Fear of falling*

Our meritocratic elite fails the wider society by tolerating excessive inequality. By failing to protect some of their own kids from precisely the same inequalities, these elites have failed themselves, too.

My brother-in-law looked on with pride and sadness as we packed my oldest daughter’s things for her freshman year at the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater. (She’s leaving a bit early for an intensive summer class.) “I’ll go with her,” he said. Once again, Vincent offered that he would live in a frat house, work as a bartender, become a football coach, get married, have children. I smiled and listened, as I always do. Then he stopped for a moment, and just said. “She’s leaving. I stay here.”

“Here” means the local group home. He likes it there, but he knows precisely what he has lost. Every milestone—a child’s first cellphone, the high school dance—elicits from him, and therefore from us, that same aching mix of joy and mourning. Because of my job, Vincent can live a less Spartan existence than his housemates. We still rely on imperfect medical and social services in Chicago’s southland. We see close-up, more often than most people, how truly disadvantaged people struggle to get by.

When my wife became Vincent’s full-time caseworker, driver, and nurse, that ended whatever possibility we had to join the ranks of the truly affluent—a group that includes a surprising numbers of my Princeton classmates and professional peers.  We’re doing fine, thank you.   One can live just as happily in a $250,000 house as in a $500,000 one. Still, a de facto six-or-seven-figure write-off provides a distinct perspective on the meritocratic rat-race, and one’s own vulnerability in a tough economy.

I’m enjoying Chris Hayes’ Twilight of the Elites. Hayes excoriates our nation’s insulated meritocratic elite, which he argues wrongly replicates its own privilege through access to fancy secondary schools, test prep courses, alumni donations, and more. Hayes describes a frantic, often zero-sum competition for positional goods in which dramatic inequalities among parents thwart fair competition and equality of opportunity in the next generation.

I basically agree with this critique. Yet something is missing in Hayes’ account, too. Many of us who comprise that meritocratic elite nonetheless take life torpedoes that puncture the arrogance and privilege he describes. Of course, our family experienced an extreme and unusual life event. Other privileged people experience a much more common challenge. Not every faculty brat or privileged Winnetka kid fares well in this meritocratic competition. What then?

Because I write about intellectual disability, I’ve encountered many parents touched by cognitive, behavioral, or learning issues. Sometimes, they have children with really serious disabilities. More often, their kids experience milder, though still significant issues: autism, ADHD, bipolar disorder, or ostensibly routine learning issues that knock kids off the expected academic path. Many of these parents are my professional peers, for whom these challenges can be especially bewildering when their child will follow a different biography from their own.

I recently ate breakfast with a casual acquaintance at a medical conference. We chatted about our kids. She told me about her youngest son, a super-achiever. Then she noted how hard it is to watch him visibly surpass his older brother, who faces some serious academic and social issues. Like many successful academic women I know, she is half of a high-powered and affluent professional couple. She and her husband spend more than $20,000 every year on occupational therapy, tutoring, and other supports. If these do any good, she’s happy to pay. So she spends the money. It’s just hard to know what she’s getting.

Her university, like mine and several others, runs a fancy private school which provides an attractive, subsidized alternative to (often-crummy) nearby public schools. These private schools offer an excellent education, including small classes taught by skilled teachers and filled with motivated and driven peers. If you want your kid to reach Harvard, there’s no better place. If you want a school that truly embraces every kid who walks in the door—well that’s another matter.

So my friend sends her children to public school. Of course not just any school. She moved to an affluent, largely Jewish suburb that resembles the community where I myself grew up outside Rochester, New York. Her child receives additional academic supports. He has an IEP/504 plan, in the lingo of such things.

He is also likely– like most of his similarly-situated peers—to attend college. He might go straight through. He might follow some other, more checkered path. In all likelihood, he will go. Ironically, the actual process of applying to and choosing colleges is both easier and more straightforward when one exits the thin layer of elite, nachas-selling schools. High school guidance counselors collect histograms of grades and test scores for students admitted to hundreds of schools. That removes much of the mystery about whether someone will be admitted to a given school. Checking “N/A” on the financial aid materials probably doesn’t hurt, either.

On visits to small schools that cater to this market, the tour guides don’t drag parents to see the nuclear accelerator– there isn’t one. Instead, the staff shows off the campus learning center. They talk about the new program of peer mentors. The value proposition is simpler: This is what we actually offer to teach your child.  I find this refreshing, not least because parents are trying to buy their kids an actual education, not trying to purchase an artificially scarce prestige or positional good. Good for them.

I only wish other parents enjoyed the same choices. I’d venture there are five excellent public high schools in greater Chicago where kids with serious learning disabilities will reliably receive a good education. Not surprisingly, these schools serve pretty ritzy communities. And the college opportunities available to affluent, even educationally-challenged children stand in sharp contrast to the opportunities available to others. Around here, the linkage between social class and college experience could hardly be tighter. Among Chicago public schools students who entered high school during the 1990s, only eight percent graduated from a 4-year college by their mid-twenties. What a staggering loss of human potential.

It’s easy for those of us with secure jobs, some income, and cultural capital to carry ourselves with a certain swagger. It’s tempting to assume that our life advantages equip us to move our children forward, too. Once you start thinking this way, it’s easy to view services such as Medicaid or special education as charity we provide to help some distant others, rather than as help we all provide each other, because we all face common vulnerabilities and risks.

It’s also tempting to ignore our society’s deepening inequalities. When parents understand that a child “has issues,” the prospect of downward mobility becomes especially frightening because one can fall so far, so fast. Suddenly the idea that the top 20% of the income distribution live in markedly safer neighborhoods with markedly better schools becomes less appealing than it was before. America’s political, economic, and educational elites have failed the wider society by tolerating excessive inequality. By failing to protect some of their own children from precisely the same inequalities in an unforgiving economy, these elites have failed themselves, too.

*Apologies to Barbara Ehrenreich.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect, tnr.com, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

15 thoughts on “Fear of falling*”

  1. I found this post very moving. Thank you for your words. I wish American society cared move about its children – all its children.

  2. I don’t think of you as an elite Harold. Nor do I think of President Obama as an elite. At best both of you are picayune elites.
    You are comfortable, secure, well-jobbed, and respected in your professions. Nice. You’ve got sizable pensions that won’t evaporate. Double nice.
    But you aren’t so filthy rich that we could tax away 90% of your wealth and you could still afford 50 different homes in 50 different countries.
    It is matter of scale. A million seconds is 11 days. A billion seconds is 30 years. How much money/power/political clout does a multi-billionaire have compared to you?
    The answer is: There is no comparison.

    All of which is not to suggest I don’t respect your compassion. Your willingness to consider yourself favored and introspect and extrapolate therefrom can only make you a better human.
    But again, the distance from you to Murdoch is greater than the distance from you to someone making ends meet at the poverty line.
    The distance from the various Waltons (several worth 25 billion each) to the salary they pay their cashiers and stockers is off the scale.

    Of course there in another kind of elite….
    That is the elite that holds its position because it does the bidding of the oligarchs.
    True this can sometimes be a university professor. Buckminster Fuller was on to those that serve the Grand Pirates 40-50 years ago.

    But really those elites are more often than not in government positions. Mike Konczal captures it in his brilliant review of the Hayes’ book here:

    This elite, detached from the greater society, become firmly entrenched through what Hayes calls the “iron law of meritocracy.” The meritocracy ultimately morphs into the kind of privileged oligarchy it was meant to bury. The system becomes rigged so people can’t fail out of it, allowing some to rise up for reasons having nothing to do with merit. The same characters from the past two decades reappear over and over again in elite positions; it’s one of the defining characteristics of our time. The model presented by Hayes works very well as a framework for further discussion, and will hopefully endure as such. However, it isn’t always clear if the problem is elites coming out of meritocratic structures, or elites period. Was the torture-regime architect David Addington, brought up by Hayes as a product of the meritocracy, able to do what he did because people were intimidated by his intelligence? Or is it better to view him as a career civil servant using a time of crisis to manipulate a bureaucracy he knew inside-out? The police also have “open secrets” and problems that result from their socioeconomic distance from the people they mostly interact with, yet they are not a simple meritocratic institution by any means.

    Along these lines, check out this pull from Mark’s post immediate preceeding:

    The list (in full at the jump) is depressingly long and diverse. Gingrich and Giuliani and Ridge and Bolton and Zelikow and Freeh and Porter Goss and Jim Woolsey and one of Romney’s foreign policy advisers aren’t much of a surprise: it’s just a meeting of the Neocon Club. And I don’t expect much of Howard Dean or Bill Richardson. But Bill Bradley? Wesley Clark? Lee Hamilton?!

    It is disgust with these sorts of elites, the sort that licks the ass of the superrich oligarchs, that calls out so loudly to some: “A pox a both their houses! We need a third party”. Of course the jaundiced amongst us realize that a third party won’t float and will only torpedo the lesser of the two evil political parties. And so we go on and on and the money flows ever upwards. What is it, 40 years now of the rich getting richer and the poor and middle class losing ground?

    Mike Konczal, Dissent Magazine – Online Features – An Elite Like Any Other? Meritocracy in America –

    1. I couldn’t disagree more with the assertion that the distance from Harold Pollack to a Walton is greater than that to someone on the poverty line. The 50 homes after a 90% wealth cut comparison isn’t relevant. To me the question is: what does money do to improve one’s life? From poverty to Pollack, money improves life immensely. From Pollack to a Walton (or quite effectively, to infinity), it doesn’t do nearly as much. A Walton’s life expectancy is hardly longer than Pollack’s. They each only get 24 hours in a day. There are a few big-ticket items that Pollack will never own, like an intercontinental jet, but think of how much more important a microwave oven, washer/dryer, and Internet are to your life than a jet.

      1. Unlike a Pollack offspring, a Walton who “faces some serious academic and social issues” is in no danger of falling out of the elite.

        1. And if a Bush, one may still aspire to be the worst-ever President of the United States.

      2. I couldn’t disagree more with the assertion that the distance from Harold Pollack to a Walton is greater than that to someone on the poverty line.

        That is because you are thinking in terms of individual comfort instead of pure social and political power: that is the ability to do huge social good or its opposite.
        Last time I checked the Waltons were collectively worth over 100 billion. They are the largest private employer in the country.
        So let’s call this the Walmart Math Problem:

        How much of the 100 billion would the Walmart family have to give up to give all of their employees health care and a solid middle class wage?

        You see? That’s not even a question you can ask of Harold Pollack.
        Our country would be a hell of a better place of the Walton clan (and the .1% in general) gave a rat’s ass about their employees and the country in general.
        Instead the Waltons are at 100 billion and counting, and to borrow a Barbara Ehrenreich idea, doing everything possible to squeeze every nickel and dime off their employees wages even as I type.

        In my book the Waltons are literally sick creatures. They’ve got more than they could ever need, yet still they stick it to their employees. Of course for some the Waltons are paragons of success.
        Only one thing is certain: When you let capitalism run to the dogs, when you don’t properly leash it and train it to behave for the social good, Walton style greed is what you end up.

  3. Some very wealthy friends of ours have a daughter recently diagnosed with dyslexia, so they’re sending her to a very expensive school for kids with learning disabilities and other behavioral problems. Our friend describes the school as the place where rich teenagers go instead of prison.

    1. Learning disability … instead of prison?

      I’m old enough to think that sounds like “where rich kids go instead of a home for the feeble-minded.” Which sounds like a good thing.

      1. I chuckled at Geoff’s friend’s perceptive and wry comment. The rate of learning disability and other behavioral issues (such as ADD) is indeed much, much higher among the prison than the general population (from a quick google: http://monthlyreview.org/2001/07/01/disablement-prison-and-historical-segregation).

        Also, having a learning disability is not at all equivalent to “feeble-mindedness.” In fact, the federal special ed law’s definition of learning disability specifically excludes “learning problems that are primarily the result of…mental retardation…”


        As long as I’m commenting, a thought on whether Harold is more or less like the Waltons: I draw the line at whether or not the person in question is in a position to influence the law to benefit himself.

        So, I don’t count my husband’s high school friend who made millions by being the first to write some types of software as an elite, even though he hasn’t had to work a day since the late 1970s. He has no influence on anyone. Neither does Harold. They both stand firmly outside of any lawmaker’s pocket.

        But the Waltons! They got China’s trading status changed. They’re part of the group that changed the “estate tax” into the “death tax” and has succeeded in changing a good part of the estate tax law, both on the federal level and on the state level.

        Of all the ways they may be different from the rest of us, that is most important.

  4. “Learning disability … instead of prison? I’m old enough to think that sounds like “where rich kids go instead of a home for the feeble-minded.” Which sounds like a good thing.”

    Yes it *sounds* like a good thing public homes for the feeble-minded are pretty much a thing of the past and were pretty much indistinguishable from prisons in any case. Also, I’d guess that the feeble-minded are over-represented in the prison population.

  5. Kind of on topic:

    I live about 10 houses inland from a big U.S. river. Along the river road are large old houses mostly ranging in price from about $700,000 to a mill or two, and with some houses, a few, in the $10 to $20 mill range. I grew up in a low end river road house.

    I live, now, around the corner where you can’t see the water, about 10 houses from the river. The houses get small fast as you move inland, and they drop off quickly in price to the $100,000 to $250,000 range, with several in the $80,000 range, and a few well below that.

    Now, in my experience, when a local police officer interacts with a resident on the river road, it’s all very polite, even deferential. Along the river road, it goes something like, “Hello, Sir.” “Does this car belong to one of your guests?” “Could I please ask you to have the car moved a little bit farther off the road? ” “Thanks a lot.” Just 10 houses away from the river, though, you’re liable to hear, “Is this your car?” Whose is it?” “Well tell him to move it!” Zooooom.

    No biggy. But it’s disturbing, and it shakes you up, to have a policeman this in your face. Try and fail to imagine what a poor person must go through in this country.

    And keep in mind that big money is always trying to ingratiate itself with our police and military forces. It’s a danger to democracy.

    1. Oh, I think this is very on-topic. I think that families like mine, or Harold’s, who are solidly middle-class and maybe even a little affluent, and who have young members with disabilities can be at an ironic sort of disadvantage.

      Our children with disabilities are *not* going to grow up to be middle-class — most adults with disabilities aren’t — and I don’t think any of us are well-equipped to teach our children how to function as a poor person in our society. There are lots of unwritten rules — you touch upon one, which is, The Policeman is DEFINITELY Not Your Friend, EVER — and we don’t know most of them.

  6. Again, you are one of the main reasons I read this blog. Thank you for your courage.

  7. As one of the downwardly-mobile, I think about this kind of thing a lot. My father worked in academia and government, pulling down a solid but more importantly consistent salary, with healthcare and pension and so forth, and all of his children went to private schools and universities. Annual cost per kid was maybe 15-25% of salary. When my kids are ready for college, the annual cost of the same kind of institutions will be more like 50-100% of our annual income. Assuming that any “issues” don’t disqualify them.

    Which leads to an incredibly toxic set of behaviors, because I should be celebrating our 7-year-old’s creativity, coding skills and ebullience instead of worrying that if he gets tracked for shouting at teachers or other kids he’s going to be lucky to make it through high school

  8. Actually, even in the upper 20% of the income distribution, only 80% of HS grads go on to college, and only 50% graduate. College has a way of sifting out those who don’t want to be there, or shouldn’t be there, even if they are well-off. Of course, in the upper 5 or 10%, these kids will still have a safety net the rest of us can only dream of. But they will have a hard time amassing power unless they’re tech geniuses.

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