the trends are running the same way.

It is not just the top 1% pulling away, but the top 20%. In fact, only a small proportion of US adults 1% to 2% define themselves as upper class. A significant minority about one in seven adopts the upper middle class description. This is quite similar to the estimates of class size generated by most sociologists, who tend to define the upper middle class as one composed of professionals and administrators, or around 15% to 20% of the working-age population.

As David Azerrad of the Heritage Foundation writes: There is little appetite in America for public policies that significantly restrict the ability of parents to do all they can, within the bounds of the law, to give their children every advantage in life. That is certainly true. But then Azerrad has also mis-stated their own problems. No one sensible is in favour of new public policies that block mothers from doing the best they can for their children. Even in France the suggestion floated by the former chairperson, Franois Hollande, to restore equality by banning homework, on the grounds that parents is different than their ability and willingness to help out, was laughed out of tribunal. But we should want to get rid of policies that allow mothers to give their children an unjust advantage and in the process curtail the opportunities of others.

Most of us want to do our best for most children. Wanting ones childrens life to go well is part of what it means to love them, write philosophers Harry Brighouse and Adam Swift in their 2014 book Family Values: The Ethics of Parent-Child Relationships . But our natural preference for the welfare and prospects of our own children does not automatically eclipse other moral asserts. We would look kindly on a parent who helps his son get picked as starting pitcher for his school baseball team by practising with him every day after work. But we would probably feel differently about a father who procures the slot for his son by bribing the coach-and-four. Why? After all, each parent has sacrificed something, time in one case, fund in the other, to advance his child. The difference is team selection should be based on merit , not money. A principle of fairness is at stake.

So, where is the line describe? The best philosophical treatment of this question I have found is the one by Swift and Brighouse. Their suggestion is that, while mothers have every right to act in ways that will help their childrens lives go well, they do not have the right to bestow on them a competitive advantage in other words, to ensure not just that they do well but that they do better than others. This is because, in a society with finite rewards, improving the situation of one child inevitably worsens that of another, at the least in relative terms: Whatever parents do to confer competitive advantage is not neutral in its effects on other children it does not leave untouched, but instead is detrimental to, those other childrens prospects in the rivalry for jobs and associated rewards.

The trouble is that in the real world this seems like a distinction without a difference. What they call competitive advantage-conferring parental activities will almost always be also helping-your-kid-flourish parental activities. If I read bedtime narratives to my son, he will develop a richer vocabulary and may learn to love reading and have a more interesting and fulfilling life. But it could also assistance him get better grades than his classmates, dedicating him a competitive advantage in college admissions. Swift and Brighouse suggest a mother should not even aim to give their child a competitive advantage: It would be a little odd, perhaps even a little creepy, if the ultimate aim of her endeavours were that her child is better off than others.

I think this is too harsh. In a society with a largely open, competitive labour market, it is not creepy to want your children to end up higher on the earnings ladder than others. Not only will this bring them a higher income, and all the accompanying choices and security, it is also likely to bring them safer and more interesting run. Relative position matters it is one reason, after all, that relative mobility is of such fear to policymakers. Although I think Brighouse and Swift go too far, they are on to something important with their distinction between the kind of parental behaviour that merely helps your own children and the kind that is detrimental to others. Thats what I call possibility hoarding.

Opportunity hoarding does not is a consequence of the workings of a large machine but from the cumulative effect of individual choices and predilections. Taken in isolation, they may feeling trivial: nudging your daughter into a better college with a legacy preference[ devoting applicants places on the basis of being related to alumni of the college ]; helping the son of a professional contact to an internship; a single vote on a two municipal councils to retain low-density zoning limiteds. But, like many micro-preferences, to borrow a term from economist Thomas Schelling, they can have strong consequences on overall culture and collective outcomes.

Over recent decades, institutions that once primarily served racist objectives legacy admissions to keep out Jewish students, zoning statutes to keep out black households have not been abandoned but have been softened , normalised and subtly re-purposed to help us sustain the upper-middle-class status. They remain, then, barriers to a more open, more genuinely competitive and fairer society. I wont insult your intelligence by pretending there are no costs here. By definition, reducing possibility hoarding will mean some loss for the upper middle class.

But they will be small. Our neighborhoods will be a little less upmarket but also less boring. Our children will rub shoulders with some poorer kids in the school passageway. They might not creak into an Ivy League college, and they may have to be content going to an excellent public university. But if we arent willing to entertain even these sacrifices, there is little hope. There will be some material costs, too. The big challenge is to equalise opportunities to acquire human capital and therefore increase the number of true competitors in the labour market. This will require, among other things, some increased public investment. Where will the money come from? It cant all come from the super-rich. Much of it will have to come from the upper middle class. From me and you.

This is an extract from 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 by Richard V Reeves( Brookings Institution Press, 2017)


As mothers, we naturally want our children to flourish. But that laudable passion slides into opportunity hoarding when we use our money, power or position to give our own children exclusive access to certain goods or chances. The effect is to strengthen class barriers.

1. Fix an internship use our networks. Internships are becoming more important but are too often stitched up privately. Its worse if theyre unpaid. Instead: insist on paid internships, openly recruited.

2. Take our own kids to work for the day. Children learn what work is from adults. Instead: try bringing somebody elses kid to run, perhaps by partnering with local charities.

3. Be a Nimby . By shutting out low-income housing from our neighbourhoods with planning regulations, we maintain less affluent kids away from our local schools and communities. Instead: be a Yimby, referendum and argue for more mixed housing in your area.

4. Write cheques to PTA monies . Many of us want to support the school our children attend. This tilts the playing field, however, since other schools cant do the same. Instead: get your PTA to give half the donations to local schools in a poor area.

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