“Even more disturbingly, the odds of a state governor’s child eventually holding the same title is 1 in 51; 1 in 47 for Senators; 1 in 13 for Presidents; and 1 in 9 for billionaires.”
remarked, “It has not been easy for me…my father gave me a small loan of a million dollars.” It was only an interjection by the moderator suggesting that the candidate may have had an egg on his face (“Let’s put this in perspective…a million dollar loan is going to seem pretty easy to a lot of people,”) that caused a double-take. And to what extent does complacent acceptance of the rationalization provided by the unfazed candidate Trump speak to both the habitual concealment of critical factors taken for granted in the pursuit of the American Dream, and the gullibility of the have-nots in underestimating these factors: “a million dollars isn’t very much compared to what I built?”t a town hall meeting in New Hampshire—held a year before the 2016 presidential election—an audience member asked then-candidate Donald Trump to recall a time he had ever been told “no.” In the midst of a by now familiar format of reply-cum-monologue, he obliviously
This gem of a sentence, a worthy companion to President Trump’s other all-time greatest hits like “[Bankers] are killers. These are not the nice sweet little people you think. You’re living in a world of make-believe,” “Fake news,” “You think our country’s so innocent,” “Their leaders are much smarter than our leaders,” and “The world is laughing at us…at our stupidity”—gleams with spitshine clarity in a way the dull polish of a professional politician’s oratory never will. A rare signal in political noise. The candor inculcated through decades of not having to care exposes the buried assumptions impossible to glean from the rank-and-file well-to-do, whose aphoristic prescriptions for success betray a blindness to—or willful concealment of—an unearned tailwind as the dominant factor in their success. Such remarks are, therefore, invaluable symptoms in diagnosing the ills of a country capable of construing this imposter as a self-made man. It is a sickness that even his most vocal critics are infected by, and it has undermined the moral credibility of politicians and pundits, experts and leaders, across the entire political spectrum.
Let us see what a life of constantly being told “no” looks like without a real estate tycoon for a father—in a country whose social infrastructure is in tatters. Let us verify if the real mechanisms by which success is achieved has any semblance to the purported one of meritocracy in this vaunted land of opportunity.
Of 41 developed and developing countries, the United States is the only one that does not mandate paid parental leave, forcing 40% of working mothers to take unpaid time off. Only two-thirds are able to return to the same job after delivering, either because they have been terminated or have had to resign. Even in the least expensive state, the median out-of-pocket expense for women with insurance averages $3,400. For those without insurance, this figure exceeds $10,000. Instead of a fixed fee, users of the healthcare system are also frequently ambushed by unexpected line items on their invoices. What should be a joyous affair already has overtones of financial worry.
The well-off—with cushy, employer-sponsored, zero-deductible private insurance—can take their baby home without a bill. If they are among the 11 million Americans who live in gated communities, their infant will be staring up at the roof of his multi-million dollar inheritance since the earliest days in the crib. Given that wealthy parents are typically credentialed well beyond their undergraduate degree, their ability to purchase a home so young after sacrificing many years of earning potential to prolonged tertiary education is puzzling. Working class parents, who may forego college altogether and have often been in the labor market for a decade at this point, still cannot afford a down payment due to the lack of a living wage. Consequently, working class children will be sharing rooms in apartments until they leave the nest.
Children of the affluent are sent to for-profit Montessoris and private preschools, which will give them a full-year head-start on math and verbal skills, a lead some studies claim will never be erased. Since 529 college-savings plans can also be used to fund early childhood education, wealthy grandparents swiftly enter the financial picture, transferring up to $20,000 tax-free annually to fund their grandchildren’s enrollment in these facilities. This inter-generational transfer of wealth that elides taxation is a harbinger of things to come. Children of the working class have minimal access to early childhood education, let alone affordable daycare, which now averages $10,000 annually per child. They are instead left in the care of aging relatives, since stagnant wages often require both parents to be breadwinners to keep apace rising costs of living.
When they are old enough to go to school, they will be punished by the public education system, whose byzantine design chiefly caters to the rich. On average, 45% of school funds are derived from property taxes collected in the school district. This means that the children of poorer parents—living in rundown neighborhoods with low property values—will go to under-resourced schools. If they are not among the third of Americans residing in areas classified as at-risk or distressed, the education they will receive at the nearest public school will be mediocre but passable. Otherwise, it will amount to little more than babysitting. (God save them if they number among the 14 million living in high-poverty areas.)
Although on average the United States spends $12,000 annually per student, even after adjusting for local cost of living, thousands of school districts make do with less than two-thirds this amount. (A privileged 80 districts have more than $40,000 at their disposal for each student.) Some states like Arizona are so cash-strapped that 1 in 5 schools operate on a four-day week. Unsurprisingly, poorer school districts have a higher proportion of children born to broken households, suffering from inadequate nutrition, exhibiting behavioral issues, and afflicted by drug addiction. Despite most desperately needing the best teachers, they have the smallest budget to disburse salaries and provide attractive compensation. Together with large out-of-pocket expenses and test-based accountability that creates an antagonistic dynamic with administration, the professional attrition rate for teachers is double that of school boards in Canada. Consequently, the number of individuals entering the vocation has dropped 35% since 2009.
Eventually, a working or middle class child may be able to apply to college. If he is granted placement in a public university, tuition fees alone will cost him $9,000/year. If not, he will have to fork over $30,000/year for a private college of questionable repute. The relevance of college degrees to the modern labor market is suspect; however, due to credential inflation, not possessing one is a lifetime liability: College-degree holders outpace their uncredentialed peers in median annual earnings by $17,000. Using his limited means, he will apply to a handful of nearby colleges and cross his fingers. Gaming the system in the guiltless manner of his upper-class peers—from blitzkrieg college applications, to taking a mulligan on the SATs, to contrived volunteer experiences, to grandiose personal statements—will seem vulgar to the humble values instilled in him and counterproductive to his naïve conception of society as a communal enterprise where moral people cooperate for the common good. Only a decade later, after he has been integrated as a replaceable cog in the labor market, working several layers in a hierarchy beneath those who consider guile a form of cleverness, will he appreciate that his faith in society’s institutions bordered on superstition, and that his adherence to a moral code made him easy pickings in a dog-eat-dog world that operates not on principle, but on what you can get away with.
In a perverse twist, student loans are the only form of debt in the United States that cannot be dissolved by bankruptcy, so he will have to jump at the first job offer to cover interest payments. Given that the median student debt is $39,000, while the median salary for college grads is $45,000, he will barely be able to make a dent in the principal. Hopefully, he enjoys this job. If not, he will be yoked to a career trajectory that he will likely despise for many more years (86% of millennials report working a second job, working a job that made them unhappy, or working outside their field in order to manage their student loan debt. 50% report deferring higher education).
The poor remuneration of his first job will be reflected in his earnings for his entire career, as he is forced to sell himself short right out of the gate. Furthermore, the best way to get a raise is not to ask management—but to leverage one’s current salary to transfer to a higher-paying job with another employer and then frequently repeat this tactic. Low-income earners do not have the geographic mobility to make this a viable strategy, due to family obligations and the inability to front the large fixed costs associated with moving. Even if magically relieved of these constraints, he would likely not pursue such a strategy, perceiving it as a betrayal of the moral code he has internalized, which honors hard work and loyalty.
Acutely aware that rising rents are gobbling up most of his paycheck—and realizing that property is the major store of wealth in America—he decides to become a homeowner to kill two birds with one stone. Most lenders will refuse a mortgage if a borrower’s existing debt-to-income ratio is greater than 40%, so he will be spinning his wheels for several years until his income rises substantially (student loan debt delays home ownership by a median of 7 years). Without wealthy parents to help him, it will take him until he is 35 or 40 before he gets any traction. His upper-class counterparts have already coasted over the finish line and are throwing weekly dinner parties in their paid off houses by now.
From their financial eyrie, the well-off have the vantage point to appreciate that the world is a free-for-all masquerading behind a flimsy architecture of rules and a veneer of cordiality, and they are sufficiently liberated to base their identity on achievement or self-actualization.
He will spend the rest of his life clambering to pay his mortgage, worrying about lay-offs and being chased by medical debt, with little money, time, or energy left over to help his children overcome the same obstacles he has faced. (The specter of student debt casts a long shadow throughout—half report a delay in starting a family, 41% report putting off getting married, and 61% cite an inability to put money toward their retirement due to student debt). The relentless grind will put him in his grave years earlier than both the well-off in his own country and his class counterparts in other developed nations.
Raised on a diet of aphorisms, insufficiently educated to have a conception of the world beyond moral theater, too guileless to anticipate the cold logic society necessarily operates on, and unable to dispel the fog of war that cloaks every stage of his life until he is already ensnared in the fishing line suspending the carrots and twisted into puppetstrings, he will spend most of his life either trustingly doing as he is told or begrudgingly doing what he has to. From their financial eyrie, the well-off have the vantage point to appreciate that the world is a free-for-all masquerading behind a flimsy architecture of rules and a veneer of cordiality, and they are sufficiently liberated to base their identity on achievement or self-actualization. In contrast, the average individual has long since affixed his self-worth to the dignity with which he faces adversity. This moral outlook is his anchor, allowing him to summon a stoicism that is both steadying and sinking.
For a black child, the picture is even bleaker. Whereas a child born into a white family will have a family piggy bank containing $113,000 on which to rely, he will only have $5,600 in family assets backing him. His trajectory will, unsurprisingly, nosedive much faster. No one would agree to play a game of Monopoly starting with only $75 when everyone else is doled out $1,500, but African Americans are forced to roll the dice nevertheless. The failure of American engines of social mobility (except the military’s GI Bill, barbarically enough), means that African American families are unable to gain inter-generational traction in accruing capital, leading some to forecast that it will take at least another two centuries to close the racial wealth divide with the current set of policies. On top of having to face such staggering financial disadvantage, they have the added burden of dealing with a society that makes an expedient exception to ruthlessly reducing everything to dollars and cents, just for them. Their destitution is instead attributed to a culture of delinquency or genetic inferiority on the one hand (always said with a confidence that would make any sociologist or geneticist insecure)—or naïvely to factors like lack of role models on the other.
In contrast, the chronicles of the wealthy resemble heroic quests. A glorious conclusion is guaranteed at the outset, and the intrigue needed to sustain the narrative arc stems from choosing among a handful of overblown setbacks and anticipating when the deus ex machina will strike. As children, they will be sent to private schools for an average annual fee exceeding $10,000, 50% more than the yearly tuition paid by the typical Canadian university student. The two richest private high schools in the United States, Phillips Academy Andover and Phillips Exeter Academy, each have an endowment in excess of $1 billion, dwarfing those of all but the four largest Canadian universities. Although private facilities comprise a quarter of all schools, they educate a privileged 10% of the American student body, allowing them to maintain smaller class sizes and deliver a better pedagogical experience.
Savvy to how the system necessarily operates on demonstrables and not sincerity—so that precocious earnest students cannot be disambiguated from well-coached micro-managed ones—affluent parents will start helping their children procure evidence of their potential as early as middle school. The children of scientists will start to work in university labs during their summer breaks because of their bubbling interest in science (that their parents hooked them up with colleagues will be kept hush-hush). Others will be sent abroad on voluntourism expeditions, so they can credibly manufacture the revelation of how third-world suffering sparked their humanitarian passion that will form the crux of their college admissions essays.
A portfolio of Advanced Placement classes, which are disproportionately offered in wealthier schools, will be used to certify their academic potential. Conveniently, these classes are designed by the College Board, a private company that also administers the SATs, so that children of the affluent effectively get coached directly through their school. Nevertheless, as a precautionary measure, the wealthy will also shovel out thousands for SAT preparation materials and private coaching. The exam allows unlimited retakes so that students can keep paying a fee to improve their scores. Students with a family income exceeding $100,000 are 21% more likely to retake the test than those hailing from families earning below $50,000, yielding a 90‑point increase in their average score. Next, the wealthy will dish out several thousand more for dozens of college applications, campus visits, and interviews. By throwing more darts at the board, the rich gain admission into more programs, including top state schools or perhaps even an Ivy League. Affirmative action for the affluent tilts the playing field even further: Legacy admits, a shining symbol of American meritocracy, account for 29% of the incoming Harvard class.
The intention of this artificial college admissions bottleneck may be to distill talent, but, at best, that is a secondary outcome. In practice, this procedure primarily screens for the ability to procure evidence in support of a narrative. The sterling CVs of these elite students is more often than not a byproduct of having wealthy, fawning parents who naturally want the best for their children in a financially gladiatorial society. With no social security net, precipitous inequities in the quality of education at all stages, and the gulf between rich and poor ever-widening, there is a scramble to give children every advantage because the fall from prosperity is a painful one. The child of working class parents, who toils at a fast-food joint over the summer to help make ends meet or washes his parents’ car unasked, is far more likely to be mature and empathetic with altruistic ambitions, but such experiences do not make for glamorous lines on a resume.
For every Ivy League admit, there are a hundred other neglected students who are far more talented. But lacking resources to play the game, they will never see the light of day. The failure of post-secondary institutions to appreciate this means that they are not engines of social mobility as in other countries but are, instead, more reminiscent of Victorian-era finishing schools. The median parental income of students in the top 65 colleges is $100,000. In 38 of the top colleges, there are more students belonging to the top 1% of the income scale than the bottom 60%.
Despite the backflips needed to gain admission, the education itself is not always very rigorous. Whereas financially needier students prioritize academics in order to secure good jobs, privileged students are able to rely on connections and, therefore, value student experience instead. Elite institutions cater to these preferences to create fond memories conducive to alumni donations. Every strong student at a Canadian public high school—enamored with the mythology of an Ivy League education—would likely walk away marveling at the effectiveness of the American advertising machine if they saw what the reality on the ground looked like in most programs, certain STEM majors notwithstanding. This criticism is made awkward by the reality that a few Nobel laureates-to-be are chatting in one of the cafeterias at Princeton, and a future Fields Medalist is innocently meandering through Harvard Yard, in keeping with the national philosophy of using a few good apples to justify leaving whole orchards unfallowed.
These elite institutions have nominal yearly tuitions exceeding $50,000, but many are also need-blind, so that the already rich incoming student body perversely automatically receives a full scholarship. Once enrolled, they will continue to swipe their parents’ credit cards guiltlessly to travel regularly, buy brand name clothing, eat out for most meals, take a gap year to discover themselves, and study abroad for a semester to become well-rounded. Five-or-six-digit debts are mere abstractions to those whose parents can wave a wand and make the red squiggles disappear. As soon as they are minted as graduates, they will be initiated into a slipstream of society where things will snowball to their advantage, without necessarily demonstrating superior on-the-ground capability, merely by having a stamp of approval purchased from a recognized brand name.
What the rich flock toward with such fervor is what any working class kid with his head screwed on straight would smirk at and flip the bird to, if informed that a multi-million dollar inheritance would eventually fall into his lap.
Armed with glistening credentials and manageably docile after a decade of conformist grooming, they will be predictably seduced by any carrot that smells of prestige. They will join the payroll of management consultancies where the boilerplate slide decks they prepare suspiciously lack the creativity, intellect, and integrity that they have supposedly been groomed to exhibit; be coaxed into Wall Street hedge funds whose values are antithetically aligned to their college admissions essays that waxed poetic about helping humanity; or be held captive by free meals at a Silicon Valley company whose triviality and questionable ethics is difficult to reconcile with the positive impact they gushed about wanting to take on the world a few short years earlier (the first two streams absorb about 40% of Harvard’s graduating class). They will have entered an inner sphere that is cloaked in mythology and difficult to penetrate, but from which even criminal conduct—sexual harassment, white-collar crime—generally does not suffice to prompt ejection.
Those born amidst financial uncertainty cannot be faulted for being drawn to professions with large, reliable paychecks. But considering that the lap children of luxury could pursue more independent, rewarding, altruistic lifestyles without being choked by the iron grip of debt, it is tragic that they wind up so insecure and risk-averse to the point of enlisting in predatory industries. What the rich flock toward with such fervor is what any working class kid with his head screwed on straight would smirk at and flip the bird to, if informed that a multi-million dollar inheritance would eventually fall into his lap.
Those that resist these three Sirens will proceed to professional schools in law and medicine, where the tuition will exceed six figures, or graduate programs, where they will work long hours for near minimum wage. They will be unworried by student loan repayment, entering further into debt or establishing a financial cushion for the future, burdens intimidating enough to make the less affluent recoil from further education. The parental income of the student body is even more skewed from the population average than before. (This coupling between length of educational path and family income is a universal phenomenon—the family income of the average Canadian medical school admit is $100,000 versus the national median of $65,000, for example). Then of course there are pay-to-play degrees like the MBA, a six-figure cryptogram of American class resentment, used by the children of the well-to-do to leapfrog over their white-collar and blue-collar counterparts in the corporate hierarchy, while pretending they bring some oracular expertise to the table. What in normal society is called palm-greasing—when accompanied by hors d’oeuvres and champagne at a Goldman-Sachs sponsored seminar for MBA students—is called networking.
These are the success stories, but the wealthy have aces up their sleeve to suit every eventuality. Were you not able to get into an in-state program? No problemo, out-of-state fees are only double! Did you not make the cut for medical school in the United States? It is only $200,000 more in the Caribbean or Ireland. It is a no-brainer; doctors make $400,000/year. You have got to spend money to earn money! Unsurprisingly, this chirpy rhetoric makes those whose parents spent every Saturday morning collecting coupons to save a quarter on a gallon of milk and have never seen more than 4 digits in their bank account, more uncomfortable than their wealthy counterparts, whose childhood memories include going abroad for vacation thrice a year and witnessing their neighbors’ homes sell for several million dollars. Although turning 18 is treated as a rite of passage marking entry into adulthood, the reality is that many of the well-off are financially breastfed by their parents well into their late twenties, so that they are gifted with a free decade in which to live with all the bluster of an adolescent and none of the burden of an adult. From this point on, firmly secured in burgeoning careers, their lives are largely set. Over time, they will accrue an amount of power and responsibility disproportionate to any innate ability, downright comical when considering the resources sunk into them, and despite a dearth of perspective from sheltered upbringings.
One telltale sign of the influence of money is the intergenerational correlation in jobs among the wealthy. Many that end up being professors had parents that were academics; sons of lawyers end up in law; daughters of doctors in medicine; those with machine shops in the garages of their childhood homes as engineers. Across all professions, United States Census Data found that “22% of American men whose fathers were present during their teenage years will, by the time they turn 30, have worked for the same employer, at the same time, as their dads.” Decomposed further by family income, sons of the top 10% are 1.5 times more likely to have had the same employer, as sons in the bottom 10%. Among elite professions, the correlation is much stronger. A New York Times study found that, “an American male is 4,582 times more likely to become an Army general if his father was one; 1,895 times more likely to become a famous C.E.O.; 1,639 times more likely to win a Pulitzer Prize; 1,497 times more likely to win a Grammy; and 1,361 times more likely to win an Academy Award.” Even more disturbingly, the odds of a state governor’s child eventually holding the same title is 1 in 51; 1 in 47 for Senators; 1 in 13 for Presidents; and 1 in 9 for billionaires.
The typical explanation is good genes—or parents that spark an early interest for the profession. A more likely reality is that to navigate specialized career paths with unstated norms and Kafka-esque bureaucracy, one needs access to early training that mediocre public schools cannot provide, coaching to traverse tortuous pipelines, advance knowledge of industry trends, and inside contacts. While working and middle class children are earnestly learning the ropes for themselves (often with futile results), the children of the affluent have had the secrets of how to game the system whispered into their ears from day one. The inter-generational correlation in jobs is about as absurd as the son of a sheriff reprising his father’s role in the Middle Ages, and it is indicative of the reliance on family-based guilds to propagate success in a society with little social mobility and weak social infrastructure.
By the time they are in their early thirties, the rich will have moved into their own house or condo. Their friends will extrapolate from a few memories of childhood precociousness to conclude that they have successfully developed their potential, transitioned into lucrative careers and are now making the big bucks quick enough to squelch student loans and afford the down payment. All is right in the world. The reality is that their parents paid off their student loans a long time ago (61% of millennials report receiving financial aid from their parents for post-secondary education), and for a “double-lucky” 3% benefitting from a “funnel of privilege,” the bulk of the down payment comes from the bank of mom and dad. This top-secret information will forever be classified; while their house-warming parties will be archived on Instagram, the mortgage documents co-signed by their parents will unsurprisingly not be shared on Snapchat.
Settled into domestic bliss, usually with a partner of the same high socioeconomic status (a phenomenon called assortative mating that is one of the main drivers of multi-generational inequality), they will begin to spoil their children with the same privileges that nourished them. They will typically inherit more than a million dollars from their parents (the top 9.9% have at least $1.2 million in wealth, the top 5% $1.6 million, the top 0.9% $10.6 million) which they will use to pay off their house and fund their retirement (63% of Generation Z from affluent families cite that financial stability in retirement will depend on inheritance). Voila!—a fairytale existence!
The life trajectory of the wealthy is based on a cultural conviction that self-advancement—collectively practiced—is the optimal strategy for societal betterment. However, once a generation stocks all its munitions for the credentials arms race, finishes jockeying for leadership positions, and is anticlimactically ejected at middle-age into the Gaping Maw of the Big Nothing, if one asks what the tangible benefit of all this mindless scrambling was, it is difficult to not conclude that aside from having a 4,000 sq. ft. house instead of a 2,000 sq. ft. house and a Cadillac in the driveway instead of a Chevy, there is very little distributed benefit to society despite the sheer magnitude of time, energy, and resources consumed by the process. For every brilliant engineer who rode the jetstream of privilege to SpaceX, there are hundreds more who are hypnotized making useless apps in Silicon Valley, have skipped to Wall Street to cash in on pump-and-dump schemes, have evolved into pretentious ivory tower moralizers, or fight for scraps from neutered government agencies to fund their research. To whom much is given, little is asked.
The unseen casualties of this artificially competitive society are the underclass deprived of reasonable social services at every stage of their lives. In childhood, their education is neglected, and their adult years are spent running the gauntlet just to acquire the few basic necessities that can be taken for granted in every other developed nation. When these unprofitable servants of the state have nothing to show for the little they have been given, they are labelled as slothful and further stripped to bolster the abundance of the wealthy. They are cast into outer darkness, but there is little weeping or gnashing of teeth on their behalf.
Duluxan Sritharan is a PhD candidate at Harvard University.