By Alexis Leondis
In his 2017 book Dream Hoarders, Richard Reeves detailed how the top 20% of Americans perpetuate their privileges in ways that may seem benign, yet ultimately are among the main culprits of social immobility. Think taking advantage of legacy admissions to help your child get into college, calling a friend to help your child get an internship, or fighting zoning and school-district boundaries to preserve the value of your home. It’s a book that, unsurprisingly, made a lot of people squirm.
Now the coronavirus pandemic and the nationwide protests in the US are drawing sharper scrutiny of inequities, particularly racial inequality. Many business leaders and other people in positions of power and influence are speaking out about racial injustice, donating money, and vowing to do more to offer opportunities to Black workers and other disadvantaged groups.
But, according to Reeves, a senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution, unless individual Americans are willing to rethink one of the most personal relationships of all — hoarding all the advantages they can to give to their own children and class — pledges about equality will amount to little more than lip service.
Here’s a lightly edited transcript of our Q&A:
Given the broader sensitivity at the moment to inequality, do you think your ideas are resonating more than when the book came out — or do they still make people uncomfortable?
The pandemic is acting as an X-ray showing the fractures in society even more clearly — it’s hard to get that in charts, blogs and academic papers. For someone like me, I’m at the privileged end of every distribution. I’m able to work from home, I live in a large house in a leafy neighbourhood, I can give my kids the opportunity to take a gap year, and I’m able to socially distance.
There are those for whom none of that is true. Phrases like structural inequality just fall off the tongues of wonks and have for years, but now you really feel it.
But it also feels like a period of scarcity: We don’t know what will happen to the economy, and there’s uncertainty. And during those times, people cling to what they’ve got even more fiercely.
It’s too early to tell which force will win, but both are playing out right now. The real test is whether the energy you can feel right now gets channelled into a wintry Tuesday evening in February when the school board is talking about changing the attendance zones of schools.
There’s a tendency for people to think this is cost-free, even for them. In order to make progress, we have to give some stuff up. If we can’t be persuaded to do so, the chances of progress are much less. Protest today but let’s see lobbying tomorrow.
Before the current crises, Democrats and progressive activists were targeting the top 1%. Why do you think it’s so important to focus on changing the behaviour of the top 20%?
Well, for empirical reasons, there are lots of them. If you want to reshape the housing and higher education markets, you need the sheer force of numbers of the upper middle class. Ethically, I think just focusing on the 1% lets too many people off the hook by saying it’s just this top sliver that’s the problem. No-one wants to feel uncomfortable if they can avoid it and say the face of inequality may be mine.
You mentioned five things people could do back in 2017 to stop being a “dream hoarder,” such as pushing for more inclusionary housing zoning regulations and redirecting some of their school funds to low-income schools. Is that list the same? What else would you add to it?
My list would essentially remain the same. I was criticised at the time for focusing so much on the class dimension. I think now the racial dimension needs to be highlighted more. We have to think not only about the ways our behaviour is benefiting class, but also by extension acting as a barrier, particularly to Black and Latino Americans. The people who are excluded as a result of these upper middle-class mechanisms are disproportionately people of colour.
When I wrote the book, I wanted to make it about class because I thought the class debate was so underweighted in the US. I really wanted to hold up that mirror. Now, in light of recent events, I wonder whether adding a more explicit racial dimension would help move the needle more. I think I would frame the argument differently if I were to do it again.
A lot of companies are currently seeking ways to address inequality in the wake of the recent protests. Realistically, what can they do and what should they do?
They can genuinely rethink internships and recruitment policies from the ground up. I think it’s unconscionable to allocate opportunity-enriching internships or similar jobs on the basis of social networks. If you use social networks to fill jobs or internships, you’re definitely acting in an exclusionary way. You think you’re helping someone, but you’re using your power in a way that hurts someone else.
Also, think about whether you’re imposing unnecessarily stringent hiring standards. Does every position you’re hiring for really need a four-year college degree? The impact of that can be classist and racist.
Now is a good moment to think about how you’re using power on a daily basis to create additional access or reinforce existing inequality. For example, instead of writing checks to your top-drawer college, write a check to the nearest community college.
How much does leaving your wealth to your children impact inequality?
It hasn’t made a huge difference yet, but that doesn’t mean it won’t in the future. In terms of structuring opportunity, the things that most affect peoples’ trajectories in life are things like access to education, the environment you grow up in, and opportunities through networks and jobs.
But when the baby boomers die, we will see one of the greatest transitions of intergenerational wealth. So I think that will worsen wealth inequality along class and race lines. I think it will actually affect the third generation more than the second generation. The grandchildren of boomers might be benefiting from this wealth transfer in ways we haven’t seen much of thus far.
Corporations may change their hiring policies, and more of the upper 20% may contribute to organisations and scholarship funds, but can you count on that to change the world? Shouldn’t this be a job for the government?
There’s a huge amount the government could and should be doing, like on access to good health care or more funding for community colleges. But why didn’t I focus on that? There are a million reports on how to reform higher education that all come to roughly the same conclusion, but we can never do it because the sense of entitlement of winners in the current system.
I wanted to start from the proposition that culture precedes politics and politics precedes policies. If we can’t persuade people to think about their own individual position in the US system, to give up stuff closer to home, then the prospects of more sweeping change will remain small.
I want to puncture the sense that successful American people have that they’ve earned it, and it doesn’t require any sacrifice on their part. I’m not talking about spending an afternoon to protest or donating to good causes. Do that, but sacrifice a little of your kids’ opportunities in life, a little bit of the value of your home. Unless you lose a little bit, we won’t see broad-scale gains.
It seems as if some of the controversy over your ideas stems from your belief in relative vs. absolute mobility (that some kids have to experience downward mobility for less privileged ones to get ahead) — why is that so central to your arguments? Why is it a zero-sum game?
I do think you need both. But it’s a question of balance. I draw attention to relative mobility because I looked at whether some of the ways the transfers of opportunities are taking place are unfair and are there ways we can address it. If I had found that the stickiness was just the result of things like parents reading to children, then I would have said “we’re all good here.”
But it’s a hell of a lot more than that. It’s an uncomfortable conversation — it’s just so easy for the affluent to blind themselves to the inequality consequences taken in the name of doing everything you can for your kids. —Bloomberg News
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