Late Summer 2017
August 23, 2017
According to the “American Dream”, anyone can become successful through hard work and talent, regardless of upbringing. However, in his book Dream Hoarders, economist and Brookings Institute scholar Richard V. Reeves illustrates how this dream is becoming less and less attainable for everyone except the upper middle class. Reeves deliberately focuses on the upper middle class over the more commonly examined top one percent, pointing out that the habits and impacts of the upper middle class are often overlooked. Reeves defines the upper middle class as those whose household incomes are $120,000 or greater, placing them in the top 20% of earners in the United States.
Reeves argues that upper middle class parents construct a “glass floor” for their children, one that rests on unfair or anti-competitive advantages. The glass floor allows the parents to maintain their children’s position in the upper middle class into adulthood, which, by default, keeps children from less privileged backgrounds from moving up the socio-economic ladder. In other words, the upper middle class are “hoarding” opportunities for their children.
Reeves details how unfair mechanisms such as zoning ordinances, college admissions practices, and the awarding of internships provide ways for the upper middle class to hoard opportunities. For example, families in the upper 20% of earners tend to live in affluent communities with excellent schools. These communities are frequently zoned to prohibit “high-density” housing - such as apartment buildings - from being constructed, effectively barring lower-income families from living in these communities and restricting access to top-performing public schools. Similarly, legacy admissions, in which an alumni’s child is given preferential treatment in being accepted to the school, are common practice in the United States, especially at the Ivy League colleges. Internships are also often granted based on a parent’s phone call to a well-placed friend or colleague.
All of these practices deny less-privileged, but equally or more deserving young people access to opportunities that can foster greater educational achievement, career opportunities, and incomes. Reeves, a father of three, clarifies the difference between being an involved parent and being an opportunity hoarder with the example of a child who wants to be a pitcher on a little league team. An involved parent plays catch every day after work; the opportunity-hoarding parent tries to bribe the coach.
In his conclusion, Reeves calls for changes in policies - such as zoning laws and tax advantages - that grant unfair access to opportunity to the upper middle class and deny it to the remaining 80% of the population. More strikingly, however, he also calls for introspection on the part of the upper middle class and a willingness to sacrifice some of their advantages in the interest of making the playing field more equal.