Thomas B. Edsall April 27, 2016, New York Times [original article contains links and charts]
uncaptioned image from article
For years now, people have been talking about the insulated world of the top 1
percent of Americans, but the top 20 percent of the income distribution is also
steadily separating itself — by geography and by education as well as by
This self-segregation of a privileged fifth of the population is changing the
American social order and the American political system, creating a self-perpetuating class at the top, which is ever more difficult to break into.
The accompanying chart, taken from “The Continuing Increase in Income
Segregation,” a March 2016 paper by Sean F. Reardon, a professor of
education at Stanford, and Kendra Bischoff, a professor of sociology at Cornell,
demonstrates the accelerating geographic isolation of the well-to-do — the
upper middle and upper classes (a pattern of isolation that also applies to the
poor, with devastating effect).
In hard numbers, the percentage of families with children living in very
affluent neighborhoods more than doubled between 1970 and 2012, from 6.6
percent to 15.7 percent.
At the same time, the percentage of families with children living in
traditional middle class neighborhoods with median incomes between 80 and
125 percent of the surrounding metropolitan area fell from 64.7 percent in
1970 to 40.5 percent.
Reardon and Bischoff write:
Segregation of affluence not only concentrates income and
wealth in a small number of communities, but also
concentrates social capital and political power. As a result,
any self-interested investment the rich make in their own
communities has little chance of “spilling over” to benefit
middle‐ and low-income families. In addition, it is
increasingly unlikely that high‐income families interact
with middle‐ and low‐income families, eroding some of the
social empathy that might lead to support for broader
public investment in social programs to help the poor and
Geographic segregation dovetails with the growing economic spread
between the top 20 percent and the bottom 80 percent: The top quintile is, in
effect, disengaging from everyone with lower incomes.
Timothy Smeeding, a professor of public affairs and economics at the
University of Wisconsin, has explored how the top quintile is pulling away
from the rest of society. In an essay published earlier this year, “Gates, Gaps,
and Intergenerational Mobility: The Importance of an Even Start,” Smeeding
finds that the gap between the average income of households with children in
the top quintile and households with children in the middle quintile has
grown, in inflation-adjusted dollars, from $68,600 to $169,300 — that’s 147
In an earlier paper, Smeeding and two co-authors wrote that
we have seen a threefold increase between 1972 and 2007
in top-decile spending on children, an increase that
suggests that parents at the top may be investing in ever
more high-quality day care and babysitting, private
schooling, books and tutoring, and college tuition and fees.
The bottom line, Smeeding wrote in an email, is this:
The well-to-do are isolated from the day to day struggles of
the middle class and below to provide these key services
(health, education, job search and other opportunities) to
aid the upward mobility of their children. But the upper
middle class are happy to take advantage of tax subsidies
for their own housing, preschool for their kids, and saving
for college which benefit them.
Political leverage is another factor separating the top 20 percent from the
rest of America. The top quintile is equipped to exercise much more influence
over politics and policy than its share of the electorate would suggest.
Although by definition this group represents 20 percent of all Americans, it
represents about 30 percent of the electorate, in part because of high turnout
levels. The accompanying chart, which shows voting patterns by income in the
2012 and 2014 elections, illustrates this phenomenon (it was created by Sean
McElwee, a policy analyst at Demos, a liberal think tank).
Equally or perhaps more important, the affluent dominate the small
percentage of the electorate that makes campaign contributions.
In a September 2015 essay, “The Dangerous Separation of the American
Upper Middle Class,” Richard Reeves, a senior fellow at Brookings, writes:
The top fifth have been prospering while the majority lags
behind. But the separation is not just economic. Gaps are
growing on a whole range of dimensions, including family
structure, education, lifestyle, and geography. Indeed,
these dimensions of advantage appear to be clustering
more tightly together, each thereby amplifying the effect of
The same pattern emerges in the case of education. Reeves cites data
showing that 56 percent of heads of households in the top quintile have college
or advanced degrees, compared with 34 percent in the third and fourth
quintiles and 17 percent in the bottom two quintiles.
Similar patterns emerge in the percent of married households.
“Family structure, as a marker and predictor of family stability, makes a
difference to the life chances of the next generation,” Reeves writes:
To the extent that upper middle class Americans are able
to form planned, stable, committed families, their children
will benefit — and be more likely to retain their childhood
class status when they become adults.
Using 2013 census data, Reeves finds that 83 percent of affluent heads of
household between the ages of 35 and 40 are married, compared with 65
percent in the third and fourth income quintiles and 33 percent in the bottom
As the top 20 percent becomes more isolated and entrenched, reforms
designed to open opportunities for those in the middle and on the bottom “can
all run into the solid wall of rational, self-interested upper middle class
resistance,” Reeves argues.
At the same time that lifestyle and consumption habits of the affluent
diverge from those of the middle and working class, wealthy voters are
becoming increasingly Democratic, often motivated by their culturally liberal
views. A comparison of exit poll data from 1984 and 1988 to data from the
2008 and 2012 elections reveals the changing partisan makeup of the top
In the 1980s, voters in the top ranks of the income ladder lined up in favor
of Republican presidential candidates by 2-1. In 1988, for example, George
H.W. Bush crushed Michael Dukakis among voters making $100,000 or more
by an impressive 34 points, 67-33.
Move forward to 2008 and 2012. In 2008, voters from families making
$100,000 to $200,000 split their votes 51-48 in favor of John McCain, while
those making in excess of $200,000 cast a slight 52-46 majority for Barack
In his first term, Obama raised taxes on the rich and criticized excessive C.E.O.
pay. As a result, he lost ground among the well-to-do, but still performed far
better than earlier Democrats had done, losing among voters making
$100,000 or more by nine points, 45-54.
In other words, Democrats are now competitive among the top 20
percent. This has changed the economic makeup of the Democratic Party and
is certain to intensify tensions between the traditional downscale wing and the
emergent upscale wing.
The Republican Party in 2016 is an example of what can happen when the
dominant wing fails to address the concerns of the majority. The rebellion
against the Republican establishment is on the verge of producing the
nomination of a man who is anathema to the majority of elected officials and
party activists, a candidate with the potential to drag the party into minority
status for years to come.
The “truly advantaged” wing of the Democratic Party — a phrase coined in
this newspaper by Robert Sampson, a sociologist at Harvard — has provided
the Democratic Party with crucial margins of victory where its candidates have
prevailed. These upscale Democrats have helped fill the gap left by the
departure of white working class voters to the Republican Party.
At the same time, the priorities of the truly advantaged wing — voters with
annual incomes in the top quintile, who now make up an estimated 26 percent
of the Democratic general election vote — are focused on social and
environmental issues: the protection and advancement of women’s rights,
reproductive rights, gay and transgender rights and climate change, and less
on redistributive economic issues.
The tension within the current Democratic coalition is exemplified in, of
all places, a 2012 poll of students and faculty at Phillips Exeter Academy in
New Hampshire, a prestigious private boarding school founded in 1781. As
Democrats have entered the ranks of the top quintile, their children have
effectively realigned the student bodies of prep schools in New England and
other northeastern states.
The Exeter survey found decisive majority support in the student body for
Obama over Mitt Romney, but the more interesting finding was that among
Exeter students old enough to vote, nine out of 10 identified themselves as
liberal on social issues.
In the case of economic policy, however, these students were split, 30
percent conservative, 33 percent liberal and the rest moderate or unwilling to
“Morally, I am a Democrat,” one of the participants commented, “but my
wallet says I am a Republican.”
A Democrat whose wallet tells him he is a Republican is unlikely to be a
strong ally of less well-off Democrats in pressing for tax hikes on the rich,
increased spending on the safety net or a much higher minimum wage.
Bernie Sanders has tried to capitalize on this built-in tension within the
Democratic primary electorate, but Hillary Clinton has so far been able to
skate over intraparty conflicts. In the New York primary, for example, she did
better among voters making $100,000 or more than among the less affluent,
while simultaneously carrying African-Americans and moderate Democrats of
all races by decisive margins.
For years, Grover Norquist, a leader of the anti-tax movement, boasted
that the right has built a rock-solid “leave us alone coalition,” only to see
Trump crack it wide open this year.
Bernie Sanders is unlikely to do the same to the center-left coalition. His
support is heavily concentrated among young, well-educated, white, very
liberal, independent voters and it is not broad enough to defeat Clinton, as
Tuesday’s primary results demonstrated.
Anticipating this development, Tad Devine, a top adviser to Sanders, said
on Saturday, “If we think we have to, you know, take a different way or re-evaluate,
you know, we’ll do it then.”
Sanders’s extraordinary performance to date, however, points to the
vulnerability of a liberal alliance in which the economic interests of those on
the top — often empowered to make policy — diverge ever more sharply from
those in the middle and on the bottom.
As the influence of affluent Democratic voters and donors grows, the
leverage of the poor declines. This was evident in the days leading up to the
New York primary when, as Ginia Bellafante of The Times reported, both
Clinton and Sanders, under strong pressure from local activists, agreed to tour
local housing projects. Bellafante noted that their reluctance reflects how
“liberal candidates on the national stage view public housing as a malady from
which it is safest to maintain a distance.”
The lack of leverage of those on the bottom rungs can be seen in a recent
Pew survey in which dealing with the problems of the poor and needy ranked
10th on a list of public priorities, well behind terrorism, education, Social
Security and the deficit. This 10th place ranking is likely to drop further as the
gap widens between the bottom and the top fifth of voters in the country.
It turns out that the United States has a double-edged problem — the
parallel isolation of the top and bottom fifths of its population. For the top, the
separation from the middle and lower classes means less understanding and
sympathy for the majority of the electorate, combined with the comfort of
living in a cocoon.
For those at the bottom, especially the families who are concentrated in
extremely high poverty neighborhoods, isolation means bad schools, high
crime, high unemployment and high government dependency.
The trends at the top and the bottom are undermining cohesive politics,
but more important they are undermining social interconnection as they
fracture the United States more and more into a class and race hierarchy.