The Myth of Meritocracy
Newly minted American citizen Richard V. Reeves, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute, has been making the rounds of the “liberal media” the past few weeks promoting his new book Dream Hoarders (with the cumbersome subtitle “How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem, and What to Do about It”). Sunday’s NY Times op-ed page (June 10th) featured an abbreviated version of Mr. Reeves’s thesis in a piece entitled Stop Pretending You’re Not Rich. The topic is one Mr. Reeves has spent a number of years researching and his findings are as important as they are fascinating.Most Americans, when asked to self-identify, claim they are “middle class.” In a paper written for Brookings on September 3, 2015 Reeves wrote:
Class is a slippery concept, especially in a society that likes to think of itself as classless—or, more precisely, one in which everyone likes to think of themselves as middle class. In 2014, 85 percent of U.S. adults described themselves as ‘middle class’; a figure essentially unchanged since 1939, when a Gallup poll found that 88 percent described themselves in the same way.
Usually, our gauge for classification is an amalgam of income, education, family, and networks we belong to. Reeves’s research found the following regarding income:
There is plenty of argument about the extent of inequality. But nobody questions the fact that in recent decades, incomes in the upper middle class are rising relative to the rest of the distribution. Families in the top quintile receive about half of overall income.
Part of Reeves’s contention is that while we are making a lot of noise about the “top 1%” it is the top 20% that is really perpetuating the ongoing (and increasing) inequality in American society. Regarding education we know that having a college degree and/or a post graduate or professional degree provides one with a better position in our society but few of us realize what Reeves noted in the Sunday Times:
The United States is the only nation in the world, for example, where it is easier to get into college if one of your parents happened to go there. Oxford and Cambridge ditched legacy preferences in the middle of the last century. The existence of such an unfair hereditary practice in 21st-century America is startling in itself. But I have been more shocked by the way that even supposedly liberal members of the upper middle class seem to have no qualms about benefiting from it. (bold mine)
We knew that most colleges had a racist and anti-Semitic history but the persistence of legacy admissions perpetuates the stability of an Upper Middle Class (top 20%) that keeps moving further and further away from the remaining 80%.
It is difficult to separate family from housing (another area with tax breaks that favor the UMC) but it is important, according to Reeves, to note how much family adds to the domination of the top 20%. “To the extent that upper middle class Americans are able to form planned, stable, committed families, their children will benefit—and be more likely to retain their childhood class status when they become adults.” What Reeves contends is that this factor, in fact, is more powerful than “inherited poverty” and its cycles. Again, in the Sunday Times Reeves states:
Politicians and policy wonks worry about the persistence of poverty across generations, but affluence is inherited more strongly. Most disturbing, we now know how firmly class positions are being transmitted across generations. Most of the children born into households in the top 20 percent will stay there or drop only as far as the next quintile. As Gary Solon, one of the leading scholars of social mobility, put it recently, “Rather than a poverty trap, there seems instead to be more stickiness at the other end: a ‘wealth trap,’ if you will.”
So what is the core problem here that we need to take note of? According to Reeves the top 20% are going to need to become far more altruistic than they are. As he says:
Progressive policies, whether on zoning or school admissions or tax reform, all too often run into the wall of upper-middle-class opposition. Self-interest is natural enough. But the people who make up the American upper middle class don’t just want to keep their advantages; armed with their faith in a classless, meritocratic society, they think they deserve them. The strong whiff of entitlement coming from the top 20 percent has not been lost on everyone else.
If you look around (whether you are in the top 20% or the bottom 80% like most of us) it is time to face the realities of our highly classed society. Living on Connecticut’s “Gold Coast” and seeing the enormous privilege granted the public school students of Greenwich over its more “urban” neighbor Stamford is not shocking --- but it should be. We have grown to accept “the way it is” with a belief that we live in a meritocracy when, in fact, we don’t. I wonder, though, that if I had children, would they have had an unfair advantage of getting into Yale? (Probably --- though I’m sure greater $$$ gift-giving to the alma mater would make it more of a $ure thing) The statistics bear it out. The importance of Richard V. Reeves’s research and book, though, should be a paradigm shift in our thinking. Yes, there is a poverty cycle that is vicious but a reason for that cycle’s perpetuation is the equally insidious complacency of the top 20% who are benefitting from class privilege without feeling there is any obligation to give something back.