Building an American caste system, part 2: the 9%

A few months ago I started writing about the possibility that American society could develop into a caste system, structured in part by education.  I began by describing the rural poor as one such caste.  Then… I got distracted by everything else I was researching and working on.

Let me get back on track now by describing another caste.  Call them the 9%.

Before I dive in, a quick recap.  I’m using “caste” to describe, first, the emergence of strongly defined socio-economic groups.  They harden as class mobility declines.  They didn’t start off as hereditary positions in the real sense of caste, but are increasingly headed that way.  So I’m using the term in a semi-metaphorical, semi-literal sense.

So, who are the 9%?  These people occupy the economic stratum right below the 1%, as in the 90-99%.  They are wealthy, but not the top tier financial elite.  They usually call themselves “affluent” or “upper middle class”, but are a lot more upper than they are middle.  They tend to be very highly educated professionals.  They include managers, but not Thomas Piketty’s “supermanagers“, and tend to live in cities and suburbs.

Richard Reeves offers a useful, quick introduction to this caste in his 2017 book Dream Hoarders.  His sense of the group is broader, more like the top 20% shy of the 1% (“the top fifth of society”, Kindle location 62).  For Reeves they are “upper middle-class professionals: journalists, scholars, technocrats, managers, bureaucrats, the people with letters after their names.” (Kindle location 85-86)

How does this group develop?  By “separating from the majority” or “detaching themselves” (122) through child-rearing, education, picking highly valued careers, and assortative mating, which leads to second and further generations remaining within this stratum.   Why “dream hoarding”?  Because this caste protects itself in many ways.  Its members move to affluent areas and tend to vote against policies that redistribute wealth to others.  They attend exclusive schools, from primary through post-secondary, and that exclusivity does what it says: excluding other people.  They have significant cultural and political power to define themselves:

the size and strength of the upper middle class means that it can reshape cities, dominate the education system, and transform the labor market. The upper middle class also has a huge influence on public discourse, counting among its members most journalists, think-tank scholars, TV editors, professors, and pundits in the land. (147-150).

And they learn all kinds of caste-protecting practices, such as “exclusionary zoning in residential areas; unfair mechanisms influencing college admissions, including legacy preferences; and the informal allocation of internships.” (210-212)  Reeves quotes Robert Putnam (whose Our Kids, about this very topic, we read in the book club) about an incipient caste or apartheid system (152).

The cover prefers 10% to 9.9%.

More recently Matthew Stewart offered another take on this population, narrowing it down to the top 9.9% of the economy short of the uppermost .01% (“In between the top 0.1 percent and the bottom 90 percent”).  Stewart’s account shares much with Reeves’.  The caste considers itself a meritocracy.  It has appropriate jobs: “a well-behaved, flannel-suited crowd of lawyers, doctors, dentists, mid-level investment bankers…”  They came from certain academic majors: “finance, management consulting, medicine, or law…”

Stewart’s 9.9% are very exclusionary. “We have left the 90 percent in the dust—and we’ve been quietly tossing down roadblocks behind us to make sure that they never catch up.”

We’re willing to strip everyone, including ourselves, of the universal right to a good education, adequate health care, adequate representation in the workplace, genuinely equal opportunities, because we think we can win the game.


 We are the staff that runs the machine that funnels resources from the 90 percent to the 0.1 percent. We’ve been happy to take our cut of the spoils.

Assortative mating plays a role, and Robert Putnam is name-checked again.

Education is very important in structuring Stewart’s caste.  Private schools, expensive college prep (don’t miss the “SAT whisperer” bit), and elite universities filter out the rest, allowing the 9.9%’s children to acquire meritocratic skills and suitable mates.

The plummeting admission rates of the very top schools nonetheless leave many of the children of the 9.9 percent facing long odds. But not to worry, junior 9.9 percenters! We’ve created a new range of elite colleges just for you. Thanks to ambitious university administrators and the ever-expanding rankings machine at U.S. News & World Report, 50 colleges are now as selective as Princeton was in 1980, when I applied. The colleges seem to think that piling up rejections makes them special. In fact, it just means that they have collectively opted to deploy their massive, tax-subsidized endowments to replicate privilege rather than fulfill their duty to produce an educated public.

There’s a flipside to this elite education and caste formation:

For those who made the mistake of being born to the wrong parents [i.e., in the bottom 90%], our society offers a kind of virtual education system. It has places that look like colleges—but aren’t really. It has debt—and that, unfortunately, is real. The people who enter into this class hologram do not collect a college premium; they wind up in something more like indentured servitude.

(Don’t miss the story of the nanny ad.)

For Stewart the new aristocracy has become multigenerational in ways that eluded previous generations. “The meritocratic class has mastered the old trick of consolidating wealth and passing privilege along at the expense of other people’s children”:

we have learned how to pass all of these advantages down to our children. In America today, the single best predictor of whether an individual will get married, stay married, pursue advanced education, live in a good neighborhood, have an extensive social network, and experience good health is the performance of his or her parents on those same metrics.

Stewart presses the analysis still further.  His 9.9% is becoming physically distinct from the rest, being healthier and longer-lived (pace Case and Deaton).  They benefit from what the author sees as cartelized professions: medicine (its upper strata), finance, and law.  They also benefit from a leaning-regressive tax system (although here it seems he’s talking more about the 1% than the 9) and from spatial separation through real estate.

I have several criticisms of both Stewart’s article and Reeves’ book.  I dislike Stewart’s too-broad smear of much of higher ed as “virtual.”  I agree with Jordan Weissman that Stewart’s 9.9% includes some seriously divergent populations.  Others have pointed out that both authors draw our attention too far from the 1%.  But for this post I’m not interested in that.  I’m focusing on how these accounts identify an emergent group in American society, and how it may be calcifying into a caste.

The combination of forces Stewart and Reeves identify, that builds on others’ work (notably Putnam), shows a group carefully defending its interests.  They use a mix of old and new elite strategies to drive themselves aloft to a position just short of the 1%, while riding about the rest.  Some of these strategies have now become multigenerational, and also politically bipartisan.

Education plays a major role in maintaining this group’s identity.  (I’ll call them the 9% partly for simplicity, and also to narrow things down a bit.)  Money buys housing which in turn buys the best public K-12 schools, or simply access to the best private ones. Money and the social capital of being a college graduate yields all kinds of college (admissions) prep services, from service learning to new technologies to tutors and foreign trips.  The path is then opened for selective higher education, including the right major, grad school and finding a proper mate.  Suitable career paths then let members of this group successfully reproduce themselves.

It’s possible the 9% won’t persist.  As a futurist, I want to look at all possibilities.  Like the lawyers among the French revolutionaries, some could successfully turn on their own by pushing for new policies.  Some 9%er jobs are square in the targets of new technologies (think of automated financial trading, or software eating chunks of the legal profession).  There are also wild cards, including the ones Walter Scheidel identifies as being most likely to end inequality: war, plague, natural disaster, and civilizational collapse.

At the same time, the 9% could avoid all of that and simply prosper.  Certain members will fight their way up into the 1%.  Some members of the dwindling middle class will claw their way in.  Otherwise, America may well have a new aristocracy.  How will we handle it?  And are educators comfortable playing their role in perpetuating it?


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2 Responses to Building an American caste system, part 2: the 9%

  1. KC Brady says:

    We’ve always had more than two classes. Why the fuss now that some people have rediscovered this? In my own education as a social scientist, American society was divided into 5 classes, with the middle three classes distinguished as upper-middle-lower.
    (As for me, my father’s family, and my mother’s have both been middle to upper middle class since before they left Ireland. Education was usually the key, and the network of Catholics helping each other along the way.)
    I didn’t see anything new in any of this discussion. Strange. Maybe I took too many history classes.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Greetings, KC.
      The fuss is for several reasons.
      1: American class composition has changed since the mid-20th century, when income inequality was at very unusual lows. Starting circa 1980 inequality roared back into life, and has continued to grow ever since (cf a Swiss bank referring to our time as a new gilded age). It’s important to analyze and see how things have changed, especially as we inherit so many ideas and institutions forged in that earlier time.
      2: Americans have often had a hard time talking about class. It’s useful to kick start conversations about that.
      3: a big chunk of higher ed has as its mission improving economic mobility (think community colleges and state universities). If that mobility is slowing down – which it is – that poses a powerful challenge to American academia.

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