The 9.9 Percent

Christians are usually sincere and well-intentioned people until you get to any real issues of ego, control power, money, pleasure, and security. Then they tend to pretty much be like everybody else. We often are given a bogus version of the Gospel, some fast-food religion, without any deep transformation of the self; and the result has been the spiritual disaster of “Christian” countries that tend to be as consumer-oriented, proud, warlike, racist, class conscious, and addictive as everybody else-and often more so, I’m afraid.

-Richard Rohr, Breathing Underwater: Spirituality and the 12 Steps

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We all have heard Bernie Sanders rant about the top 0.1% and how they own almost as much wealth as the bottom 90%, or that they are fully capable of buying politicians and policy in America. But most of us likely haven’t heard of the 9.9 percent. That is, unless you have read The Atlantic’s famous new article, “The Birth of the New American Aristocracy”. It is an eye-opening article and I encourage you to check it out if you have some time on your hands (it will take you at least an hour to read – it’s loooong).

Because the article is so long and covers so much I’m going to try to address different aspects of the article and comment on them, because I think they are certainly worth addressing. So this blog will be broken down into several different categories, following quotes and diagrams from the original article.

(Keep in mind, because one cannot make a valid case on individual statistics, a broad topic such as this must be addressed based on the larger statistical reality. I know we all have seen or have our own personal examples that might refute broad evidence, but those claims are only valid for you, not for everyone else in the world.)

1. Who is the 9.9 percent?

So what kind of characters are we, the 9.9 percent? We are mostly not like those flamboyant political manipulators from the 0.1 percent. We’re a well-behaved, flannel-suited crowd of lawyers, doctors, dentists, mid-level investment bankers, M.B.A.s with opaque job titles, and assorted other professionals—the kind of people you might invite to dinner. In fact, we’re so self-effacing, we deny our own existence. We keep insisting that we’re “middle class.”

As of 2016, it took $1.2 million in net worth to make it into the 9.9 percent; $2.4 million to reach the group’s median; and $10 million to get into the top 0.9 percent…

We are also mostly, but not entirely, white. According to a Pew Research Center analysis, African Americans represent 1.9 percent of the top 10th of households in wealth; Hispanics, 2.4 percent; and all other minorities, including Asian and multiracial individuals, 8.8 percent—even though those groups together account for 35 percent of the total population.

So these people are the 9.9 percent. In the town I grew up in, many were a part of this group. In other words, I know this group quite well. Family structures of these groups are strong and more often than not remain well-intact. Individuals of this group rarely violate the law beyond basic speeding tickets and parking violations, and if they do, they are much less likely to be caught engaging in white-collar crime than their other criminal counterparts.

This group has a mentality of hard work, respect, and friendliness and is often easy to get along with. Statistically speaking their health is far better than those of lower classes. They are much better equipped to handle money, they know how to spend and how to save, and they are usually more familiar with the tricks of the trade.

This group is also overwhelmingly white. The assumption that white privilege is a hoax brought upon our youth by academia is simply ignorant of the facts and of history. (Yes, Jordan Peterson, I know white privilege is not universal, but in America it exists, so we need to address it.) But I will address more of this later.

And of course, as the quote above from the original article mentions, they have a lot of money. What is quite interesting about this however is that most of them consider themselves as part of the middle class – which they are very much above and beyond.

You are a part of this class if you have a net worth of anywhere from $1.2 million to $10 million. But money is not the only indication of wealth. So what exactly does wealth consist of?

2. Wealth

Money may be the measure of wealth, but it is far from the only form of it. Family, friends, social networks, personal health, culture, education, and even location are all ways of being rich, too. These nonfinancial forms of wealth, as it turns out, aren’t simply perks of membership in our aristocracy. They define us.

We are the people of good family, good health, good schools, good neighborhoods, and good jobs…

We 9.9 percenters live in safer neighborhoods, go to better schools, have shorter commutes, receive higher-quality health care… We also have more friends—the kind of friends who will introduce us to new clients…

These special forms of wealth offer the further advantages that they are both harder to emulate and safer to brag about than high income alone. Our class walks around in the jeans and T‑shirts inherited from our supposedly humble beginnings. We prefer to signal our status by talking about our organically nourished bodies, the awe-inspiring feats of our offspring, and the ecological correctness of our neighborhoods.

If there is a continuous theme that runs throughout this idea of the 9.9 percent, it is that they (or maybe I should say “we”) are smart. We know how to handle situations and most of all we know how to present ourselves as good people. And, as I can vouch, many are good people. But we often ignore the fact that we have benefits that extend far beyond the arrogant belief that everything we have we have because we worked hard, made great choices, and surrounded ourselves with great people. Much of it actually has to do with a decision that none of us can arrange. But more on that later.

The reality is, when you are a kid who grows up in a 9.9 percent home in a 9.9 percent town, you take with you a variety of advantages compared to the kid that grows up on the streets of Chicago in a split family with parents and siblings spending their time in and out of jail.

Often the advantages can come in a variety of ways: It means better health and almost certainly means better quality of health care. It likely means a better education and the opportunity for more education. Steady family structures, role models, and religious environments that exemplify what it means to be responsible, hardworking and of high character will also have a significantly positive impact on you. And friends. But not just any friends. Good friends. Good friends that will hook you up with other good friends. Good friends that will hook your kids up with other good friends.

The kid on the streets of Chicago does not have monetary wealth. But maybe more importantly, he or she does not have any other source of wealth. Sources that are crucial. And thus, while the 9.9 continue the cycle of good health, good education, good friends, and good values, the bottom continues their own cycle. A cycle which has a devastating affect that can only be truly understood by those who are a part of it.

3. Mobility

None of this matters, you will often hear, because in the United States everyone has an opportunity to make the leap: Mobility justifies inequality. As a matter of principle, this isn’t true. In the United States, it also turns out not to be true as a factual matter. Contrary to popular myth, economic mobility in the land of opportunity is not high, and it’s going down…

Imagine yourself on the socioeconomic ladder with one end of a rubber band around your ankle and the other around your parents’ rung. The strength of the rubber determines how hard it is for you to escape the rung on which you were born. If your parents are high on the ladder, the band will pull you up should you fall; if they are low, it will drag you down when you start to rise. Economists represent this concept with a number they call “intergenerational earnings elasticity,” or IGE, which measures how much of a child’s deviation from average income can be accounted for by the parents’ income. An IGE of zero means that there’s no relationship at all between parents’ income and that of their offspring. An IGE of one says that the destiny of a child is to end up right where she came into the world.

The difference is in what happens at the extremes. In the United States, it’s the children of the bottom decile and, above all, the top decile—the 9.9 percent—who settle down nearest to their starting point. Here in the land of opportunity, the taller the tree, the closer the apple falls.

In my hometown, there is an overwhelming principle of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” with the belief that anyone who works hard will eventually pull themselves through the ranks and come out on the other side prevailing.

The town I grew up in is also overwhelmingly conservative. Conservatives can be mistaken for not caring about the poor. In a world history class I taught, we discussed the rise of capitalism and socialism in Europe in the 19th Century. This was a time in which there was little to no regulation on business, and merchants were making tons of money while they were able to replace their workers with machines, use child labor, and have their workers in terrible conditions working for up to 16 hours a day, six days a week.

As we talked about this, my students didn’t understand why capitalists didn’t care about the workers and the poor people. I had to explain to them that for the most part capitalists do care about poverty and those of the lower class, but they have a different understanding of economics. To a capitalist, they believe that what is good for the rich will in turn be good for the poor. So, a world where there is little regulation will actually have a positive effect on everyone else.

There are examples of this being true. But more often than not, what is good for the rich is usually just good for the rich. This is evidenced by the statistics pointed out in the article. As the article states, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, especially for really tall trees.

But for those of us with a mindset of “pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps” this can be a troubling thought. We like to think of America as being the land in which those who have nothing can, with hard work and integrity, rocket themselves up into a success story. The “American Dream” personified.

But the statistics tell us that most likely what you are born into, is what you will become. Sure we all have our stories that are the outliers, but that is why they are outliers. When you are born poor, it is really, really hard to move past that. And even more so, if you are born rich, you are probably going to be rich.

That is the way America goes.

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Here is a diagram from the article in which several different countries are highlighted for economic mobility and economic inequality. America has a significant draw on the most economically unequal state, while it remains ahead of just the U.K. and Italy as far as mobility.

Interestingly, the most economically unequal states for the most part have the highest immobility. Which helps those of us on the highest and lowest ends understand our place.

But just stopping at the fact that the poor tend to stay poor and the rich tend to stay rich would be to disregard some of the major underlying problems that are hidden from these broad statistics. The first is health.

4. Health

Obesity, diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, and liver disease are all two to three times more common in individuals who have a family income of less than $35,000 than in those who have a family income greater than $100,000. Among low-educated, middle-aged whites, the death rate in the United States—alone in the developed world—increased in the first decade and a half of the 21st century. Driving the trend is the rapid growth in what the Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton call “deaths of despair”—suicides and alcohol- and drug-related deaths..

Why do America’s doctors make twice as much as those of other wealthy countries? Given that the United States has placed dead last five times running in the Commonwealth Fund’s ranking of health-care systems in high-income countries, it’s hard to argue that they are twice as gifted at saving lives. Dean Baker, a senior economist with the Center for Economic and Policy Research, has a more plausible suggestion: “When economists like me look at medicine in America—whether we lean left or right politically—we see something that looks an awful lot like a cartel.” Through their influence on the number of slots at medical schools, the availability of residencies, the licensing of foreign-trained doctors, and the role of nurse practitioners, physicians’ organizations can effectively limit the competition their own members face—and that is exactly what they do.

The health industry in America is one of the most profitable areas of business imaginable. It is so common for anyone asking the questions, “why do people in the medical field make so much money?” or “why are businesses able to profit so much on health care?” to hear a response somewhere along the lines of, “well they are saving people’s lives and are helping individuals get over illness every day.”

The response is so American. It assumes that the only incentive for us doing something good for someone else is a lot of money. Pick any field you wish, the underlying principle behind it is money. As Americans it is the only answer we really can come up with.

How do we help people get over sickness? Pay people lots of money.

How do we stop terrorism? Put trillions of dollars into a massive military.

How do we help the poor? (The Left – take money from rich people and give them the money) (The Right – deregulate business so they can make more money and provide more jobs)

How do we make decisions on policy? Give a bunch of money to a politician.

We have never thought about the fact that maybe people will do a good job or do the right thing, not because they will get paid a lot of money for it, but because they love their job. Or perhaps, they sincerely want to help the person that has an illness or injury.

I am not saying that the American health system is so poor compared to other developed countries because those who are a part of it do not love or care about there job. But might it have something to do with the fact that in America we always make money the incentive or the measure of success?

The Health Care System Performance Rankings from 2017 by the Commonwealth Fund measures the five categories (care process, access, administrative efficiency, equity, health care outcomes) for 11 countries (Australia, Canada, U.K., U.S., France, Germany, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland). The U.S. ranked 5th in the care process, 11th in access, 10th in administrative efficiency, 11th in equity, and 11th in health care outcomes.

While most of us 9.9 percenters have likely had great experiences with our health care, this is not true for a lot of other people. And as we have addressed before, quality health is a major factor in keeping the top on top, while a lack of quality health care is just another aspect that leaves the bottom scraping by. Though it is far from the only problem.

5. Race

If you are starting at the median for people of color, you’ll want to practice your financial pole-vaulting. The Institute for Policy Studies calculated that, setting aside money invested in “durable goods” such as furniture and a family car, the median black family had net wealth of $1,700 in 2013, and the median Latino family had $2,000, compared with $116,800 for the median white family. A 2015 study in Boston found that the wealth of the median white family there was $247,500, while the wealth of the median African American family was $8. That is not a typo. That’s two grande cappuccinos…

Racism in particular is not just a legacy of the past, as many Americans would like to believe; it also must be constantly reinvented for the present. Mass incarceration, fearmongering, and segregation are not just the results of prejudice, but also the means of reproducing it…

In the first half of the 19th century, the largest single industry in the United States, measured in terms of both market capital and employment, was the enslavement (and the breeding for enslavement) of human beings. Over the course of the period, the industry became concentrated to the point where fewer than 4,000 families (roughly 0.1 percent of the households in the nation) owned about a quarter of this “human capital,” and another 390,000 (call it the 9.9 percent, give or take a few points) owned all of the rest.

The slaveholding elite were vastly more educated, healthier, and had much better table manners than the overwhelming majority of their fellow white people, never mind the people they enslaved. They dominated not only the government of the nation, but also its media, culture, and religion. Their votaries in the pulpits and the news networks were so successful in demonstrating the sanctity and beneficence of the slave system that millions of impoverished white people with no enslaved people to call their own conceived of it as an honor to lay down their life in the system’s defense.

Just as we are born into wealth, or high quality health systems, we are also born into a particular race. In America, as in many other places, the separation of races creates a large amount tension between the community. Which, technically speaking is ridiculous, as Jared Diamond (a pulitzer prize winning American ecologist, biologist, anthropologist, and geographer) exposed in his article “Race Without Color”, that basing race off of someone’s appearance makes about the same sense as claiming a banana and a lemon are the same because they are the same color. Diamond realized through thorough investigation that one black individual in Africa might actually have a more similar genetic makeup with a white European than another black African.

Unfortunately, America remains divided even today with regards to race. What is so troubling though is how much an individual’s race plays a part in how they might succeed. The same way health, and education do. As the article shows, the median net wealth of a black family was $1,700, while the median net wealth for a white family was $116,800. Latinos didn’t fair much better than blacks, coming in around $2,000.

Why does this exist? Part of it can be traced back to our historical roots. I will never forget a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. in which he talked about how so many white people were claiming that blacks must “pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” but King responds, “I’m all for Negroes doing everything they can to pull themselves up out of their mess, but it is a cruel thing to ask a bootless man to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.”

Here is the full interview.

In America we have a problem. It is as much a racial problem as it is anything else. We have not worked ourselves past racism. In a country that is past racism you wouldn’t see only 1.9 percent of the 9.9 percent be black. In a country that is past racism you wouldn’t see black individuals tased and arrested for parking violations. You wouldn’t see black people struggle to get jobs at an alarming rate compared to white counterparts. You wouldn’t see them incarcerated at a level that is unprecedented for any race, both in America and the rest of the world.

We have a problem. And before we can do anything about it, we have to acknowledge that it exists.

6. Education

In 1985, 54 percent of students at the 250 most selective colleges came from families in the bottom three quartiles of the income distribution. A similar review of the class of 2010 put that figure at just 33 percent. According to a 2017 study, 38 elite colleges—among them five of the Ivies—had more students from the top 1 percent than from the bottom 60 percent. In his 2014 book, Excellent Sheep, William Deresiewicz, a former English professor at Yale, summed up the situation nicely: “Our new multiracial, gender-neutral meritocracy has figured out a way to make itself hereditary.”

As comical as that quote from William Deresiewicz is, it is astonishing how one percent of the richest people in the U.S. can have more members attend 38 different colleges than an entire section of 60 percent. That is absurd. But when you hold the place amongst the richest and continue to maintain that place for your children and your children’s children, then it starts to make sense. Education is important. But right now in America the richest of the rich hold a monopoly on it.

For any individuals that grow up in poor families, they really have to choose whether they should attend college and take on a tremendous amount of debt (if in fact they haven’t yet made any mistakes that would lead them to not being accepted) or not attend college at all. For most kids in the 9.9 percent, they receive help from their families, and even if they don’t, they know most of them will have support systems to fall back on if things don’t work out.

But education isn’t just a problem for those attending college. Schools in poorer communities have a difficult time acquiring quality resources to give a proper education to their students. Not to mention the struggle that educators have dealing with the students themselves, and their parents or guardians.

Giving proper education to students that haven’t grown up in stable families, with strong role models, quality resources, or the desired level of attention are going to be far more prone to having poor attitudes in the classroom, not showing up for school, and not participating in extra-curriculars. While these students do not have the proper monetary wealth, they also do not have the wealth of a quality education. And so the cycle continues…

7. What to do?

We’re leaving the 90 percent and their offspring far behind in a cloud of debts and bad life choices that they somehow can’t stop themselves from making. We tend to overlook the fact that parenting is more expensive and motherhood more hazardous in the United States than in any other developed country, that campaigns against family planning and reproductive rights are an assault on the families of the bottom 90 percent, and that law-and-order politics serves to keep even more of them down. We prefer to interpret their relative poverty as vice: Why can’t they get their act together?

We (the 9.9 percent) may not be the ones funding the race-baiting, but we are the ones hoarding the opportunities of daily life. 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. We’ve looked on with smug disdain as our labors have brought forth a population prone to resentment and ripe for manipulation.

It is a fair question to ask. What do we do about this? Is there anything to do?

I don’t propose to have an answer to this question by any means. Especially for a problem that is so systemic. But I do believe there are a few things we can start with.

First, those of us who are part of a privileged group need to realize that we are part of a privileged group. Denying this is not helping the problem and it is not backed up by any sort of facts. So if you are white, or in the 9.9 percent, or have great education, or have great health, or have all of these things… remember that you started on third base. So the next time you try to make assumptions that Black Lives Matter is stupid or that drug addicts need to be given the harshest punishments, or that poor people need to get their act together and work hard… maybe you should ask yourself how you would feel and where you would be if you were born an African American in Boston. Or if you were born into a family with parents in jail. It’s not as easy as “pull yourself up by your bootstraps.”

There is a cycle that exists in America. For us 9.9 percenters, it is a really great cycle. But for those below us it’s not as cool. As 9.9 percenters, we must acknowledge this cycle.

We also need to accept the fact that we are a divided people and we must move past that in order for anything significant to happen.

We need to recognize that people who come from different backgrounds than ourselves, and think differently than us, have truths that we need to hear:

To white people: we need to apologize to the African American, Latino, American Indian, Asian, and other racial communities that we have neglected and oppressed throughout our history into today. To racial minorities: Be honest. Be respectful. Don’t let the racism card be an excuse when you get behind. Be the outlier. Know that there are a lot of people in the white community that acknowledge and understand they, and their ancestors, have made mistakes and they have a deep desire for that to change.

To conservatives: accept the fact that we have made mistakes as a country. Accept that racism and implicit bias still plays a devastating role for many minorities. Accept that in America it isn’t as easy as it sounds when you are born in poverty to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” Not everyone grows up with good role models, good resources, good education, good wealth, and money.  And it is really hard to work out of that when you are without those crucial aspects of wealth. To liberals: understand that conservatives have a truth that needs to be heard as well. They aren’t just ignorant, patriotic hicks who love guns. People will never progress if they don’t understand the ever-important idea of individual responsibility. We can give people all the money in the world, but if they don’t learn how to work and make good choices, it will never actually benefit them.

We must realize that people are more than the ideological boxes that we choose to wrap ourselves up in. When we see people through lenses of black and white, liberal and conservative, catholic and protestant, the tension that is so great today in America will only continue to build.

Everyone has something important to say, and everyone has something important to contribute. Before we can address the issue in which there is so great of economic inequality and so little economic mobility, we must be able to work together. See the truth that the other side might have to say. Don’t just label them and brush them off.

Individually, redefine what it means to be successful. Being successful is not starting a great business. It is not working your way to the top in a job. It is not making the most money or having a great marriage. It is not having kids that are wonderful. Nor is it having great economic security. If it was, then what does that make the guy who is a janitor his whole life? Is he a failure? Or what about someone who gets divorced, or has troubled kids? Are they failures? Being successful needs to be redefined in America in a much deeper and more beautiful way.

When endorsing a politician or voting, don’t ask yourself, “will this be good for me?”, or even “does this person stands for the principles that have worked for me?” Ask yourself if this will be good for everybody. Support programs that will not continue to lead to the stagnancy of the rich and the poor but those that will create opportunities for others.

As a nation, maybe we could cut some of our massive military budget or our extreme system of mass incarceration in which the U.S. holds 25% of the world’s prisoners with only 5% of the population. Maybe we could start treating people with drug addictions as a health problem instead of a criminal issue (like every other major country). The violence of our prison and military systems have not helped solve the problems like we have hoped, they just have caused more issues.

With that money maybe we can create more programs that can provide opportunities for people at the bottom to break the chains of poverty. Programs for education and increased health. Start a non-profit organization that helps the disadvantaged, rather than dive into mainstream corporate America like everyone else.

Above all, try to embody love. It might sound cheesy, but it is real. It’s in moments like these, when answers seem difficult, we must turn to love. Now we have to figure out what exactly that means for each of us.

Sometimes I think it might mean being radical and impractical.

Be radical. Be impractical.

But mostly be love.

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