Are you a dream-hoarder?

Are you a dream-hoarder? July 3, 2017

from Wikipedia;'s_sod_house.jpg; By Solomon D. Butcher (1856-1927) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

That’s the premise of a new book, Dream Hoarders, by Richard Reeves, being promoted by Brookings.  (I’ve put this on hold at the library, but it’s going to be a while so this is based on other descriptions of the content.)  As described in The Atlantic,

Reeves agrees that the 20 percent are not the one percent: The higher you go up the income or wealth distribution, the bigger the gains made in the past three or four decades. Still, the top quintile of earners—those making more than roughly $112,000 a year—have been big beneficiaries of the country’s growth. To make matters worse, this group of Americans engages in a variety of practices that don’t just help their families, but harm the other 80 percent of Americans. . . .

The book traces the way that the upper-middle class has pulled away from the middle class and the poor on five dimensions: income and wealth, educational attainment, family structure, geography, and health and longevity. The top 20 percent of earners might not have seen the kinds of income gains made by the top one percent and America’s billionaires. Still, their wage and investment increases have proven sizable. They dominate the country’s top colleges, sequester themselves in wealthy neighborhoods with excellent public schools and public services, and enjoy healthy bodies and long lives. “It would be an exaggeration to say that the upper-middle class is full of gluten-avoiding, normal-BMI joggers who are only marginally more likely to smoke a cigarette than to hit their children,” Reeves writes. “But it would be just that—an exaggeration, not a fiction.”

They then pass those advantages onto their children, with parents placing a “glass floor” under their kids. They ensure they grow up in nice zip codes, provide social connections that make a difference when entering the labor force, help with internships, aid with tuition and home-buying, and schmooze with college admissions officers. All the while, they support policies and practices that protect their economic position and prevent poorer kids from climbing the income ladder: legacy admissions, the preferential tax treatment of investment income, 529 college savings plans, exclusionary zoning, occupational licensing, and restrictions on the immigration of white-collar professionals.

More concretely, Reeves instructs his readers on five things to do (or to stop doing), to stop dream-hoarding:

  • Be a “YIMBY,” that is, actively support multi-family housing in one’s single-family-home neighborhood, so as to enable poorer folk to live in neighborhoods with “good schools.
  • Pressure your alma mater (presuming you attended a prestigious school) to end legacy admissions.
  • Lobby your company or organization for fair internship practices, that is, so that children of the well-connected don’t have an advantage in getting a start on their career.
  • Organize a “take someone else’s child to work day,” that is, find a needy kid who could benefit from learning about the world of (upper middle-class) work.
  • Campaign for your PTA to share its funds with a poor school.

Some of these suggestions seem like Reeves lives in his own bubble.  I find it unlikely that, once you widen the focus from the “1%” to the “20%,” there are all too many people who attended the sort of prestigious colleges for which legacy admissions are an issue, or where internships are offered to the children of the well-connected.  Maybe I’m wrong.  And the notion of a “sharing-funds PTA” set-up is unrealistic – I suspect that anyone who proposed it would be told, “if you feel that way, then why don’t you donate to another charity by yourself.”

And these seem, in general, to be based on the expectation that it’s a zero-sum game — which is, strictly speaking, true if the quest is to be in the top 20th percentile of Americans, rather than, in absolute terms, ensuring that your child, and other children as well, have the ability to live a life with a comfortable standard of living.  And there is no such fixed limit on the number of potential “good neighborhoods” but there inevitably be a limit on the number of “best neighborhoods.”  (And I do believe that the single-family-only zoning is harmful, not so much because it takes away from the poor the “gift” of living with us upper middle-class folk, but because it drives up housing costs for everyone.)

On the other hand, some of these items are real concerns — the ability to “network” your way into a job clearly disadvantages those without networks, and the ability of the children of the upper middle-class to work at unpaid internships, depending on their parents to cover their living expenses, gives them a leg up on those without that advantage, who must take different career paths with a lower-paying endpoint.  Working in a corporate environment, at a large company, I didn’t expect to encounter this myself, but in my husband’s department, there’s a boss who runs his group like a fiefdom and does indeed hire based on nepotism and cronyism.

But — well, you all know that I’m headed into that Life Stage of Mom of High School Senior.  And Reeves likely has lots to say about Dream Hoarding in such situations.  We’re planning to get him signed up for some SAT tutoring, to try to boost his score — is that “dream hoarding”?  I look at it as trying to keep pace with everyone else, on the expectation that low socio-economic status kids are already being judged on a lighter standard, so that my kid is competing with all the middle/upper middle-income kids, who are all getting such tutoring anyway, probably to an even greater degree.

What about the parent being willing to spend the money necessary to send their kid to an expensive (or even just “regular”) school?  Are they dream-hoaders?  What about parents who have the ability to advise their kids on how to navigate though high school and college successfully?  Parents who closely supervise homework, take their kids to the library, pay for music lessons, etc.?

Maybe when the book comes off hold and I read it I’ll find it more persuasive, but, the more I type, the more skeptical I am of most of the concept, except for the narrow, obvious instances.


Image: a pioneer family.  from Wikipedia;’s_sod_house.jpg; By Solomon D. Butcher (1856-1927) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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