Richard V. Reeves, co-director of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution, makes a good living and has a comfortable life. He says he's part of the upper-middle class, living in a nice home in a good neighborhood on the East Coast, where he has abundant opportunities.
But he's also a rebel with a simple message for his similarly wealthy peers: Let's stop keeping for ourselves all the opportunities and financial breaks and social benefits we've amassed or simply had handed to us.
Reeves was born and educated in Britain, where he earned a doctorate from the University of Warwick in Coventry. He was director of strategy for Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg for a couple of years, according to his lengthy vita, which reflects books he wrote, successful careers in journalism and policy and such awards as "European Business Speaker of the Year." As a Brookings Senior Fellow he specializes in family-friendly topics that include character development, parenting, social policy and social mobility. Ask him about any of it and he can rattles off figures faster than one can capture them.
Now an American citizen, he recently wrote that the median household income in America is less than $60,000 a year, but people who make considerably more than that don't see themselves as wealthy. Nor are they always generous toward others.
Reeves, who gladly admits he's liberal, wrote that wealthy members of the upper-middle class — the top 20 percent, of which he is a class member — saw their real income rise a whopping 88 percent between 1979 to 2013. The bottom 80 percent saw real income gains of less than half that, at 41 percent.
In his new book, "Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem, and What to Do About It," Reeves urges his upper-middle class friends to be more generous and to let go of some advantages that hold others with fewer resources back.
We recently caught up with Reeves. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length:
What's the problem with the upper-middle class having everything? Aren't they rich because they earned it?
It's a question of how much they should have. People should have things — and a lot of things if they work hard for them. The question is: What's the limit to that? Is there a sort of braking mechanism that applies to the extent to which people can just get to eat all the cake?
My view is that the current distribution and the amount enjoyed by the upper-middle class are not justified on the meritocratic ground that they — or I should switch to "we" as I am a member of the upper-middle class — that we think they are. Part of the problem is a belief that we are entitled to them because they flow solely from our own efforts and our own diligence and our own brilliance, rather than in some cases from a set of good fortune and then a set of policies and structures so they then inherit the advantage.
The example I use in the book is being born on third base and then thinking they've hit a triple …. So no, they shouldn't have everything because they haven't done everything to get it, much as they might convince themselves otherwise.
That's the specific way in which the upper-middle class is able to sustain their status and pass it on to their children, which is not just by being better-equipped in a contest — better trained for the contest — but is when actually the rules of the contest are effectively rigged in their favor. So there are certain structural elements which essentially are anti-competitive. They actually get in the way of anything even approaching a level playing field. The first way you see this is through their superior preparedness for the contest.
I'll give you a couple of examples. The most egregious, if not the most important, is probably playing the legacy preferences card in colleges, because that's a zero-sum game. There are only so many places at these colleges, so if one is taken by a legacy it is one that is not going to somebody else. That's just a classic example of that system that's rigged in the favor of those who already may have more resources anyway — and it's therefore denied to somebody else. By my thinking, that's the most egregious and, candidly, nationally embarrassing example of opportunity hoarding.
But the deeper one, the one I write more about, is the way that neighborhoods are designed and land use regulated. We want land-use regulation for all kinds of reasons, but the way that land now is being regulated serves a whole series of purposes which go well beyond the beneficial aspects and actually becomes nefarious in the kind of way in which we end up rigging the housing market and rigging land-use regulation so it disproportionately benefits those who already have money and wealth by excluding those with less. Land is a classic scarce good. There's only so much of it in any particular place, so the way the market for that land is regulated has quite a big effect on some of these social factors.
Exclusionary lending is used in many places to artificially keep one's land in top supply. It's good for people like me … but it keeps people away from economic opportunities. Every passing month I get more and more worried about land and the use of land and the regulation of land. And it's kind of where politics gets really personal, where it's local. It happens lots of places. Somebody did a study showing some of the most liberal cities have some of the most restrictive zoning: San Francisco, New York, Chicago and places like that.
I do think there's an uncomfortable correlation for liberals, because there are plenty of people who are in neighborhoods who … when it comes to the meeting deciding whether or not they're going to allow a homeless shelter or something like that, their liberalism seems to wane somewhat.
If there's something that there's only so much of but it's valuable, we overconsume by rigging the market in our favor.
You use "we" often, putting yourself firmly in the upper-middle class, where you say the problem originates. Was that to recruit others like you?
It would have felt just incredibly disingenuous not to say "we" and to keep writing about this class as if it was an alien group of people by observing like an anthropologist when I absolutely am part of and live among them. And I am a new American, so I probably am looking at it in a slightly different way. I would like to understand the new class system as opposed to the old one I left behind. So it's partly that. But too often when we write about these things, we pretend we are writing about other people. And it's partly to make this more personal. This stuff gets real personal real quick.
It has to be personal — how we personally conduct ourselves, particularly in the local community and the local institutions. It's part of the challenge of changing cultures. This is really an attempt to play a tiny part in trying to create a different kind of culture. And I think that cultures are created, to quote Gerry Cullen, one of my favorite philosophers, in what he describes as the thick of everyday life. So it is an attempt to make some of these issues of inequality in the thick of everyday life more personal, more direct. People don't like it. It makes them uncomfortable and it makes me uncomfortable. But we've tried to have the easy conversations about inequality and it hasn't gotten us very far. I think there's a time now where we have to start thinking just a little bit about our personal implication in and personal responsibility for the inequality.
I wrote it for my neighbors and friends and colleagues who I knew would read it — people in the upper-middle class. The people who read these kinds of books tend to be leaning left, more liberal. So I expected the median reader to be someone around the 90th percentile, with a college degree, worried about inequality and what is happening, but who would be challenged by, disagree with and be discomforted by the idea that they themselves might be implicated.
I tried to be as fair and balanced as I could be — but I did want to try and jolt myself and hopefully my readers into at least a more honest and personal conversation about new policy rather than the abstract one we find more comfortable. To just say, the next time you look for the face of inequality, don't rule out the fact that it could be the person in the mirror. Then ask yourself, if that's true, what does that mean you should be doing about it? And I don't just mean how you vote every four years or every two years. What should we all be doing about it right now? If I could have a few people think like that about it, how uncomfortable it is, then great.