The 1 percent is not the main cause of inequality in America.  You and I are.

More precisely, the culprits are the top 20 percent, which, as the economist Richard Reeves writes in his new book about the upper middle class, includes “you and me.” (“Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem, and What to Do about It”)

It does include myself and most of my friends. You could very well be saying the same about yourself.

This top 20 percent may not be posh, but they are certainly privileged. They may be liberals but they nevertheless profoundly contribute to inequality.

Kakaako Condos Real Estate Honolulu . 17 april 2017

In Hawaii, being in the upper 20 percent may mean having the ability to buy a unit in condominium developments like these in Kakaako.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

This creates a special dilemma for upper middle class progressives. They advocate greater equality, but like others with wealth, they use their resources to escape to suburbs, private schools and low-density neighborhoods with zoning that makes it impossible for poorer folks to live.

The upper middle class, including these liberals, hoards the American Dream by creating barriers keeping others from moving on up.

So who are these 20 percenters? Nationally, their annual household income is about $112, 000. In Hawaii the top quintile averages $124,000, which, roughly adjusting for the high cost of living here, comes out close to the national average.

Hawaii’s upper-middle-class household income is just as close to those in the top 5 percent as it is to the state’s $68,000 median household income.

They tend to be professionals, tech workers, managers, bureaucrats, journalists and academics.

They are likely married, with a spouse also from the same social class with a decent-paying job. Think of a household with a civil engineer and an experienced schoolteacher.

It’s easy for the upper middle class liberal to admit complicity but then escape and focus on her own family’s success.

Let’s compare this class to the rest by looking at housing in Hawaii.

Hawaii’s top quintile may not be living with as much space or luxury as they would in other cities. Some might even rent because they can’t afford the house they want.

But that’s living large compared to the average person’s situation here, where a household with two people each making the median wage of $15 an hour need to spend close to 80 percent of their incomes just to rent a very modest two-bedroom apartment.

The divergence between the upper middle class and everyone else begins at birth. In addition to income, class barriers have increased regarding morbidity, mortality, education level, opioid addiction, family stability, child rearing and even brain development. 

More than anything else, it’s the family — economic and psychological resources upper middle class parents have at their disposal — that drives the differences. 

These families develop social skills, self-regulation and a wide cultural vocabulary that prepares them for the labor market. They have connections and rich social networks that help their kids get the information and skills they need.

This gateway to success has become locked from the inside. People are not moving up into the top 20 percent, and people in the top quintile are not moving down.

The U.S. now has less relative social mobility than Canada and several European countries, including the United Kingdom.

It’s not about the wealthy self-consciously preventing mobility, but it’s not exactly merit either. Upper middle class children succeed primarily because they won the lottery of being born into the right family.

Many economic policies clearly favor the wealthy. Ninety-five percent of the federal tax benefits go to this top 20. The home mortgage deduction benefits owners, not renters.

The same is true for college savings funds, which liberals like Nancy Pelosi successfully fought to keep President Obama from eliminating. Where is the average person going to get a little extra to save this way?

College legacy admissions and the way internships are allocated give the upper middle class even more of an upper hand to perpetuate itself.  They know the right people and get the best advice.

Here is the hardest idea to accept for liberals who worry about inequality. It involves simple math: Only 20 percent of the households can be part of the upper 20 percent.

So ameliorative policies have to increase the chances for people to move up to the upper middle class as well as to increase the chances that upper middle class members will move down.

That’s what social mobility means. And that is where liberal guilt meets liberal anxiety and liberal anger.

Reeves, an upper middle class liberal himself, calls these liberals the most dangerous constituency to anger because they are wealthy enough to have influence and big enough to be a significant voting bloc.

As he puts it, when upper middle class policymakers claim that college is not for everyone, “you can be pretty certain that they are not including their own children in that category.”

So it’s easy and common for the upper middle class liberal to admit complicity but then, as so often in the past, escape and focus on her own family’s success.

That response is understandable, tempting and consequently hard to avoid. But having these progressives take a good long look at themselves is a place to start.

Consider how winning the birth lottery makes you and your children so different from the average person. Consider how those differences might counter the values you claim to believe in.

Hawaii is an expensive place for all of us. We all pay a tariff for living here.

But the tariff of having to fly long distances to see your college-educated kids with good jobs on the mainland or paying for an extra flight to meet up with your Viking River Cruise is not the same as forking over unaffordable rent for a crappy apartment or paying usurious interest on a payday loan.

Those are not just tariffs for the poor. They are tariffs for the average person in Hawaii, where half the people live from paycheck to paycheck.

So realizing just how different from average you are and how you get there — that’s a good place to start.

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