Sharing the Dream

Popular discourse vilifies the economic top 1% for being responsible for the great inequality in the US. But what if they are not the only culprit? In his 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, Richard V. Reeves argues that the upper middle class (defined as the top quintile of income) is in some ways even more responsible for the unequal opportunity in American society. The upper middle class has enough collective wealth to exert influence, and constitutes a large enough voting block to wield political power.

How exactly does the upper middle class contribute to inequality? By unfairly hoarding opportunities for itself: using policies ranging from legacy admissions to 529 plans, using connections to secure jobs and exclusionary zoning to isolate neighborhoods. We do this out of a very natural desire to prevent losing the advantages that we have gained (possibly over generations of hard work), thus establishing a “glass floor” for ourselves and our children. The problem is that by making it harder for people to move out of the top quintile, we are making it more difficult for others to move in. If we truly want class mobility in the US to allow for “self-made” individuals, then we have to come to terms with some people necessarily being downwardly mobile: not everyone can be in the top 20%! But of course, nobody wants to move down in society because we know how precarious life is down below.

But (and now this is me talking) what if life below the top quintile wasn't precarious? What if life in the middle, or in the bottom, didn't have to be full of uncertainty and fear and want, and instead had enough to guarantee a basic standard of living? We would not have to struggle to maintain a high-paying job, or unfairly hoard opportunity for our children at the expense of other kids who may have more potential but were unluckier at birth. As a result of this truer meritocracy, if some opportunities were out of reach, there'd be no need to worry: while we may drop below the top quintile, we could still achieve comfortable and meaningful lives, because we would collectively provide the means for everyone. The advantage of such a system would be that instead of artificially restricting educational, social, and economic opportunities to a closed set of already privileged people, we would instead allow these opportunities to be better matched to the talents and interests of individuals regardless of the socioeconomic status in which they were raised. This would achieve a more efficient allocation of collective resources and a more fruitful investment of individual time and skills. Imagine how much better society would be for everyone!

How would we get there? Most importantly, we need to work towards a systematic leveling of the playing field. A crucial step is establishing a sufficient safety net, including a Universal Basic Income. With the assurance that we would not want even in the worst of circumstances, the prospect of true social mobility, including downward mobility, becomes more palatable. This, in turn, will make it easier to gain acceptance for reform in the policies that currently advantage the upper middle class to make them work for everyone else as well.

In the meantime, we can make incremental progress via individual action. As much as we can bring ourselves to do it, we need to voluntarily give up the privilege that comes at the expense of others. Yes, maybe our children will have a harder time getting into Harvard if we don't send them to private high school, but by investing our time and money in the public school system, we make education better for more people (and arguably, our kids get exposed to a more representative cross-section of the humanity with whom they will share the planet). This is easier said than done, of course: our inclination to advance our own at the expense of outsiders runs deep. It takes a conscious reframing to expand our circle of concern to those with whom we have looser ties.

If we can't detach from our privilege, then we should at least orient it to the greater good. Maybe we have the disposable income to get the newest laptop every year; in that case, let's make sure the old ones go to good use by donating them to those who need them. Maybe we can take our families on an enriching trip abroad; how about we tie that to giving a family or two the opportunity to get through the year without worrying about hunger?

Such individual action might feel insignificant, and indeed, your actions alone won't change the world---but your actions will mean the world to those who benefit from your involvement. As more of us make this commitment, we may begin to make a dent in the system and achieve real progress in creating sustainable, systemic reform. Just as importantly, though, we will be living truer to our creed of helping create a fair society rather than hiding behind the self-serving meritocratic justification of the privileged.


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