Being Honest About the Class Divide

When it comes to the class divide in America, we can pretend that it doesn't exist. We can pretend that we can become whoever we'd like to be in life, regardless of the family we were were born to, what neighborhoods we grew up in, and what sort of schools we attended. We can believe our opportunities are born from personal choices, cultural values, and our wits.

We can believe what Ruben Navarrette Jr., a conservative columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune, believes when he rails against ongoing press coverage of executive compensation scandals. "Americans shouldn't feel bad about that," Navarrette says, suggesting that we should just stop complaining about growing income disparities between the rich and ordinary folks, and instead get an education.

"Much of (the income divide) is tied to the decisions that individuals make about how much education they're going to pursue, and how hard they're going to pursue it," Navarrette continues. "Most of the obstacles that people face are self-imposed, and self-designed. We can't say that enough, especially at a time when too many people in this country look to blame others for their troubles, failings and shortcomings."

If our failings are as self-imposed as Navarrette suggests, then we are a nation of masochists. Consider educational attainment. The rate of bachelor's degree attainment for students from low-income families, at a meager 6 percent, has remained virtually unchanged since 1970. The BA attainment rate for students in the second-lowest quartile of family income has stagnated at around 11 to 13 percent over that period. Only those students born into families in the top two income quartiles have experienced a surge in bachelor's attainment since 1970.

The statistics along these lines are brutally repetitive, suggesting that educational advancement in modern America is becoming far less a story about bootstrapping and far more a story about class origins.

Still, we cling to the nice story, the hopeful one about luck and pluck and individual sacrifice. It's a story that is repeated and reinforced on a continual and perpetual basis in American society, rooted deeply in our sense of who we are.

In feudal Europe, peasants knew exactly where they stood in relation to kings and the landed gentry. Those class divisions were decidedly unsubtle. Nasty, mean, and brutish, in fact. No pretension was necessary.

I'm not a fan of feudal Europe, but class matters are indeed muddled in highly developed, consumer-driven societies like Western Europe and the United States. The magical and rare beauty of our narrative of the classless society is its subtle power and its ability to structure society without blatant force. Thoughts, ideas, hopes and dreams, cultural identities and social habits hold the superstructure in place.

Whether consuming Guns 'n Ammo or The New Yorker, we take our stand as full-fledged members of the middle class. Ultimately, we can make the personal choice to remain where we are, in the vast middle of our fruitful imaginations, or to pick up and go somewhere else, which, for many of us, does require sacrifice and a new and profound sense of who we are and what sort of life we want to live. In that sense, Navarrette is right. Half right.

Chances are, however, we won't move. Economists studying changing patterns of generational economic mobility, for example, are finding that Americans are considerably less upwardly mobile than we like to believe. The chances are very good that sons and daughters will wind up in the same social class as their parents before them.

Is that the fault of individuals or is there something systemic going on here?

If only getting a college education were as simple as Navarrette believes. If you are unlucky enough to be born to the wrong parents living in the wrong neighborhoods and attending the wrong schools, every educational, social and economic message you receive from the moment of birth seems designed to cement your socioeconomic destiny.

In my experience talking to children, parents and teachers, the rare and exceptional people who get an opportunity to rise above their class destiny almost always are able to do so because they were exceedingly lucky. And they almost always get help from people and organizations that they can't get from their own families. Take Ashlea Jackson, who grew up in a trailer park in Boise, Idaho. For Ashlea, it has taken several rounds of intervention from the kindness of people and organizations beyond her family, including Big Brothers/Big Sisters, the Boys and Girls Club, a high school journalism teacher, and Upward Bound, a federal program - on George W. Bush's perennial hit list of education programs to be eliminated -- to help disadvantaged students get on the path to college. (Contrast Ashlea with children of the affluent classes whose parents have mapped out their college careers by the time they are in second grade.)

And even with all the interventions on Ashlea's behalf, it has taken a brave leap of faith on her part to leave family and friends and move across the state to attend a community college. For children who grow up with parents who never went to college, who have never even stepped foot onto a college campus, this sort of extra bit of public kindness is absolutely necessary for them to see a world beyond their own experience. If you happen to be poor, you can have all the motivation that Navarrette desires, but you're out of luck in this country if the stars don't line up just so.

But I will give the conservative boot strappers this. While wealth and income inequalities in the United States are vast -- and, in fact, are as profound as at any point in our history -- we are somehow comforted by the adornments of advanced capitalism. A debt-driven consumer economy and the society of spectacle make little kings and Paris Hiltons of us all. Even when people do get their rare opportunity to rise above socioeconomic destiny, the question remains whether they will seize upon it; the question remains whether they themselves are fully conscious of the hardcore materialism of the class divide. Indeed, unlike the battles over civil rights and gender equality, the class divide in America has been especially troublesome political barrier. While ethnic identity and feminism have become a matter of pride and political power, who wants to be called poor? Anything resembling a poor-people's movement in America died a long time ago with Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.

In the popular mind, class is less a function of how much money you earn or how much wealth you've accumulated than what you consume and what you watch on TV. In the popular imagination, class has become less about hard economic assets and conditions of work, education and human capital, and more a matter of culture and taste. In America -- the classless society -- we're all now in that vast, indefinable "middle."

When Lou Dobbs rails at the disappearing middle class, whom exactly is he referring to? The ingenuity of the Dobbsian rhetoric is that most of us openly identify ourselves with this idyllic and meaningless middle, defined by fear and anxiety. Fears about illegal immigration. Anxieties about paying for college. And all the rest.

When I met an obviously affluent man from the San Francisco Bay Area and told him about my work studying the barriers to educational opportunity for people born into the wrong side of the class divide, he immediately turned the subject to illegal immigration as the culprit for educational inequities. Another time this past summer, I attended a wedding chock full of affluent doctors at a mountain retreat. Again, when I told one physician about my work, he attacked the system that made it so hard for middle-class parents (read: affluent physicians like him) to pay for their children's' college. For affluent Americans, that is how these conversations about class typically go: Safe, legitimate, and Dobbsian.

Privately, however, we have our doubts about a classless America. We aren't stupid, and we have eyes. We all know that, ultimately, pretending otherwise is an act of futility.