The fifth privilege and ‘opportunity hoarding’

I recently read an article in the Boston Review that shocked me in a number of ways. The piece is titled “The Dream Hoarders: How America’s Top 20 Percent Perpetuates Inequality.” The author is Richard V. Reeves.

Shock No 1: Reeves begins by recounting how in 2015 President Obama wanted to remove the tax benefits from 529 college savings plans. Oh, my God, I thought, not President Obama! I have two of those plans for my great nephews. Don’t touch them! Reeves immediately explained that Obama could see that these plans disproportionately helped affluent families and he wanted to use the money to help fund a broader, fairer system of tax credits.

That these savings plans primarily help affluent people was shock No. 2. Though I live comfortably and am able to pursue many of the things I enjoy, I’ve never considered myself affluent. I’ve worked as an editor, a teacher and a writer, none of which has ever brought me close to the six-figure income that is the threshold, apparently, of the upper-middle class. In the larger scheme of things, I may, in fact, be upper middle class, but at its lower level.

Shock No. 3: The reason the president’s proposal was dead before it ever arrived in Congress was that Democrats mobilized against it. Democrats? Yes, upper-middle class Democrats. The Top 20 percent. A 529 plan is a tax-deferred education savings plan, and while it’s a smart way to save for college, Reeves states that “more than 90 percent of the tax advantage goes to families with incomes in the top quarter of the distribution.” People with lower incomes can’t afford one. The inequality gap, he says, isn’t between the top one percent and the 99 percent rest of us. It’s between the top fifth of income distribution (what I call the Top Fifth) – “broadly, households with incomes above the $112,000 mark” – and the rest of us.

In today’s world, $112,000 may not make you very affluent, but it’s an opening with important ramifications. It may allow you to move to a town with good services and a good school system. The zip code factor, one of the few things children in a supposedly classless society can inherit. To be born in a place where affluence has allowed families to be educated, who read and discuss issues and introduce their children to the various cultural aspects of our society is a kind of inheritance, and it’s called upper-middle class privilege.

Here is where Reeves sees a problem. The Top Fifth holds very tightly to its affluent position and the privilege it entails. Hence the reaction to the proposed reform of 529 plans. It’s as though we see the economic world as a zero sum game where the more qualified people are permitted into the marketplace the fewer opportunities there are for us. Reeves calls it “opportunity hoarding.” He says “…when the income gap of one generation is converted into an opportunity gap for the next, economic inequality hardens into class stratification.” And that is indeed what we’re seeing. This must be a wake-up alarm to our comfortable middle-class way of viewing ourselves and our social and economic world. What most deeply shocks me is the realization of the degree to which our society is tilted in favor of the Top Fifth. It’s not news that colleges tend to favor children of alumnae/i and big donors in their admissions policies, and from there it’s an easy step to the good internships and jobs at prestigious law or financial firms. Intergenerational legacies and connections open pathways and create opportunities for the children of the Top Fifth that are not available to equally worthy children of those stuck below what Reeves calls the upper class safety net or “glass floor.”

He hastens to acknowledge that there is a distinction between good parenting – where parents provide security, good nutrition, education and enrichment opportunities for their children – and using their accrued position and power to increase their children’s success at the expense of worthy but less affluent young people. He calls these “anticompetitive behaviors.” To reduce this abuse of privilege he suggests strategies like curbing exclusionary zoning, making post-secondary education more affordable and opening up internships to job opportunities – all things we’ve already figured out. But there’s one thing he doesn’t mention that could go a long way toward reducing this hoarding of privilege. Of course we should provide as many opportunities for our children as we can, but at the same time we must teach them that privilege entails responsibilities, in fact obligations. It’s the obligation of us in the Top Fifth to make sure we use our privilege not just to perpetuate it for our children, but to make it generally available so that those we have kept below the glass floor can break through.

Katharine Gregg is a poet, essayist and former educator. She lives in Mason. She can be contact at kggregg@myfairpoint.net.