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The Top Quintile Pulls Away… and Ignores the 80% Left Behind

Thomas Edsall’s NYTimes editorials are full of statistics and analysis and yesterday’s piece, “How the Other Fifth Lives”describes how the top fifth is markedly different from the bottom four quintiles and, sadly, how their priorities do not include addressing the needs of their fellow citizens who are struggling.

As Edsall notes with charts and quotes from sociologists and political scientists, the top fifth have:

  • More education (56 percent of heads of households in the top quintile have college or advanced degrees, compared with 34 percent in the third and fourth quintiles and 17 percent in the bottom two quintiles)
  • More stable family structures (83 percent of affluent heads of household between the ages of 35 and 40 are married, compared with 65 percent in the third and fourth income quintiles and 33 percent in the bottom two).
  • More political clout (Although by definition this group represents 20 percent of all Americans, it represents about 30 percent of the electorate, in part because of high turnout levels)
  • More investments in their children’s well-being (we have seen a threefold increase between 1972 and 2007 in top-decile spending on children, an increase that suggests that parents at the top may be investing in ever more high-quality day care and babysitting, private schooling, books and tutoring, and college tuition and fees)
  • More money relative to those in the lower quintiles (the gap between the average income of households with children in the top quintile and households with children in the middle quintile has grown, in inflation-adjusted dollars, from $68,600 to $169,300 — that’s 147 percent)
  • Less interaction with those outside of their economic strata (the percentage of families with children living in very affluent neighborhoods more than doubled between 1970 and 2012, from 6.6 percent to 15.7 percent. At the same time, the percentage of families with children living in traditional middle class neighborhoods with median incomes between 80 and 125 percent of the surrounding metropolitan area fell from 64.7 percent in 1970 to 40.5 percent.)
  • Less concern with the effects of poverty (a recent Pew survey (indicates) dealing with the problems of the poor and needy ranked 10th on a list of public priorities, well behind terrorism, education, Social Security and the deficit).

This increase in the gap between the affluent and the poor and the increase in geographic isolation of the two groups is de-stabilizing for our country and our democracy. Mr. Edsall captures the dilemma in his concluding paragraphs:

It turns out that the United States has a double-edged problem — the parallel isolation of the top and bottom fifths of its population. For the top, the separation from the middle and lower classes means less understanding and sympathy for the majority of the electorate, combined with the comfort of living in a cocoon.

For those at the bottom, especially the families who are concentrated in extremely high poverty neighborhoods, isolation means bad schools, high crime, high unemployment and high government dependency.

The trends at the top and the bottom are undermining cohesive politics, but more important they are undermining social interconnection as they fracture the United States more and more into a class and race hierarchy.

I live in one of the top quintile cocoons: a college town surrounded by a ring of communities that become progressively poorer as one moves outward. The professors and doctors from the nearby medical center live in my community and the one across the river and the college’s service staff and hospital orderlies commute in from rural communities. This hasn’t always been the case for me. I’ve lived and worked in urban areas, inner-ring blue collar suburbs, rural outposts, and economically diverse communities. In retrospect, even when I lived in less affluent areas I always shopped in upscale areas for clothing and got my New Yorker and Sunday NYTimes. But I had to pick up the New Yorker at the local post office and buy the NYTimes at the local convenience store where contractors congregated to discuss politics and sports…. and as the leader of the schools in the areas where I lived I got a sense of the community’s values and, especially, the values of the parents. And here’s what I find especially distressing after reading Mr. Edsall’s analysis: the parents who are living in poverty want their children to succeed every bit as much as the parents living in affluence… and because of the cocoons we are living in these two groups of parents have a very limited social interconnection and our divides are widening. if we want to be the United States of America we need to find a way to restore the social interconnections we’ve lost over the past five decades.

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