‘First class,” Renée Zellweger sighs in Jerry Maguire. “It used to be a better meal. Now, it’s a better life.”
Richard V. Reeves of the Brookings Institution worries that tickets to first-class living are becoming impossible to acquire for those born into the working class. Reeves’s 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, points a finger at the upper-middle class Americans who he claims are turning the United States into a “hereditary meritocracy.”
Reeves worries that pathways to the top are now blocked by a self-sustaining elite. “There is one good reason why many Americans feel as if the upper middle class is leaving everyone else behind,” he writes. “They are.”
For conservatives worried about opportunity, this thesis should be a challenge. Reeves convincingly shows that discussions of an unequal playing field have to account for the gains in income, stability, and achievement made by the top fifth of American households over the past few decades. The populist ire that fueled the 2016 election wasn’t just aimed at the much-maligned 1 percent, he writes, but at the upper-middle class professionals who benefit from the knowledge economy while distorting the market in favor of their own interests and progeny.
The answer to unfair government scales-tipping in the housing or education market is unlikely to be additional government action in the housing or education market. Zoning laws are a good example. The Progressive Era push to “professionalize” political decisions put tremendous power in the hands of local zoning boards. Efforts to protect the property value of single-family homes for both economic and racial reasons fueled the exodus of those who could afford it from cities to the suburbs. Low-density housing was explicitly endorsed and subsidized and became the norm. Those who couldn’t afford the suburban lifestyle or weren’t welcomed by its adherents were left behind. As a result, the rural and urban poor still grapple with greater social isolation, worse health, and neighborhoods in decline to this day.
Reeves’s suggested housing reforms would undo some of this damage. Capping or eliminating the home mortgage-interest deduction and reducing biases against high-density or mixed-use zoning would help create more socioeconomic diversity in the communities that need it most. Removing government’s thumb from the scale to allow markets to function more freely would provide more variable and affordable housing. That approach would make the education sector (and higher education, in particular) more responsive and effective as well.
To the extent that these playing fields are tilted, better policy can help level them, but the cultural attitudes that prevent needed reforms have to be addressed further upstream.
The political muscle for pushing through the political reforms Reeves suggests, however, won’t be found on the left. After all, who helped lead the charge against President Barack Obama’s plan to stop the tax advantaging of 529 college-savings plan? Then-representative Chris Van Hollen. Where was the racially driven, regressive policy of privileging single-family housing first codified? The conservative bastion of Berkeley, Calif. Who benefits most from the home mortgage-interest tax deduction? The residents of blue states like California, Maryland, and Connecticut. Which former university president took pride in his institution’s “integral” practice of giving preference to legacy admissions? None other than Larry Summers at Harvard. Whose rigid seniority structure prevents local school systems from experimenting with teacher pay in bad neighborhoods? Teachers’ unions. Knowing this, conservatives should proudly take ownership of serious efforts to even the playing field, rather than the final score.
The greatest disparity in opportunity, of course, is driven by family stability and structure. That upper-class families have more disposable resources to help raise their children is not a new phenomenon. What is new — and worrisome — is that upper-class children have relatively stable families and lower-class children don’t. Marriage, with its attendant benefits, University of Pennsylvania sociologist Frank Furstenberg and others have written, is becoming a luxury good. College-educated Americans overall are more likely to be married, as Reeves points out, and they are more often marrying each other, accumulating the advantages of having educated parents into one social class. Poor families, meanwhile, are more likely to be fragile and miss out on the economic, social, and personal benefits of a stable home.
For low-income individuals, Reeves would make parenthood more deliberate, championing increased access to Long-Acting Reversible Contraceptives (LARCs). He compares a single mom “drifting” into parenthood unfavorably to his well-off friends who nicknamed their child “Project Melissa,” researching parenting “best practices” from before conception to well into the college-internship search. The paternalistic overtones of encouraging low-income women to be more efficient in avoiding children are just as off-putting here as when others at Brookings have made the same argument.
Speaking to his fellow upper-middle class parents, he writes: “More of our own kids will have to be downwardly mobile. This is not a moral claim but a simple mathematical fact.” He calls for a more robust social-safety net to put well-off parents at ease with the idea of their children ending up relatively further down the income distribution. Exhorting well-off families to get more used to downward mobility is bold, but it seems doomed to failure.
A more fruitful approach to de-escalating the opportunity arms race might be the attitudinal shift proposed by Senator Ben Sasse in his social manifesto-cum-parenting manual The Vanishing American Adult. Sasse’s focus on character development and work ethic — on imparting in one’s kids an orientation toward production rather than consumption — would seem to be one way of lessening the concerns that drive the “hoarding” of which Reeves rightly disapproves.
If high-income parents were just as proud of their “Project Melissa” for becoming a skilled craftsman as for getting an accounting degree, it might make it easier for talented poor kids to become upwardly mobile. More discussion about how to engage the civic sector — churches, community groups, and voluntary associations — in de-emphasizing careerism and building cross-class social interactions would be appropriate.
These disagreements with Reeves are on cures, not on the diagnosis. America’s classism of achievement, Reeves argues, is threatening to become just as rigid and impermeable as his native England’s classism of ancestry and accent. Eliminating government interference in housing and education — typified by the mortgage-interest deduction, which couldn’t be more regressive if it tried — would be an important step toward addressing these symptoms.
Bridging the opportunity gap won’t be solved through a new government program, but by the kinds of conversations about culture and community Sasse seeks. That will require being more intentional about supporting communities that stretch beyond income brackets. Reeves acknowledges the evidence linking income inequality and income immobility is still inconclusive, but he says we should adopt the “precautionary principle” and act now. The same standard should apply to promoting more family stability and building a more integrated society.
“First class” now means something far different than it did when Jerry Maguire first came out in 1996. If we’re serious about closing the empathy gap and giving kids equal opportunity, conservatives, especially, should take the lead in developing creative ways to empower civil society, level the playing field, and create social connections, starting on a person-to-person level. Our operating principle in closing the opportunity gap shouldn’t be “show me the money,” but “help me help you.”
— Patrick T. Brown is a graduate student at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School for Public and International Affairs, and an urbanism research assistant at the R Street Institute.