It’s Not the 99%, Class is About the Top 80%

happy workers in a factory

Since the Occupy movement in 2011 there has been conversations about the 99% versus the 1% of wealth holders. The idea then was to show the massive inequality between those in the top 1% of society and everybody else – sadly that inequality has only grown. The rich get richer and everybody else gets left behind.

In order to see real change we need to change the discourse from targeting the 1% to talking about the top 20%. Richard Reeves writes in the New York Times that if we’re going to address income inequality we need to look at all the ways society is structured to help the top quintile at the expense of everybody else.

There’s a kind of class double-think going on here. On the one hand, upper-middle-class Americans believe they are operating in a meritocracy (a belief that allows them to feel entitled to their winnings); on the other hand, they constantly engage in antimeritocratic behavior in order to give their own children a leg up. To the extent that there is any ethical deliberation, it usually results in a justification along the lines of “Well, maybe it’s wrong, but everyone’s doing it.”

Progressive policies, whether on zoning or school admissions or tax reform, all too often run into the wall of upper-middle-class opposition. Self-interest is natural enough. But the people who make up the American upper middle class don’t just want to keep their advantages; armed with their faith in a classless, meritocratic society, they think they deserve them. The strong whiff of entitlement coming from the top 20 percent has not been lost on everyone else.

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