Having rich parents has always helped unlock the door to the best of what America has to offer — from the most desirable neighborhoods and schools to swank country clubs and professional positions. So what’s different now? Why are we seeing affluent people go to such extremes simply to get Junior into a good college?
What’s happening is that the price of admission for everything coveted has gone up. And even some of the wealthy are having trouble keeping up.
It all comes down to the destructive effects of a runaway train called economic inequality. Several decades of policies that concentrate wealth at the top have produced a large gap between the rich and everybody else. But there’s also a growing chasm between the top one percent and the gold-plated group that has pulled away from them — the .01 percent.
In the last four decades, members of the .01 club have gotten richer far faster than their fellow one percenters. By 2012, the wealthiest group’s slice of America’s wealth pie was four times bigger than it was in the 1970s, according to economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman of the University of California at Berkeley.
In 2014, the top .01 percent, about 16,000 families, boasted annual incomes beginning at $7 million, according to Eric Zwick of the University of Chicago. In contrast, the one-percent category, which comprises about 1.6 million households, started with an annual income of just $386,000, excluding any capital gains.
The merely affluent can’t compete with the superwealthy: Recent research by sociologists Roy Kwon and Brianna Salcido shows that global economic policies that curb government regulations and favor private businesses have mostly benefitted the .01 percent, but do not appear to have significantly impacted the incomes of the top 1.0 percent and top 10 percent. Perhaps that’s why the merely wealthy cohort is resorting to outright bribes and fraud to maintain a sense of privilege.
Paying for fancy prep schools, hiring high-priced tutors and writing checks for tens of thousands — even hundreds of thousands — of dollars to an elite institution no longer scores big enough to beat the admissions game. Unless you’ve got the kind of cash to finance a new wing of the library, the old donation routine now is no guarantee. Jared Kushner’s family of real estate billionaires could buy their low-performing child entry into Harvard at a price tag of $2.5 million in 1998. But today, even being a rich actor like Felicity Huffman won’t necessarily give you enough economic muscle to, say, underwrite a new science center at your kid’s school of choice.
All of which is mighty frustrating to the lesser lights in the one percent. As a top lawyer or a successful doctor or media figure, you may feel that you’ve put in hard work to get where you’ve gotten. You’re used to exotic vacations and magazine-worthy homes. Perhaps you own several fabulous pads. Naturally, you’ve been looking forward to providing your children with an elite college experience. But now you find yourself waiting in line behind Wall Street financiers, Silicon Valley tycoons and the silver-spoon heirs that increasingly make up the Forbes 400.
The super-rich own jets and mega-yachts. The rich fly first class and buy sailboats. The super-rich send their kids to Harvard and Yale. The rich scramble for a spot at USC.
The income of the .01 percent comes largely from capital gains, which are taxed at a far lower rate than income earned from working. As their stock portfolios grow bigger, these folks are able to get wealthier and wealthier by doing absolutely nothing. They exist in a rarefied universe of palatial homes distributed around the word in places like New York, London, Dubai and the Cayman Islands, following the tax codes as the wealthy of yesteryear followed the seasons. Think of them as the giant hothouse plants of the world’s increasingly unhealthy economy — sucking up resources, blocking out sunlight and stunting everything else that tries to grow.
The unfairness of class privilege in America is not new. But what is new, or at least what has not been seen since the Gilded Age, is the splitting of the country into what economist Peter Temin sees as a “dual economy.” In these kinds of economies, traditionally seen in the third world, upward mobility is a rare phenomenon.
In the United States, where a good college education has been a key ticket for economic and social advancement, places are getting fewer and more expensive. The bulk of citizens no longer have a chance for a stellar college experience, and the merely affluent are feeling the squeeze as the superwealthy block their way, too. Instead of looking forward to movin’ on up, more people are terrified of sliding down the mobility ladder.
Things will probably not get better until the affluent can appreciate their common ground with the rest of us and see that the superwealthy for what they are: the killer of dreams for us all.
Lynn Stuart Parramore is a cultural historian who studies the intersection between culture, psychology and economics. Her work has appeared at Reuters, Lapham’s Quarterly, Salon, Quartz, VICE, Huffington Post and others. She is the author of “Reading the Sphinx: Ancient Egypt in 19th Century Literary Culture”
This article was first published by NBC Think.