The New York Times' David Brooks set the nation abuzz this week with a column on why the upper middle class is maintaining the class divide and "ruining America": "American upper-middle-class culture (where the opportunities are) is now laced with cultural signifiers that are completely illegible unless you happen to have grown up in this class. They play on the normal human fear of humiliation and exclusion. Their chief message is, 'You are not welcome here.'"
The piece uses an anecdote of a friend of his supposedly intimidated by his choice of sandwich shop that CNN's Jill Filipovic says misses the point: "It's not Italian cured meats keeping the wealthy and privileged in their gilded position. It's policy." The New Republic's Clio Chang offered further thoughts on why the column is problematic:
Brooks actually dedicates the first half of his piece to detailing a whole host of very real structural barriers: that upper-middle-class parents spend two to three times more on their children than their lower-class counterparts; that they can spend buckets of money to get their kids admitted to college; that housing policy segregates poor people from the neighborhoods and schools of rich, white people like David Brooks.
But then there is an incredible bait-and-switch. As Brooks writes, “I’ve come to think the structural barriers [analyst Richard Reeves] emphasizes are less important than the informal social barriers that segregate the lower 80 percent.”
The only way Brooks could come to that conclusion after laying out (himself!) the immense structural barriers that poor people face is through willful ignorance. If culture is the main problem, then people like Brooks don’t need to think about, say, giving up any of their wealth to create a more equal society.
The Brooks column was in response to a new book by Brookings' Richard Reeves, called Dream Hoarders, which looks at the upper middle class. The Nation's Bryce Covert argues the book has some problems of its own:
Reeves’s book is an important reminder: The United States has a class system, even though we never talk about it. Since 1939, Gallup has found that almost 90 percent of Americans describe themselves as “middle class.” Just 1 to 2 percent define themselves as “upper class.” These definitions have therefore come to do more to obscure class divisions than to illuminate them. Even though the United States has “a more rigid class structure than many European nations, including the United Kingdom,” Reeves points out, “Americans are more tolerant of income inequality…in part because of this faith that in each generation the poor run a fair race against the rich, and the brightest succeed.” He does a great service by talking out loud about his own class and its influence.
His book falls short, however, in its inability to consider how class intersects with and is even often trumped by other factors, like race and gender. His solutions are so mild as to represent barely a slap on the wrist for a class that hoards wealth and opportunity. And he never questions a meritocratic system that will inevitably produce losers, no matter how even the playing field becomes.
Also in the New York Times, Tracy McMillan, a former food stamp recipient, asks if we really know who is poor given our long-held cultural assumptions and media coverage:
Having an implicit belief that poverty didn’t really happen to white people did me more harm than good, and nearly prevented me from seeking help I needed. It also ignored reality. While it’s true that blacks and latinos disproportionately live in poverty, if you analyze who gets food stamps, they are most likely to be white...The qualification for being poor is not race or education, but an insurmountable gap between income and cost of living. But those assumptions, which I think are commonplace, say a lot about who we think is really poor.
Covering poverty as if it is predominantly a black issue is a problem. It’s a problem because it can suggest that black suffering is a natural fact rather than a manufactured problem we should correct. It’s a problem because it fosters resentment against communities of color from economically struggling whites, who have some reason to feel their hardship is played down. And this all creates a political problem: the obliteration of the common ground that being poor can help illuminate across racial lines.
Can you live the American Dream in a trailer park? Over at Salon, Sara Terry looks at why we may want reevaluate them:
All too often, they’re the butt of jokes and stereotypes — mobile home parks and the “trailer trash” who live in them.
But the 50,000 parks that are spread across the United States deserve a lot more respect than that. Home to some 20 million people — 6 percent of Americans — they are the nation’s largest source of unsubsidized affordable housing, offering a shot at the American dream to people who can’t afford a traditional home. And at a time when only 1 in 4 Americans who qualify for government housing assistance actually receives aid, these parks take a huge load off a severely strained system.
In Washington Monthly, New America's Anne Stuhldreher says cash-strapped cities are increasingly relying on the poor to fund budget gaps. For further reading, you might be interested in this KQED report on how the bail system costs people of color in San Francisco as much as $15 million a year. The California is debating whether to overhaul its for-profit bail system. Meanwhile, The Atlantic reports on a Philadelphia program that helps families learn to assist in defending loves amidst the continuing shortage of public defenders.
Also the Fiscal Times says the president's proposed tax cuts would be a tough sell to the poor and middle class: "Those in the middle-class making between $50,000 and $86,000 would see their after-tax income rise an average of about $1,900 a year, or about three percent. However, those Americans in the top 1 percent – the elites making more than $732,000 a year – would realize an average tax cut of $270,000 or nearly 18 percent of their after-tax income."
Good news, job growth is continuing a pace, but sadly no one wants to work for the wages being offered:
Employers are very aware that the pool of workers is shrinking and they are rethinking traditional qualifications like length of experience, Mr. Stull said. “Employers will take on hard-working, reliable workers even if they don’t have an opening,” he said.
At the same time, he said that workers were “pushing back a little bit about driving an hour for a $10-an-hour job at a distribution center on the outer rim of the city.” “You need a car for that,” Mr. Stull said, “and you can’t have a car on $10 an hour.”
Over at Slate, Daniel Goss looks at even though competition for workers is high, America's wages are in a rut:
Last week, the New York Times featured a Columbus, Ohio, cleaning company owner mystified that he couldn’t find applicants for his $9.25-per-hour jobs (“I sometimes wish there was actually a higher unemployment rate,” he actually said) and a Nebraska roofer who couldn’t figure out why nobody applied for the $17-an-hour jobs she was offering. “The pay is fair,” she said.
Actually, if not a single person applies for your job, the pay probably isn’t fair. But that’s where America remains stubbornly stuck: Employers won’t pay enough, and workers either won’t or can’t demand more. There are likely a lot of reasons, but the biggest, or least most fixable, may be psychological: From an economic perspective, both sides of the hiring market should have the power to increase overall wages in the current climate—but they aren’t...
[F]or a long period of time, companies became accustomed to getting all the labor they needed at the (low) price they wanted to pay, and managed to hold onto staff despite not raising wages. This mentality hardened into something like a permanent mindset, incorporated into business models and pro forma projections. In an era when overall economic growth was slowing, companies simply couldn’t countenance raising wages consistently.
In the New York Times, Daily Show writer Kashana Cauley argues that Millennials should spearhead the next labor movement:
I belong to a union myself these days: the Writers Guild of America East, which recently avoided a strike and negotiated more favorable health care coverage for its members. That success was a particularly noteworthy accomplishment in this era when millions of people — many with employer-based plans — are rightly afraid of losing their health coverage. At a time when the government wants to disembowel public and private health care and when wages are on the decline, our best recourse to these threats is to join existing unions or unionize ourselves.
Salon's Keith Spencer looks at his personal experience on the way in which teaching has joined the gig economy:
We were sitting in the small principal’s office on the second floor of a strip mall in Silicon Valley. It was a strange site for a private school — situated above a weight-loss center, whose patrons stared at me from treadmills as I walked up the stairs; and adjacent to a Starbucks patronized by well-heeled Menlo Park techies. The vice principal explained that the school operated on a model known as “one-on-one” education — classes took place in small cubicles, with one teacher and one student working in 55-minute increments, at the student’s own pace and to her strengths...
The job paid $25 an hour — more than twice what I had ever made in my life — and had a flexible schedule. Hearing the wage made all my financial and housing problems feel surmountable...After the first month, the $52,000-a-year job didn’t seem likely to materialize; for three paid hours a day — plus the two or more unpaid hours a day I spent on prep — I was making about $330 a week after taxes, with no benefits.
In the Huffington Post, Pax World's Julie Fox Gorte asks why the Business Roundtable is attempting to nix shareholder ESG resolutions:
Earlier this year, the Business Roundtable (BRT) sent a letter to the Administration highlighting 16 regulations that the organization thought were “of most concern” to its members, noting that the regulations “directly and negatively impact economic growth.” One of those was the shareholder proposal process, which the letter described as “activist investors with insignificant stakes in public companies make shareholder proposals that pursue social or political agendas unrelated to the interests of the shareholders as a whole.”...
“Pursuing social or political agendas unrelated to the interests of the shareholders as a whole” is another statement worthy of honest illumination. In the vast majority of cases, shareholders file proposals with companies to make them perform better, not worse. And the fact that now many resolutions get votes in the 30-50 percent range, and some pass with majority votes, demonstrate that these issues resonate with shareholders who definitely see them as in “their interests.” It’s also worth looking at the business rationale behind many of these proposals. In 2016, there were about 1,000 shareholder proposals filed in the United States, of which about 400 were on social and environmental issues. The remainder concerned corporate governance. None of these categories are trivial or peripheral to company value, as reams of research demonstrate.
You might be interested in the Bloomberg piece from Lisa Abramowicz on how pension funds are cutting out the private equity middle man and investing in smaller and midsized businesses directly to save on fees. In Impact Alpha, we have a look at why Ford's Darren Walker is taking on impact investing naysayers, including some on his own board.
Over at Inside Philanthropy, David Callahan says we should be paying closer attention to where all that Warren Buffet giving is going:
[W]hile many people are under the impression that all of Buffett’s fortune is earmarked for the Gates Foundation, the gifts to his children’s foundations have turned out to be enormous in their own right—and are bankrolling a wide array of grantmaking both in the United States and abroad. This year, according to Forbes, Buffett sent around $2.4 billion worth of stock to the Gates Foundation. The other $800 million or so went to the family foundations—the Susan Thompson Buffett, Sherwood, Novo, and Howard Buffett foundations.
If this ratio of distributions were to hold through the future, along with the current value of Berkshire Hathaway shares, as much as $18 billion would flow to the family foundations.
Also we have a look at the Koch Brothers' involvement in the anti-poverty group Stand Together alondside sports figure Deion Sanders:
Sanders’ fundraising initiative through Stand Together, dubbed Prime 5, aims to raise $21 million for anti-poverty "catalysts" in the city of Dallas. As you’d expect, the Kochs’ libertarian up-by-your-bootstraps philosophy runs deeply through most of Stand Together’s initiatives. As Sanders said in a Prime 5 promotional video, “If you’re willing to work hard, there are people willing to work hard with you.” No handouts here, thank you.
This is all about giving impoverished people a chance to succeed on their own, preferably in the freest possible of markets. As for nonprofits, Stand Together takes a corresponding view: “The social return on an investment becomes measurable and replicable when community-based nonprofit organizations focus on outcomes and operate with the same management principles as for-profit businesses.”