Author of viral New York Times op-ed: Don't kid yourself that you're middle class

What social class are you in?

If you are like most Americans, you will probably say "middle class." In a recent Pew survey, almost nine in 10 Americans did, and about half of Americans said they were "middle middle" class. Only 2 percent acknowledge that they're "upper class."

How is that possible? How far does the middle stretch?

If you have a household income above around $120,000, you are in the top fifth of the distribution. If you're above $200,000, you're in the top tenth. Would you still say you're in the middle?

It has long been this way. America's self-image is of a middle-class nation, unburdened by either a lumpen proletariat working class or an aristocratic upper class. Drawing class distinctions seems almost un-American. Racial divides have been more vivid, and with good reason.

Even George Orwell noted the lack of "servile tradition" in America. British historian David Cannadine described the U.S. as "the pioneering and prototypical classless society." Inspired, politicians in other countries have often urged the creation of a "classless" society.

But America's "classless" society is in danger, thanks in large part to the actions of the upper middle class, or top 20 percent.

The myth of the middle class

It is a refreshing idea that we are all essentially in the same class. A wholly middle-class society is effectively a classless one, and that sounds good. But there is a problem. America is in fact deeply and increasingly divided along class lines. The top fifth — the upper middle class and upper class — are separating from the bottom 80 percent.

The divide can be measured in dollars: Since 1980, the top 20 percent has seen more growth in market income ($4 trillion) than the bottom 80 percent combined ($3 trillion).

The class gap can also be seen in education, as most students at selective colleges are from families in the top fifth. In family life, marriages among college graduates are stable, and their children are planned and timed. In zip codes, economic segregation is increasing even as racial segregation declines.

"Affluent Americans are increasingly living separate lives."

The problem, as I've written elsewhere, is that people who are in the top fifth, or even the top 5 percent of the distribution, convince themselves that they aren't rich. We say we can't be, since our neighbor has even more than we do. This way, we can be enthusiasts for redistribution and "taxing the rich" without worrying we will have to pay more ourselves.

The myth of a universal middle class allows affluent Americans to deny their privilege, to unfairly hoard opportunities, and to resist redistribution.

Who is really in the upper middle class?

Those on the top rungs are not a leisure class. They get their money, mostly, from the labor market. Armed with college degrees, they have seen their salaries grow: While real wage increases have been sickly for those outside the top quintile, the average salary at the top has grown by 58 percent since 1979.

Upper-middle-class 40-somethings are in fact almost as likely to have a postgraduate degree today as to have a bachelor's degree in 1980 (29 percent vs. 35 percent).

The gap widens further when you add in the rise in the proportion of women working, and the growing tendency to marry people of a similar background, since seven in 10 college grads now marry someone with a BA.

Richard V. Reeves.
Richard V. Reeves.

Affluent Americans are increasingly living separate lives from their countrymen and -women. They — we — live in upscale neighborhoods protected by a web of zoning laws that insist, for example, on single-family homes. We send our children to quality four-year colleges. We build up some wealth for retirement.

But one of the points of America is that people move up and down. It's a socially fluid society. If that movement stops, if you have a society where the upper middle class perpetuates itself one generation to the next, you cease to be America.

The only hope of tackling the widening fracture in American society is for those on the top rungs to take a reality check of their own position. They — you, most likely — are not middle class. The real middle class needs some help. You don't.

Richard V. Reeves is a senior fellow in Economic Studies and co-director of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institute. He is the author of the new book, "Dream Hoarders."

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