In the current American Conservative online Charles F. McElwee III describes the plight of the upper-middle class in America, this group defined as having family incomes between $75,000 and $200,000 a year. I know this group from experience. While I spent considerable time as an adult several notches below and was briefly and barely in the 1%, that’s where I am now. These are my people so I believe I can relate McElwee’s story, including the data and narrative evidence he presents, to my own experience in the class.
The story he recounts is not a pretty one.
For countless families, especially in thriving metro regions, a six-figure salary fails to deliver economic security. Their sense of vulnerability is real, not imagined. . . .
(M)embers of the upper-middle class find themselves prisoners of voluntary yet inescapable costs. A multi-generational phenomenon has unfolded, its roots traceable to the economic slowdown of the early 2000s and the subsequent Great Recession. There is a feeling of anxiety among Baby Boomers who cannot retire, Gen. Xers saddled with expensive mortgages and child care costs, and Millennials paralyzed by insurmountable student debt. Data cannot measure emotion. The sense of unease is palpable despite the economy’s booming conditions.
While none of this is surprising given my own experience and observations it is an angle that you don’t read about much. The narrative that has gained more traction recently is the one outlined by Richard Reeves of the Brookings Institution in The Dream Hoarders. Reeves argues that members of the upper-middle class have been doing quite well–a bit too well in fact–with the classes below paying the price.
Per a recent review of the Reeves book in The Atlantic:
The higher you go up the income or wealth distribution, the bigger the gains made in the past three or four decades. Still, the top quintile of earners—those making more than roughly $112,000 a year—have been big beneficiaries of the country’s growth. To make matters worse, this group of Americans engages in a variety of practices that don’t just help their families, but harm the other 80 percent of Americans.
Perhaps one can argue that both Reeves and McElwee are right. Maybe we can dump on the 1% and leave it at that. And, as I will argue below, I think the 1% is complicit in the whole mess. But Reeves argument makes an easy marriage with McElwee difficult. First, there’s Reeves’s contention that
the upper-middle class has pulled away from the middle class and the poor on five dimensions: income and wealth, educational attainment, family structure, geography, and health and longevity. The top 20 percent of earners might not have seen the kinds of income gains made by the top one percent and America’s billionaires.
Additionally Reeves contends that is not just a matter of realizing outsized gains but also the presence of upper-middle class “practices that don’t just help their families, but harm the other 80 percent of Americans”, these including:
legacy admissions, the preferential tax treatment of investment income, 529 college savings plans, exclusionary zoning, occupational licensing, and restrictions on the immigration of white-collar professionals.
Under this account the upper-middle class is “hoarding”, with Reeves poking gentle fun at
(the) hypothetical family of three in San Francisco making $200,000, enjoying vacations to Maui, and living hand-to-mouth.
Is there truth to that stereotype? Sure. One alternative for the stretched upper-middle class is to spend less. But that may be hard to do.
For one the cost of things deemed important for an upper-middle class life have gone up. College–a mandatory expense if there ever was one for the upper-middle class–is likely the best example.
The sticker price of my Syracuse University education was $1,400 in 1971, my senior year. That is $8,600 in today’s dollars. The current sticker price at Syracuse is $43,000.
Housing costs are also a burden, especially since many upper-middle class families have to contend with “the extreme wealth enveloping (the) metro regions” where they live pushing up real estate prices.
Well, why can’t the upper middle class look for savings in these expenditures?
Take college costs. Finding savings here is possible but difficult. The main problem is the rise in higher education costs across the board. Why does Syracuse cost over four times what it cost in 1971 in inflation adjusted dollars?
Some of the increase cannot be helped. Colleges may wish they did not have to pay for things like federal compliance but that kind of thing is an unavoidable consequence of a more complex world.
Most of the increase in costs can be tracked back to other factors, such as the large growth in support staff and administration not devoted to mandatory matters like compliance but to “elective” matters like student affairs, enhanced non-academic programming, higher quality facilities for lifestyle amenities and the like. These things have a way of trickling down from the expensive elites to the less well-resourced lower tiers, including the public institutions that have been lower cost alternatives to expensive privates.
Now, any given household can get stung pretty badly when it comes to college costs. But much of the increase over the last several decades are a result of consumer choice, collectively expressed. We have met the enemy and he is us.
College X may feel the need for a new athletic facility because competitor college Y has just put one up. But behind the desire for both are parents who grouse but are willing to write the check out if Johnny is wowed during the campus tour, and if they are drawn to the reputational advantages of X.
So here we have one of the key culprits in the problem of upper-middle class financial angst: status.
In turn, the burning need for status in the current era is one of the side-effects of the high levels of inequality we now face. As Mickey Kaus has argued while extremely high levels financial inequality is itself a problem the larger problem is the social inequality that gets kicked into high gear as humans wired for status constantly aspire to increasingly unattainable social heights through what they own, consume or show off. Thus even if the 1% is not sitting on resources that ought to flow down to the upper-middle class they serve as a kind of status magnet, causing the upper-middle class to spend more.
The status factor is also visible within the institution of higher education. Academics are driven by status, too, but it is a peculiar kind of status. What that means for most institutions is moving up in the rankings that academics assign to one another: “climbing the Carnegie ladder”. This is something that can only be done by producing more and more research, which is the coin of the realm between academics. Some of that research is hugely important to society; a great deal much less so. But in all cases it generates deficits even when it is sponsored by the federal government, and that mostly gets added to tuition bills. Thus the quest for academic status joins the quest for consumer status in driving up costs.
Of course there are still some clever workarounds, and some use them. There’s the idea of going to a truly inexpensive community college for two years and then transferring to a moderately prestigious, and somewhat less expensive, public institution. Lots of states feel obligated to facilitate such transfers for policy reasons, and the idea can work well. Four years of tuition at Colgate at the current sticker price would cost around $200,000. Two years of community college in New York State plus two years at the University of Buffalo comes to a little over $25,000, in state. That is a hefty difference, and a Buffalo degree is a good one–probably better in many majors than a degree in LGBTQ Studies from Colgate.
But there are status issues to contend with. A community college? For Johnny? He got accepted at Colgate and loved the environment and the great new facilities. So what if he can’t get financial aid? It’s . . (sigh) . . important.
Now consider housing costs. While there has been a small decline in the size of new housing since the 2008 downturn the overall trend has been toward bigger and more expensive. The average size of a new house in 1960 was about 1,100 square feet. It is now around 2,600 square feet–a roughly 135% increase. This when average household size declined from 3.33 in 1960 to 2.54 in 2017, a decrease of almost a quarter.
As with college costs it is hard to duck the full brunt of real estate price increases as a lonely consumer. But housing options vary considerable. An upper-middle class family might downsize or move to a less prestigious neighborhood. But will they? Do they really want to? McElwee discusses the couple portrayed in the HBO series Divorce:
The estranged couple, raising two children, are undeniably upper-middle class. Their professional background, cultural tastes, and suburban lifestyle personify affluence. But their financial insecurity, mainly the result of career choices, remains a theme throughout the series. The DuFresnes’ social circles remind them that their economic position, while favorable, is vulnerable compared to the higher earners inhabiting their bucolic suburb.
Just so. But while the choices this couple face are no doubt constrained they are nonetheless present. Status anxiety is likely the main reason for their gridlock, and for a good deal of their financial anxiety.
So in the end I think both McElwee and Reeves make useful and valid points. But the plight of the upper-middle class and the classes below them are not peas in a pod, adjusted for income. The social and status contexts are different. Choices–albeit difficult ones–increase with income. No surprise.
I am a member of the upper-middle class and have no desire to be considered a traitor to it. But I am less sympathetic to its plight than to the plight of those less advantaged.
I suppose some of that is my vestigial liberalism—ironic in this instance since the upper-middle class people I know consider themselves liberals while looking up as a class, for traction and advantage as Reeves describes. They are the folks who tend to look down their noses at the middle-middle and lower-middle classes as deplorable—a convenient way perhaps to unconsciously rationalize their own class interests.
Like it or not people tend to kiss up and kick down. That’s human nature, too. The wealthiest among us are now fully insulated from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, and have given up on their historic role as prudent stewards of our national culture. The nation? Hah!
The classes tucked underneath—the merely wealthy and the upper-middle class—comprise a kind of courtier class. They see more to be gained by looking up than looking down. And if their betters see no reason to feel an obligation to a common good then why should they?