I Remain Unconvinced

I remain unconvinced by Robert Samuelson’s attempted refutation in his latest Washington Post column of Richard Reeves’s and David Brooks’s claim that the upper middle class is increasingly becoming a closed club that uses its income and attendant influence to maintain its position:

All this is self-perpetuating, Reeves says. Class structure is becoming frozen. Downward mobility from the top is limited. Upper-middle-class parents are obsessed with supporting their children, from helping with homework to teaching bike-riding. The story seems so compelling that it could become conventional wisdom. Parents are destiny. Just recently, David Brooks, the influential New York Times columnist, bought into most of Reeves’s theory.

“Upper-middle-class parents have the means to spend two to three times more time with their preschool children than less affluent parents,” he wrote. He also excoriated “the structural ways the well-educated rig the system” — mainly restrictive zoning and easier college admissions, including legacy preferences.

But the facts don’t fit the theory. Reeves defines the upper middle class as households with pretax income from $117,000 to $355,000, representing the richest 20 percent of Americans excluding the top 1 percent (whose status he considers a separate problem). It’s doubtful whether families at the bottom of this range feel rich. For example, a household with two teachers earning average salaries ($56,000 in 2013) would nearly make the cutoff. (Disclosure: Reeves acknowledges belonging to the upper middle class, as do I.)

By Reeves’s arithmetic, the upper middle class — again, a fifth of the population minus the top 1 percent — accounted for 39 percent of income gains from 1979 to 2013, only slightly lower than the 43 percent share of the bottom 80 percent. (The top 1 percent’s share was 18 percent.) This growing income gap is worrisome, because it implies dramatically different life experiences among Americans. The differences “can be seen in education, family structure, health and longevity,” writes Reeves.

But these undesirable trends aren’t caused by a rigid upper-middle-class oligarchy that’s hoarding opportunities for itself. Contrary to Reeves’s argument — but included in his book — is one study finding that among children born into the richest fifth, only 37 percent remained there as adults. Roughly two-thirds dropped out. How much more downward mobility does Reeves want? He doesn’t say.

The problem is that incomes are not evenly distributed among the top income quintile any more than they are among the population at large and what Mr. Samuelson is pointed out could be explained entirely by churn among the lower end of that top 20%. And that’s what I see.

I’ve mentioned my rather peculiar biography in the past. My dad’s family was upper middle class but my mom’s family was solidly of the working poor. I spent my first ten years in a tough working class neighborhood. My parents were struggling a bit. It had taken my dad ten years after law school to get a job as a lawyer—jobs as a lawyer could be tough to get during the Depression. When the law firm he worked for collapsed in scandal he set out to practice on his own and brought in a little extra money by teaching law. My mom was a schoolteacher.

When I was ten we moved to a decidedly upper middle class neighborhood: physicians, lawyers, owners of smallish businesses, executives of larger companies. It would only be a slight exaggeration to say that we went from being the richest people in a poor neighborhood to being the poorest people in a rich neighborhood. That’s certainly the way my siblings saw it and they were much more ensconced in it than I was. The high school I attended was very diverse from a socio-economic viewpoint. There were students from very wealthy families, a few from upper middle class families, most were solidly middle class, and some were from working class or even working poor families. My siblings attended the local high school and most of their fellow students came from backgrounds much like theirs.

My wife and I remain upper middle class although with some struggle every now and again. Of my siblings only one is upper middle class—the others middle class although one of my siblings has struggled to remain middle class. Of my nieces and nephews I can be confident that those in health care or what are referred to as the “caring professions” will be upper middle class. Except for one that remainder are likely to remain in the middle class although that one is likely to struggle to remain middle class. As a family I’d say we’re downwardly mobile.

The model I’d suggest as comporting with the facts is a top 1% of income earners that is pretty stable. Very few children of the working poor go on to enter that rarified group and relatively few children of the rich go on to be genuinely poor. The top 10% of income earners are slightly less stable, the next decile less stable than that and so on.

Increasingly stratified patterns of housing and education and narrowing job opportunities will keep the peasants in their places.

7 comments… add one
  • Janis Gore

    My eldest brother and his wife did very well for themselves. I don’t know what they’re worth, but she drives an Infiniti and they live in quite a nice house overlooking the Columbia River. Probably worth a half-mil in that market. He sold Napa auto parts and she worked secretarial in the administration of the Bonneville Dam.

    Their older son went to college and took some sort of bachelor’s in computer science, worth a dime a dozen in the Pacific Northwest. He never could find a decent job, so he trained to be a policeman. Worked for the Portland PD and hated it. He’s now a plumber’s apprentice and wishes he’d started there. Loves his job.

    He and his wife live in a nice little house in the region. Their family (two daughters) seems very happy. So beats me.

    To the point, does it really matter?

  • Andy

    Good analysis Dave.

    The only thing I’d add is that these discussions are somewhat flawed if they don’t account for cost-of-living. $117k is a lot different in central Florida than it is in NYC or SF.

  • Janis Gore

    And Dave, who knows where that family goes from here.

  • Modulo Myself

    The upper-middle class is not doing anything that Americans are not supposed to do. There aren’t that many crazies who are prepping their 4 year olds to get into Harvard. Kids should do as well or better than their parents. Parents should be helping their kids learn to ride a bike, if by help you mean pushing the terrified kid along while giving useless advice.

    This is ‘hoarding’ only because there’s nothing left to go around. I actually think that the scare pieces that make it sound devious for a parent to help a child with homework are out there to obscure the fact that the social fabric of the American dream is a privilege.

    And the devious stuff–segregated education, for example, is not even mentioned. Nor is the absolute benefit of not having to go into debt for education.

  • Modulo Myself

    The Brooks article is interesting in a perverse way, only because the social marker of upper-middle life it does not mention. He goes on about Italian meats, feminism, and David Foster Wallace but he doesn’t mention golf. Golf was, at least when I grew up, a major mark of having made it. It’s expensive to play and you can’t just wing it. But in the world of David Brooks, the real barrier is having read Infinite Jest.

  • Gustopher

    The so-called “upper middle class” is just living a middle class lifestyle — they have a bit of savings, but are still vulnerable to losing everything with a health crisis or long period of unemployment. They can pay for their kids educations, a house in a nice neighborhood, and save for retirement if things go well, and that’s about it.

    The people below that… that’s not middle class. They may call themselves middle class, but that’s because they don’t want to recognize that they are the working poor.

  • Janis Gore

    True, Gustopher. That’s the definition in introductory sociological texts.

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