Trigger warning: I reference Paul Ryan in this review.
I have thoughts about this book.
In Dream Hoarders, Richard Reeves comes for me and a whole bunch of my friends. Reeves points out that while some of the exasperation and ire directed at the 1% is justified, it is perhaps too narrowly focused. He sees that the entire top 20%–households with annual incomes of $112,000–is pulling away from the rest of the country.
The top fifth of U.S. households saw a $4 trillion increase in pretax income in the years between 1979 and 2013. The combined rise for the bottom 80 percent, by comparison, was just over $3 trillion.
According to Reeves, wealth isn’t the problem. The problem is not only the growing inequality, but also how the upper middle class is beginning to calcify their status, limiting the social mobility of the rest of the country. Hard work and merit can lead to some success, but not enough so long as we allow those at the top of the economic ladder to rig the game in their own favor. For a truly open and classless society, the upper middle class is going to have to remove some of the protections they’ve secured to benefit their own children as well as offer a hand up to those who are starting from a place of disadvantage.
Reeves shares a number of recommendations that he believes would ultimately reduce some of the barriers to social mobility, several of which are regular hits on the liberal policy playlist: increased access to affordable birth control, encouraging home visit initiatives, better teachers in under-resourced schools. All things aimed squarely at giving all children the best possible start in life that seem like no-brainers to support.
Then Reeves proposes things that will cost the upper middle class a little more than increased tax dollars. He decries after exclusionary zoning, picking apart zoning restrictions that prohibit multi-unit middle class housing. In markets with a dearth of affordable housing, zoning which prioritizes single-family homes keeps the majority out in the name of preserving property values and quality schools.
Reeves also goes hard after legacy preferences in college admissions. I actually laughed pretty hard about how earnest he is in this argument. The vigor with which Reeves makes his argument might make one suspect that a legacy is all but guaranteed admission at a given college, when that’s absolutely not the case. However I view this as a small-scale problem. I’d be surprised if it made the difference for more than 10,000 students nationwide each year, a number so small that it hardly seems worth kicking up a fuss. (The Ivy at which I work does have a higher admit rate of legacies, but it’s still a pretty dismal number and can be easily attributed to having the advantages attendant with an upper middle class background.)
I found this book delightfully challenging. It’s hard not to feel a little defensive when Reeves argues against tax subsidies for homeownership and 529 plans. Because those benefit me. Apparently, that’s the point. These policies which benefit me and people like me, who, frankly, don’t need the help as much as others. One of the hardest parts of his argument to accept emotionally is that if we want a US in which there is true social mobility, the US of Paul Ryan’s delusions…
In our country, the condition of your birth does not determine the outcome of your life. This is what makes America so great. pic.twitter.com/RG3xNaGkXn
— Paul Ryan (@SpeakerRyan) September 2, 2017
…then we’re going to have to make room at the table. And we’re going to have to allow for the possibility that some of our kids are going to move out of the top as others move up. We have to stop rigging the game in their favor.
The book is clear, concise, and compact. I cannot recommend it enough if this type of non-fiction is your bag.
Additional reading: What the rich won’t tell you
When I used the word “affluent” in an email to a stay-at-home mom with a $2.5 million household income, a house in the Hamptons and a child in private school, she almost canceled the interview, she told me later. Real affluence, she said, belonged to her friends who traveled on a private plane.