Spotlight Exclusives

Opportunity for Some: A Conversation with Richard Reeves

Richard Reeves, Brookings Institution Richard Reeves, Brookings Institution, posted on

Most conversations about inequality and a rigged system focus on the top one percent. But in his new book Dream Hoarders, Richard Reeves, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, investigates a less examined divide that has emerged between the upper middle class and everyone else. These upper income households, Reeves argues, almost unconsciously benefit from and perpetuate a system that concentrates wealth and opportunity at the top. Spotlight recently spoke with Reeves to learn more about the book, and what can be done to address these problems. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

The title of the book is Dream Hoarders. What does it mean to be a dream hoarder?

I define dream hoarders as members of the American upper middle class who are using their status, in ways that are sometimes unfair, to perpetuate their position and that of their children.

Who exactly is doing the hoarding?

I’m interested in the top 15 to 20 percent of the income scale, with 20 percent serving as a kind of break point at which inequality really accelerates. You see similar breaking points around education here as well.

How is that “breaking apart” manifesting itself?

Since 1980, the top 20 percent of households have seen their pre-tax income increase by $4 trillion, while the increase for the other 80 percent was only $3 trillion.

In terms of education, roughly 70 percent of the students attending elite colleges come from the top fifth of the income distribution.

There is a line in the book where you say, “being an opportunity hoarder is not the same thing as being a good parent.” What’s the difference?

Many of the things that upper middle-class parents do are good—raising their children in a stable environment, being engaged in their children’ education, reading to their children at bedtime. We don’t want to stop that, if anything we want more people to do that. Those actions fall into the category of preparing for the contest, rather than rigging the contest.

I see rigging occur in three primary areas: exclusionary zoning in residential areas, legacy preferences and other tools for influencing college admissions, and preferential treatment for internships. I call this the “glass floor” in that these practices guard against the risk of downward mobility.

An example can help highlight the difference. If your child makes the baseball team because you spend time practicing with them, that’s part of preparing for the contest. But if you bribe the coach people would be horrified. That’s the distinction between being a good parent and manipulating the system.

What are some of the specific changes you recommend to address this hoarding?

I’m very modest about the policy recommendations here, and I think it’s premature to set out a clear agenda. There are ample potential policy solutions, so what I want to address in the book is the lack of awareness of opportunity hoarding and why it is a problem in the first place.

The ideas I do discuss are split into two buckets. The first focus on narrowing the gap in human capital. This means reducing unplanned pregnancies, improving home visitation programs, and overhauling the way we fund higher education which currently preferences college savings plans for upper income families and underfunds community colleges

The second bucket is to stop the opportunity hoarding. Let’s try to prepare for the contest, and let’s make sure the competition is as fair as possible. That’s where I argue for inclusionary zoning instead of the current restrictions that make it difficult to build new housing in upper middle class areas, which are also likely to be near jobs and good schools. This is often a local issue, and it’s very hard to gain any kind of traction, but I do think that’s going to be an incredibly important part of the equation.

We also need to end the extraordinary practice of legacy admissions. If my son gets into a college because he’s better qualified, that’s one thing. If he gets in because my wife went then that’s not fair. Same thing if he gets an internship that a child from a lower-income family or with less connections does not have access to.

I’m trying to draw attention to the fact that that this is all often happening inadvertently, without malice and forethought, in day to day decisions. This inequality is deeply built into the system.

Most of the book is addressed to the upper 20 percent, the group you classify as “hoarders.” What would be your message to the other 80 percent?

I don’t think I’ve got a very good answer yet, but I would encourage them to recognize these existing problems and support public policy that work to address them.

I would also tell them that that some of the things that the top 20 percent are doing are good. For example, college graduates are good at planning and raising stable families.

The final thing I would say is that there’s some legitimacy to the anger and frustration those at the bottom are feeling. What we sometimes see though, is anger directed in ways that are damaging to the national interest, and worse, damaging to the bottom 80 percent’s own interests, as was the case in the last election.

As you say in the book, you’re proposing changes that would to some extent hurt the economic interests of the upper middle class, the people with the most political power in this country. Are you optimistic that the kind of changes you propose can really come to fruition?

In the short term, I am relatively pessimistic about major changes occurring. I think a necessary precursor for change is a genuine recognition among the top 20 percent that they are the beneficiaries of privilege. The time for us top tip-toe around those class issues is over. We may have to risk offending people.

The one silver lining of Trump’s victory may well be an openness to introspection among the upper-middle class about what’s happening. If Hillary had won, people would have said “the earth is on its orbit, we’re ok,” but Trump’s election was disruptive.

We’ve been asked about the middle-class people that helped propel Trump—why are they so angry? Who are they angry at? And they’re angry at us. So there may be a moment now where the upper-middle class will be open to some self-criticism. I think there is a therapeutic opening here for the conversation we need to have and that I’m trying to promote with the book.

Richard Reeves is a senior fellow in Economic Studies and policy director of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution.

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