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Blame Well-Meaning Parents for Class Conflict

Richard V. Reeves, a charming English economist at the Brookings Institute in Washington D.C., has been making his friends uncomfortable lately. That’s because his latest book, 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, takes aim at his social circle, highlighting the political and social side effects of family-first financial planning. Reeves argues that well-paid professionals — and the policies that affect them — have spent the last half century building a shoring up an American class system fundamentally at odds with the values of a meritocracy.

In the book, Reeves argues that the traditional assignation of blame — the familiar 1 percent vs. 99 percent — lets the American upper middle class, defined as families with incomes north of $112,000, off the hook too easily. “The real divide is between the top 20 percent and the 80 percent,” Reeves says, noting that the top fifth of American households is hoarding wealth at an accelerating pace, leaving the bottom 80 percent in the economic dust.

His ire is particularly acute when it comes to what he calls “opportunity hoarding,” parents’ attempt to safeguard and assure their children’s position in the world through “unfair means.” These nefarious mechanisms include exclusionary zoning regulation, connection-based internships, and legacy college admissions. Yet, much of what he calls “opportunity hoarding” might also be called good parenting. What’s wrong with passing the opportunities — social and economic — to one’s children? Isn’t generation progress core to the American dream?

Fatherly sat down with Reeves to see how the idea of generational family progress can be reconciled with the idea of generational social progress.

I’m going to say up top that I can’t imagine this is going to be a very popular book. By laying responsibility of the top 20 percent, as opposed to the top 1 percent, you’re really poking the hornet’s nest of the upper-middle-class here, not to mention alienating nearly all your potential readers.
It is definitely uncomfortable. But this stuff is uncomfortable and people need to say that. I’m a little bit tired of all these books that talk about inequality and let us off the hook. They go through great lengths to say that it’s not your fault. It can be a little bit our fault. You don’t have to become an evil genius grinning in the faces of the poor to do some stuff at the margins that you probably shouldn’t be doing.

Why have those in the upper-middle-class been so coddled when it comes to their responsibility in perpetuating intergenerational economic inequality?
Probably because the 2 to 20 percent is almost the entire professional class — writers, scholars, lawyers, doctors. Everyone in some sort of position of institutional power or shaping the power. It is a very powerful class and they have the power to persuade. That’s why it is so difficult to bring about reform in any way that challenges the kind of existing equilibrium. This suits their class because, as they much don’t like to admit it, they are benefitting from the current asymmetry .

What’s interesting here is that statistics show that this class is largely socially liberal. These are people who think of themselves as civic minded and responsible.
You see quite liberal, upper middle-class people who oppose even quite the modest rezoning proposals which would result in increased access to, for instance, high-quality schools. They might do it on environmental, not social, grounds because it passes the “dinner party test.” It’s easier to say you want to protect trees and parks than, ‘I bought a very expensive house in this area to be near that good school and I don’t want a bunch of poor people potentially threatening the value of house and the school. So, I’m going to keep voting against rezoning.’

The effect is the same.

The real crux of your book seems to be at the uniquely difficult intersection between societal equality and the powerful instinct to look after one’s own blood.
In general, there’s a lack of authentic conversations about class in the U.S. And it’s a deeply uncomfortable conversation when you start talking about kids and intergenerational stuff. I’m interested in what the right balance is. I want everyone to want to be a good parent and do what’s best for their kid, but I don’t want them to rig the market in their kid’s favor. That’s really a hard line to draw.

Part of your book seems to be trying to find a way to minimize having to choose.
The answer is partly policy, but it is also the social norms and the culture. It is a combination of the two. Economists often talk about a market or an economic equilibrium. We have social equilibria, too. What I am arguing for is a different equilibrium, where we aren’t having to make that horrible choice between doing the best for our kids and perpetuating an unjust and unequal society. The question is how do you shift from wanting it to making it happen?

You lay out a few places to start. For instance, how internships are doled out based on connections.
If you have a social equilibrium where internships are handed out to people on the base of who you know, then that’s the just way things are. That’s your equilibrium. It’s quite hard under those circumstances to say no to either your own kid who wants an internship or to a colleague, friend, or someone else in power, who ask you to organize an internship for their son. So if your equilibrium is everyone doing it, it is quite hard to say no even if you have some huge internal conflict.

Right, but to say no before the equilibrium has shifted really seems to sacrifice your own child’s future at the altar of your ideals. No one wants to sacrifice their kid.
That’s right. But the only way to shift the equilibrium is through some people being willing to change the norms by saying no, even at some cost to themselves within reasonable margins. Any parent who treats their own child as a social policy intervention has something wrong with them but change will require some people and some institutions to take a stand.

I’m not asking for anything radical. These are very marginal effects. Not doing the internship, allowing the schools to be a bit more mixed, not taking up a legacy preference or using donations. Honestly, what effect is that going to have on our kids? Probably not much but you do have to be honest about it.  We want to pretend they can have it all, that no one has to pay the price, that there is never any sacrifice involved, that we can have a just and equal society and no one ever has to give up anything. That’s just not true.

You have kids. How do you explain your argument to them and temper their expectations?
Yes, I have a sixteen year old son. I actually did a debate with David Brooks earlier this week. My son stood up and asked a question at the end. He said, ;Isn’t it the most American thing for parents to want to do everything in their power to see their kids succeed and why would you want to stop them from doing that?’ I answered, ‘I will do a huge amount to help you succeed: trying to provide a stable family background, to be a good father, to make sure you eat well, get sleep, help you with homework. But what I won’t do is use the college I went to to give you preferential treatment in getting you into there. I’m not going to stop the moves to integrate our school out of fear that being in a school with more poor kids will dangerously damage your prospects. And I’m not going to fix an internship for you using my networks in D.C. I want you to do well, but I want you to do well fairly and I want you to know that your achievements are your achievements.”

Brooks, who was sitting next to me, just said, ‘Don’t worry I will set you up with an internship.’ He was joking. I think.