In the News: Stop Pretending You’re Not Rich

In an opinion piece for the New York Times, Richard Reeves gives an overview of the argument of his new book on the American upper middle class and how its members understand their own position.

He writes,

On the one hand, upper-middle-class Americans believe they are operating in a meritocracy (a belief that allows them to feel entitled to their winnings); on the other hand, they constantly engage in antimeritocratic behavior in order to give their own children a leg up. To the extent that there is any ethical deliberation, it usually results in a justification along the lines of “Well, maybe it’s wrong, but everyone’s doing it.”

The United States is the only nation in the world, for example, where it is easier to get into college if one of your parents happened to go there. Oxford and Cambridge ditched legacy preferences in the middle of the last century. The existence of such an unfair hereditary practice in 21st-century America is startling in itself. But I have been more shocked by the way that even supposedly liberal members of the upper middle class seem to have no qualms about benefiting from it.

Matt Chingos reviewed the new book for Education Next. He writes,

It is not obvious what the “right” levels of economic equality and mobility are, much less how to achieve them. But the idea that government policy should not disproportionately benefit affluent families should be uncontroversial. Reeves’s most significant contribution in this book is his condemnation of such policies and practices, including exclusionary zoning policies that drive up housing prices; advantages in college admissions for children of alumni (“legacy” preferences); favored tax treatment for 529 college savings plans; unpaid internships; and the mortgage-interest tax deduction.

Reeves’s list is far too short. First, I’d add neighborhood-based school attendance policies, which, coupled with exclusionary zoning, keep poor children from attending better-funded schools with higher-achieving peers. Second, I’d include higher-education tax credits, which are regressive and have failed to increase educational attainment. Third, I’d throw in student loan–forgiveness plans, which are likely to disproportionately benefit upper-middle-class families who borrow heavily to attend graduate school.

— Education Next

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