American society is dominated by an elite 20% that ruthlessly protects its own interests By Richard Reeves
When I was growing up, my mother would sometimes threaten my brother and me with electrocution. Well, that’s not quite right. In fact, the threat was of lessons in elocution, but we – wittily, we thought – renamed them.
Growing up in a very ordinary town just 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 mother, 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 didn’t speak what is still called “the Queen’s 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 traces in my own accent were wiped away by three disinfectant years at Oxford University. (My wife claims the adolescent accent resurfaces when I drink, but she doesn’t know what she’s talking about – she’s American.) We also had to learn how to waltz. My mother didn’t want us to put a foot wrong there either.
In fact, we did just fine, in no small part 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: I’d read some of the research. It has nonetheless come as something of a shock to discover that, in some important 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 efforts by parents to secure an elite future status for their children: tutors, coaches and weekend lessons in everything from French to fencing. But I have never heard any of my peers try to change the way 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.
The way to secure a higher status in a market meritocracy is by acquiring lots of “merit” and ensuring that our kids do, too. “What one’s parents are like is entirely a matter of luck,” points out the philosopher Adam Swift. But he adds: “What one’s 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 top 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 nation’s 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 sees the United States, too. Historian Alexis de Tocqueville observed in the early 19th century that Americans were “seen to be more equal in fortune 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 politicians have often felt the need to urge 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 looked enviously at social relations in the New World. George Orwell noted the lack of “servile tradition” in America; the German socialist Werner Sombart noticed that “the bowing and scraping before the ‘upper classes’, which produces such an unpleasant impression in Europe, is completely 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 a member 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 politicians have always fallen over each other to be on their side.
But in recent decades Americans at the top of the ladder have been entrenching their class position. 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 angle: 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 for the purposes 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 doesn’t really matter, because all the trends are going the same way.
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 managers, 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 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 the problem. No one sensible is in favour of new policies that block parents from doing the best they can for their children. Even in France the suggestion floated by the former president, François Hollande, to “restore equality” by banning homework, on the grounds that parents differ in their ability and willingness to help out, was laughed out of court. But we should want to get rid of policies that allow parents to give their children an unfair advantage and in the process restrict the opportunities of others.
Most of us want to do our best for our children. “Wanting one’s children’s 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 claims. We would look kindly on a father 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 secures the slot for his son by bribing the coach. Why? After all, each father has sacrificed something, time in one case, money 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 drawn? The best philosophical treatment of this question I have found is the one by Swift and Brighouse. Their suggestion is that, while parents have every right to act in ways that will help their children’s lives go well, they do not have the right to confer 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 necessarily worsens that of another, at 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 rather is detrimental to, those other children’s prospects in the competition 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 stories 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 help him get better grades than his classmates, giving him a competitive advantage in college admissions. Swift and Brighouse suggest a parent 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 work. Relative position matters – it is one reason, after all, that relative mobility is of such concern 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. That’s what I call “opportunity hoarding”.
Opportunity hoarding does not result from the workings of a large machine but from the cumulative effect of individual choices and preferences. Taken in isolation, they may feel trivial: nudging your daughter into a better college with a legacy preference [giving 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 municipal council to retain low-density zoning restrictions. But, like many “micro-preferences”, to borrow a term from economist Thomas Schelling, they can have strong effects on overall culture and collective outcomes.
Over recent decades, institutions that once primarily served racist goals – legacy admissions to keep out Jewish students, zoning laws to keep out black families – 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 won’t insult your intelligence by pretending there are no costs here. By definition, reducing opportunity hoarding will mean some losses for the upper middle class.
But they will be small. Our neighbourhoods will be a little less upmarket – but also less boring. Our kids will rub shoulders with some poorer kids in the school corridor. They might not squeak into an Ivy League college, and they may have to be content going to an excellent public university. But if we aren’t 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 can’t 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)
HOW TO STAY AHEAD - OR PLAY FAIR
As parents, we naturally want our children to flourish. But that laudable desire 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 using our networks. Internships are becoming more important – but are too often stitched up privately. It’s worse if they’re 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 else’s kid to work, perhaps by partnering with local charities.
3. Be a Nimby. By shutting out low-income housing from our neighbourhoods with planning restrictions, we keep less affluent kids away from our local schools and communities. Instead: be a Yimby, vote and argue for more mixed housing in your area.
4. Write cheques to PTA funds. Many of us want to support the school our children attend. This tilts the playing field, however, since other schools can’t do the same. Instead: get your PTA to give half the
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