Top 20 Percent Of Americans 'Hoard The American Dream'
There's a hidden force shaping our politics, says author Richard Reeves, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and it's hidden in plain sight.
In his forthcoming book, Dream Hoarders, Reeves argues that the top 20 percent of Americans — those with six-figure incomes and above — dominate the best schools, live in the best-located homes and pass on the best futures to their kids.
"They are members of the American upper-middle class, who, through various ways of rigging the market ... are essentially hoarding the American dream," he tells NPR's Steve Inskeep.
Originally from England, Reeves has been "startled" to see what he calls "opportunity hoarding mechanisms" in America.
"[W]e protect our neighborhoods, we hoard housing wealth, we also monopolize selective higher education and then we hand out internships and work opportunities on the basis of the social network — people we know in the neighborhood or meet on the tennis courts. And so to that extent we are kind of hoarding those things that should be more widely available," he says.
On the class differences in the U.S. and England
I never thought I'd say this but I sort of miss the class consciousness of my old country which I grew up hating. The reason I miss it is because at least we're aware of it. It seems to me that in the U.S. you have a class system that operates every bit as ruthlessly as the British class system but under the veneer of classless meritocracy. There isn't even a self awareness.
On how the tax system helps richer people buy houses near the best schools
The tax incentives that are available to buy houses in the U.S. are necessarily tilted. ... Something like $70 billion go on mortgage interest deductions and the deductions for local property taxes. [I]t means that we're not increasing housing ownership in terms of the breadth; we're increasing it in terms of depth. We're actually encouraging people who already have a lot of wealth to just double down on that by buying an even bigger house [and then selling it for even more money later] — and you'll get an even bigger tax incentive for doing so. And so the entire cycle is almost designed to seal off the upper-middle class from everybody else.
On where this system came from
Many of the mechanisms actually have racist roots. So the zoning laws quite often ... had racist origins. Legacy preferences are one way college admissions are rigged. Legacy preferences are genuinely extraordinary in the sense that no other country in the world does that.
They're actually an attempt by elite colleges to keep Jewish students out, and so what you see is these sort of mechanisms that were evolved for different reasons. Now they interweave with each other to create a deeply unequal society.
On how these trends drive the history we're living now
I've come to believe that the dangerous separation of the American upper-middle class from the rest of society is a huge problem for politics because there's a sense of a bubble, there's a sense of people who are kind of making out pretty well from current trends and who are increasingly separate – occupationally, residentially, educationally and economically — from the rest of society. They are also disproportionately powerful and the fact that they are not only separate but unaware of the degree to which the system works in their favor strikes me as one of the most dangerous political facts of our time.
NPR editor Steve Tripoli and digital producer Heidi Glenn contributed to this story.