Magazine | August 28, 2017, Issue

The Great Ladder

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, 240 pp., $24)

For years now, the Left has insisted that the top 1 percent have rigged the system. Richard V. Reeves, of the center-left Brookings Institution, insists that the conspiracy goes much deeper: The entire top fifth is in on it. Scared to death of “downward mobility,” these well-to-do but hard-working Americans—the “upper middle class,” likely including you, my dear reader—strive more than anything to ensure the success of their children, even if that means planting their boots on the faces of kids born farther down the income ladder.

He has a point, one that conservatives should heed even if they can’t sign on to all of his proposed solutions.

The children of upper-middle-class parents are highly likely to join the upper middle class themselves as adults: About 40 percent of those born into the top fifth wind up right back there. Broadly speaking, this happens for reasons that fall into four categories: the inevitable, the laudable, the unfair, and the deplorable.

As for the inevitable, the labor market is bound to reward people who have certain traits—intelligence, conscientiousness, and so on. As Reeves admits, such traits are partly genetic. Therefore, parents with these qualities will disproportionately have kids who share them, and thus even a perfectly meritocratic society will favor the well-to-do.

In practice, though, any genetic advantage that upper-middle-class kids have is compounded by environmental ones—and these often fall into the “laudable” category. For example, there’s a striking class-based “parenting gap” in this country, with wealthier parents spending a lot more time talking with their kids, reading to them, and generally encouraging their intellectual development. Reeves tells of a couple he knows who referred to their parenting efforts as “Project Melissa” (though a footnote reveals he changed the name).

Certainly, we can’t blame any parents, rich or poor, for making a special effort to make sure their kids learn the skills they need to succeed. These efforts can, however, cost a lot of money, such as when it comes to special summer programs and private schools. One doesn’t need to be a Bernie Sanders voter to admit that this is unfair.

And beyond that is where things start to bleed over into the “deplorable” category. As William Voegeli discussed in a recent National Review cover story (“Class Dismissed,” June 26) and as Reeves explains here, upper-middle-class parents often deliberately keep poor kids out of good public-school districts, either by drawing the boundaries in a way that excludes them or through zoning rules that forbid the construction of lower-cost housing.

And even when these efforts fail and upper-middle-class kids end up with lower skill levels than their poorer competitors, wealthy parents still have tools at their disposal that keep their dim progeny from slipping down the ladder—at the direct expense of better-qualified but poorer kids. These kids can apply to the same schools their parents attended and get a “legacy” boost. They can take unpaid internships in expensive cities and count on Mommy and Daddy to pay the rent. They can tap into their parents’ professional and alumni networks when looking for a job.

Reeves knows a lot of people who’ve done things like this; the extent of the problem will come as a surprise to those of us who got our degrees and jobs by, well, just applying for them. One of his Brookings colleagues played the “legacy card” to get her third child into an Ivy League school. An executive at a charitable foundation planned to get his daughter an internship at an organization the foundation funds; he joked that Reeves should hold off publishing the book until afterward. Prominent politicians, even progressive ones, are downright shameless about such behavior: Both Michael Bloomberg and Bill de Blasio had children who interned for the New York City government. (They couldn’t at least call the mayor of a different city, for crying out loud?)

He doesn’t reproduce it in Dream Hoarders, unfortunately, but in 2013 Reeves and his colleague Kimberly Howard created a stunning graph illustrating the consequences of these behaviors. If a kid comes from the bottom 20 percent of parental income but has test scores in the top third, he has a 24 percent chance of earning an income in the top fifth—not too much better than the 20 percent chance he’d have if the slots were handed out at random, despite his high scores. Meanwhile, a kid with test scores in that same range, but whose parents were in the top fifth instead of the bottom fifth on income, has a 45 percent chance of ending up at the top himself.

How to fix this? Reeves envisions “a meritocracy for grown-ups, but not for children” and proposes a wide range of ideas to get us there.

Some of these ideas are ones that conservatives should get behind. For example, we on the right have spent decades decrying affirmative action, and we should see “legacy” admissions no differently, especially at public colleges. Reeves cites one study showing that legacy status is worth the same as 160 SAT points (on the old 1,600-point scale) at elite colleges. That same study shows that legacies are 4 percent of applicants to these colleges and 8 percent of those admitted.

Higher education is ripe for reform in many other ways. Rather than saddling poor and middle-class students with mountains of debt, colleges should explore income-based repayment plans, taking a percentage of students’ salaries for a set number of years into the future. We need to recognize that not all kids are cut out for four-year colleges and that some are better served through apprenticeships and associate’s-degree programs. The tax deduction for saving in “529” college accounts—as my wife and I do—is mainly a handout to upper-middle-class parents and needs reform, at minimum.

By the same token, conservatives have long protested burdensome government regulations, and zoning rules designed to keep out low-cost housing are an example of them. The Right will be skeptical of Reeves’s more aggressive measures—in these very pages, Stanley Kurtz has taken issue with the Obama administration’s attempts to override suburbs’ decision-making on such matters, while Reeves thinks those moves are just a small step in the right direction. But conservative lawmakers at the local and state level would do well to consider whether governments should be, in effect, enforcing economic segregation.

In other areas, conservatives will see Reeves’s point but question his methods. Poor kids have worse teachers—but the solution to that is school choice, not a government program that ensures that teachers get paid more for teaching in poor districts.

And what about that “parenting gap”? Here Reeves touts voluntary “visitation” programs in which nurses or social workers drop by poor parents’ homes and give them advice. There’s rigorous research showing that these programs help in various ways, and as far as government social engineering goes they aren’t so bad. But we on the right are bound to be a little uncomfortable with the idea of the state’s telling people how to raise their kids.

Regarding unpaid internships, there might be no solution conservatives will like. If we’re going to have minimum-wage laws, perhaps there’s no reason to give parent-subsidized college students a special-snowflake exemption from them—that’s my own view—but that will be a hard sell, as conservatives don’t like minimum-wage laws to begin with. Indeed, even Reeves thinks unpaid internships are here to stay (ending them, he says, would be “draconian [and] illiberal”), and instead suggests a government program to pay poorer kids to take them.

A better route might be to work internships into the school year, so they’re simply covered by the money that would otherwise go toward tuition, room, and board. My own alma mater did this; I spent a semester interning at a magazine instead of attending classes. But it might not be workable in all fields.

Reeves is among the center-left’s most formidable thinkers, and over the past several years he’s built up an impressive body of work on economic mobility and the obstacles to it. Dream Hoarders consolidates that work in a way that’s accessible and engaging to the general public, and should be at the top of the reading list of anyone worried about the ability of the 99 percent—even the 80 percent—to get ahead.

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