Home > Uncategorized > Bryce Covert’s Review of Richard Reeves’ New Book Exposes His Timidity, Underscores Need to Reformat Schools

Bryce Covert’s Review of Richard Reeves’ New Book Exposes His Timidity, Underscores Need to Reformat Schools

July 6, 2017

Bryce Covert, the Economic Policy Editor for ThinkProgress and columnist for The Nation, wrote an insightful review of Brookings Institute’s Richard Reeves’ new book Dream Hoarders. The premise of Mr. Reeves’ book is that the top 20% (i.e. those who earn roughly $117,000 or more) has experienced as many benefits from the economic expansion as the top .01% yet they— and the politicians— erroneously think of themselves as “middle class”. As a consequence, when politicians promise to “protect the middle class” from tax cuts they define the “middle class” as anyone making less than $250,000. Furthermore, as Mr. Reeves points out, those in the top 20% are not being asked to make any sacrifices when it comes to helping improve the opportunities for the bottom 80% to advance. Ms. Covert writes:

While, Reeves notes, individual members of the 1 percent can swing their money around to great impact, the upper middle class as a bloc has outsized influence. “[T]he size and strength of the upper middle class means that it can reshape cities, dominate the education system, and transform the labor market,” he writes. When their interests are threatened, the members of this class have the social capital to fight back….

Pretending that people making six figures are middle class, and then promising to protect them from any tax increases, means politicians are unable to ask these families to pay a tiny tax into new universal benefits like paid family leave. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Real solutions to exponentially increasing income inequality will require extensive public investment. And the tax revenue required can’t all come from the top 1 percent... “[M]ore money can be raised from the upper middle class without plunging them into near poverty…,” he notes. “[I]f we need additional resources for public investment, it is reasonable to raise some of them from the upper middle class.”

But Ms. Covert asserts that it is not sufficient to ask the top 20% for only higher taxes, and she believes that while Mr. Reeves’ recognizes this reality, he fails to offer the tough recommendations needed to change this reality:

(Reeves) also sees this class as not just defined by income, but by better health, education, occupational opportunities, and even different family structure. The upper middle class then uses these assets to hoard opportunities for itself, perpetuating an unfair system: Its members fight to preserve zoning laws that keep the good schools free of poorer children, find ways to pay their children’s way into elite colleges (he takes particular umbrage with legacy admissions), and trade favors to get their kids into unpaid internships. The rich skew the game so that American class structure stays entrenched.

In this way, Reeves accurately names a problem that too often goes unacknowledged. But his solutions for the problem are weak at best.

While he admits that his suggestions for how to solve perpetual class stratification are just a starting point, the lack of teeth is telling. He suggests providing low-income Americans with better access to family planning and home visits from nurses for new parents, ignoring the fact that single mothers fare a whole lot better in countries that actually spend enough on their social safety nets. He wants better teachers in K-12 schools, a less complex college loan process, more support for vocational training, and the end to legacy admissions at elite universities, but stops short of calling for a full-scale overhaul of the educational system, one that would put an end to racial segregation and ensure adequate funding for all…

He doesn’t want the Department of Housing and Urban Development to ensure that communities comply with fair housing rules or even to make upper-middle-class areas accept more high-rises; he just wants more three-story buildings. On taxes, he believes, “As a general principle, it is better for people to be able to spend their own money rather than have it taken away from them,” which leads him to endorse merely limiting some tax deductions used by the well-off.

Ms. Covert believes that “...for all his talk of a rigged system, Reeves doesn’t actually want to transform it“. Rather, Ms. Covert believes that Mr. Reeves wants to ensure that every child born into poverty has an equal opportunity to move into the upper 20%, a possibility that he believes is close at hand. Ms. Covert sees Mr. Reeves’ perception as flawed on two levels. First, it assumes that our economy must be a zero-sum game where there will always be a 20/80 split and secondly, it naively assumes that women and minorities are currently afforded the same opportunities as men and whites. In short, Ms. Covert does not share Mr. Reeves beliefs that a true meritocracy is close at hand. She concludes her review with these paragraphs:

Meanwhile, meritocracy is more often to blame for perpetuating discrimination than heralding its end. One study found that when an organization explicitly calls itself a meritocracy, managers favor male employees over female ones. If a workplace, or a society, believes that all one needs to get ahead is talent, it quickly ignores anything else that might keep someone from rising.

Reeves says he wants upper-middle-class Americans like himself to pay more so that the playing field is leveled for all. But his solutions suggest he’s not willing to take that instinct very far. His class wouldn’t have to pony up very much for the milquetoast solutions he puts forward. Even after his ideal revisions, the basic structure of America’s ruthless market-based society would remain intact. In his world, being a member of the lower classes, even with more mobility, would still destine you to destitution.

I believe Ms. Covert’s analysis is accurate: in order for those born into poverty, especially the young women born into poverty, to succeed, some deep changes in our economic system are necessary, changes that could be presaged by changing the format of our schools. As long as school boundaries are set by socio-economic demographics we will continue to reinforce the rigid 20/80 split in place making it increasingly difficult for those in the lower 80% to advance into the professional class. The imaginative use of technology might make those boundaries disappear… but only if we can make our current format of education— whereby children are grouped by age-based cohorts called “grades levels”— disappear as well.


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