Open Talk About Class

April 19, 2014

Refreshing, rare, and much needed.  Open conversation about class at Northwestern University.


It’s About Wealth

April 19, 2014

I’d hope that someone who has written a book about “What Shapes Our Fortunes” would have had Sociology 101 where he would have learned the fundamentally different ways that income and wealth work in our economy.  But apparently not.

In Rags to Riches to Rags Again,  Mark R.Rank writes that because of a great deal of turbulence in household earning over a lifetime “we have much more in common with one another than we dare to realize.”  Yet he undermines this himself.

One of the reasons for such fluidity at the top is that, over sufficiently long periods of time, most American households go through a wide range of economic experiences, both positive and negative. Individuals we interviewed spoke about hitting a particularly prosperous period where they received a bonus, or a spouse entered the labor market, or there was a change of jobs. These are the types of events that can throw households above particular income thresholds.

Ultimately, this information casts serious doubt on the notion of a rigid class structure in the United States based upon income. It suggests that the United States is indeed a land of opportunity, that the American dream is still possible — but that it is also a land of widespread poverty. And rather than being a place of static, income-based social tiers, America is a place where a large majority of people will experience either wealth or poverty — or both — during their lifetimes.

 All together now:  Income, that comes in *household* paychecks, regardless of how many earners are contributing to that household income, is not wealth.

Wealth inequality looks like this:

And breaking it down further:

It is no small thing for any household to attain an annual income of a million dollars for even one year.

But it is an entirely different experience to have enough wealth that one can no longer worry about income at all, can work the tax system to mask enormous amounts of income,  can essentially withdraw from everyday contact with everyday Americans, can use one’s wealth to leverage political and economic power, and can know that the children in one’s household will never, ever want for a thing.

The “1%” was never about income alone.

 Surely, anyone with the credibility to write for the New York Times knows that?

In my classes, in department meetings, in talks and writing, I keep saying “just spell out what students need to know about getting to and staying in college”.


And an excellent example of doing just that is here:   10 questions to ask when seeking an affordable college education. 


It’s thorough, it’s accessible, and it goes so far beyond the more common platitudes about just finding scholarships if you want badly enough to go to  college.


What other “10 questions” might first-generation students want and need to know?



Two companies in Colorado have promised to help out-of-state students pay the much lower in-state tuition rates.    Parents who can find out about such services and can provide the paperwork can save thousands of dollars, with the companies apparently then taking their cut on what’s saved.

When I was in grad school, I heard about out- of- state students buying plots in cheaper cemeteries to convince reviewers that they planned to stay in the state forever, and along with registering to vote, this sometimes got them in-state tuition rates.

When I’d tell my classes about this, they’d laugh at how clever this was.

It was most effective to elicit those laughs shortly after someone had expressed moral outrage at “fraud” they’d assumed some poor person had done (the stories of food stamps spent on luxury goods at the grocery store, the tales of free lunch kids in schools wearing designer clothes).

As with my post earlier today, gaming the system is is admired when it’s people who could afford what they’re gaming, but moral failing when people are poor.


I just finished work on a scholarship committee in which we had access to each applicant’s EFC:  Expected Family Contribution, based on calculations from the FAFSA.   I knew that this figure was often contested, but I had no idea how it was calculated.

This article was therefore timely, and the information that single parents are “dinged” in the outmoded calculations was new to me.

But I learned the most from the comments, in which parents who obviously have assets to help pay for their children’s education freely share their strategies for gaming the FAFSA to lower their expected contributions, from advice on exactly when to cash out your Roth IRA to detailed explanation of how to simply move money (that is earning a higher return elsewhere) in and out of college savings plans long enough to get the “nice” state tax deductions.  Others speak of the strategy of paying down mortgages rather than saving for college.

All are talking about maximizing assets that few other parents have.  Many have paid for professional advice on these strategies, as one proudly explains of a strategy that she uses:

To the formula it will look like we have less money to contribute to savings. Essentially this is a loophole to shield assets from the FAFSA formula.

Might we imagine the outrage if food stamp recipients similarly shared in a national newspaper how they cleverly shielded assets and gamed the system?






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