Inequality

What Would You Do for $1000 an Hour?

In college, we spent a lot of time playing a fun game called “Would You Rather.” Like, “Would you rather have to vomit every third time you opened your mouth, or take a dump on your favorite professor’s desk chair?” Sometimes the questions went beyond bodily functions to money: “Would you rather steal $10,000 or have it given to you because a relative you loved died?”

Nowadays everyone just plays Cards Against Humanity.

Let’s be retro! Would you rather make $1000 an hour by shaving monkeys for use in labs, or by being Anthony Green, doing “guaranteed results” remote test-prep for Manhattan’s richest children and having to answer to their parents?

Green is one of the premier SAT and ACT tutors in New York. His company, Test Prep Authority, serves some of the richest kids in America. Using a student’s PSAT, the practice exam, as a benchmark, Green promises he can help raise scores an average of 430 points on the SAT (and 7.8 points on the ACT) — “higher than any other tutor, class, or program in the country,” according to his website. That promise seems to be enough for his well-heeled clientele. And for this very small but wealthy minority, money is truly no object. Green charges $1,500 for 90 minutes of one-on-one tutoring, and he insists on a minimum of 14 90-minute sessions, with very rare exceptions. What’s more, the sessions happen exclusively over Skype. Green’s pupils have never stepped foot inside of his eclectically decorated townhouse.

In the article, Green acknowledges that the system is broken, that the SAT is a “blatant class indicator” and “the entire system of standardized tests and higher education is completely ridiculous and ludicrous.” But as long as that system exists as a supposedly “objective” way of sorting students, he will help the most privileged succeed. AMERICA.

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No Progress on Poor Kids at Top Colleges

Despite effort, or the appearance of it, there has been no change in terms of getting high-achievers from low-income families to elite schools.

In 2006, at the 82 schools rated “most competitive” by Barron’s Profiles of American Colleges, 14 percent of American undergraduates came from the poorer half of the nation’s families, according to researchers at the University of Michigan and Georgetown University who analyzed data from federal surveys. That was unchanged from 1982. And at a narrower, more elite group of 28 private colleges and universities, including all eight Ivy League members, researchers at Vassar and Williams Colleges found that from 2001 to 2009, a period of major increases in financial aid at those schools, enrollment of students from the bottom 40 percent of family incomes increased from just 10 percent to 11 percent.

What does make a difference? Investments of money, which most schools either can’t or won’t prioritize, and investments of time, like sending admissions officers to schools that are off the beaten track. Also, perhaps most importantly, helping students understand that the sticker price at high-end colleges is not what most middle- and working-class families pay:

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America Runs on Dunkin’ (In Secret Pools)

The beach is largely democratic. Though, as commenters hastened to assure me when last we discussed it, some shorelines charge for entry or parking or both, where there is ocean there tends to be free access to ocean. Screaming children, old folks splayed out in chairs, teenagers strutting like seagulls: the beach embraces humanity in all its debatable glory.

The pool, by contrast, is elitist. It puts up walls. Yes, there are public pools, but much like public schools, they tend to be used by a specific subset of people with fewer choices. Those who can afford to usually go elsewhere, like the mom I heard agonizing in the playground about whether or not to give her daughter to the best free education in Brooklyn, or like the author of this piece for Mommy Poppins: “if the idea of putting your kids in a public pool makes you uncomfortable, there are other options.” Why would anyone be “uncomfortable”? The author doesn’t say, but we can guess. My dad grew up in small-town Virginia with pools whose signs read, “No Jews, blacks, or dogs.” The pool remains a potent symbol of racial and economic segregation even today. It says, “You there, you belong; come, bathe your weary limbs and refresh yourselves in my rarefied water. Immerse yourself in a Fountain of Youth. Emerge sparkling like a doe touched with morning dew. #NoFatties.”

This piece about secret pools in Manhattan does not, in short, come as a surprise.

The Dream Downtown, a hotel in the Meatpacking District, charges $175 a day to use the pool, Monday through Thursday. A cabana on the weekend will set you back at least $2,500.

It’s enough to make a person long for the Jersey Shore.

BTW: If you’re in the city and less squeamish than the Mommy Poppins crowd, this round-up of the best places to swim in Manhattan includes several absolutely free public pools as well as more affordable private options. Or, try a Dumpster!

Illo by Charrow

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Concerning the Moral Obligations of the Wealthy

I have come under some criticism of late for being uncharitable toward the rich. To be more precise, I offhandedly wrote, alluding to Ester’s piece on trust fund kids, that my policy concerning people born rich is to distrust them. Commenters took me to task for that, and rightly so: it is foolish and wrong to suppose that affluence, in and of itself, defines character. As one commenter noted, mine was “exactly the kind of ignorance several writers on the Billfold would preach against if it were any other kind of discrimination.”

I think that commenter was right, and I said so in comments and a note appended to the post in question. I also said, “We could have a separate discussion about whether there is any moral imperative on the inheritors of wealth to do something selfless and worthwhile with their money, or about the attitudes that may or may not prevail among them about whether they deserve their good fortune.” Several commenters later suggested that yes, that is a discussion worth having. This came to mind over the weekend, when I was engaged in that most proletarian of leisure activities, camping and reading the New Yorker. So let’s start our discussion about the moral obligations of the wealthy with a focus on how they help people with acute need.

I suppose I should not expect a worldview untouched by a certain elitism when I read the New Yorker, but more and more, I notice that there is an archetypal story about rare diseases and how progress is made in their cures. It goes like this:

1. An upper-middle-class couple notices something unusual about their infant child. 2. Doctors are either flummoxed and unhelpful or convinced that it is a terminal illness. 3. The parents refuse to accept the doctors’ assessment and devote large sums of money to (a) organizing and lobbying for more research on the illness; and (b) making all kinds of costly changes to their home, lives, and routines to accommodate their ill child and make the child’s life more enriching. 4. Progress in treatment results from the parents’ tireless efforts.

This sequence became clear to me while reading Seth Mnookin’s piece, “One of a Kind” in the July 21, 2014, issue. The article focuses on a couple, a college professor and an M.B.A., whose son has an extraordinarily rare genetic disease, and their ultimately successful quest to push the medical establishment toward more data-sharing and collaboration to develop treatments. (Spoiler: the disease isn’t quite as rare as previously believed.) The article is great and fascinating: in addition to following a family with the surname Might and involving a glycobiologist who is actually named Hudson Freeze, it illustrates how more base human motivations (researchers’ desire for sole credit on publications; institutions’ need to compete for scarce funding) can impede medical progress. It also has a happy-ish ending: the Mights’ son is showing surprising progress as he gets older; research is progressing.

But all that progress is predicated on the fact that this terrible disease befell not just Matt and Cristina Might’s child, but the child of Matt and Kristen Wilsey as well. The Wilseys, we learn, “are one of the most prominent families in San Francisco.”

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Concerning Eschewing Ivies and Raising Working-Class Heroes

On the heels of Ester’s exploration of trust fund kids (my position: don’t trust ‘em), I came upon this rather wide-ranging indictment of elite colleges and the admissions process in the New Republic: in short, the author avers, the Ivies squelch creativity, channel thinking and energy into a narrow set of endeavors, reinforce privilege, and perpetuate the illusion of a meritocracy: “This system is exacerbating inequality, retarding social mobility, perpetuating privilege, and creating an elite that is isolated from the society that it’s supposed to lead.”

And the cause (aside from, you know, how rich people always set stuff up to benefit themselves)?

Not increasing tuition, though that is a factor, but the ever-growing cost of manufacturing children who are fit to compete in the college admissions game. The more hurdles there are, the more expensive it is to catapult your kid across them. Wealthy families start buying their children’s way into elite colleges almost from the moment they are born: music lessons, sports equipment, foreign travel (“enrichment” programs, to use the all-too-perfect term)—most important, of course, private-school tuition or the costs of living in a place with top-tier public schools.

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Blame the Patriarchy For Your Lack of Social Mobility

You’d be forgiven if you saw today’s The Atlantic article “What’s In a Name? Everything.” and thought it was another Freakonomics-style piece about how passing along certain surnames to your children can inhibit their social mobility because we as Americans are presumptive and racist jerks.

Well, passing along certain surnames can inhibit social mobility, and we as Americans are often presumptive and racist jerks, but that’s not why these two items are necessarily connected—not according to UC-Davis economic historian Gregory Clark’s new research, anyway.

Gregory Clark’s new book The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility examines how wealth, status, and opportunity are passed down from parents to children, and how likely it is that a family—not an individual, but an entire family—is able to rise socially and economically over time.

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Soon We Will All Enter Through The Poor Door

Separate but equal, right? What could possibly go wrong? According to the Daily Mail, NYC has given a thumbs up to the Poor Door:

Extell’s proposal allows them to force affordable housing tenants to walk through an entrance located in a back alley behind the building to enter, leaving the more prominent front entrance for tenants paying for nicer apartments. … some developers dismiss the outcry over the ‘poor door’ concept.

‘No one ever said that the goal was full integration of these populations,’ David Von Spreckelsen, senior vice president at Toll Brothers, another developer specializing in luxury residencies, told The Real Deal in 2013. ‘So now you have politicians talking about that, saying how horrible those back doors are. I think it’s unfair to expect very high-income homeowners who paid a fortune to live in their building to have to be in the same boat as low-income renters, who are very fortunate to live in a new building in a great neighborhood.’

The great David Von Spreckelsen has spoken. Gross trash-people living in affordable housing should be grateful they get a door at all and don’t have to shimmy in through air vents or come in on their knees, flagellating themselves for not working harder in elementary school to prepare themselves for the marketplace. Count your blessings, human rats! If you can count, which we doubt.

Related: Have you watched Snowpiercer yet? Anne Helen Petersen says: “Snowpiercer is the first film I’ve seen since District 9 that takes the tropes of the blockbuster and transforms them into something so compelling that days after seeing it, you stop can’t thinking about it. It turns moviegoers into proselytizers: Once you’ve seen it, you can’t shut the fuck up.”

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America Arrests Working Mom. Good Job, America!

Welcome to the US of A, where you can get arrested for letting your nine-year-old play in the park while you go to work at McDonald’s. Spluttering with indignation? Let Conor Friederdorf of the Atlantic articulate your outrage for you. His skills are well-honed.

By arresting this mom (presumably causing her to lose her job) and putting the child in foster care, the state has caused the child far more trauma than she was ever likely to suffer in the park, whatever one thinks of the decision to leave her there. Even if the state felt it had the right to declare this parenting decision impermissible, couldn’t they have given this woman a simple warning before taking custody?

Also, even though it is against the law for your boss to tell you not to discuss your salary with your coworkers, odds are your boss will either not know that or not care. For that matter, you may well not know your rights, either. Let’s go over them, shall we? 

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Living in Poverty, When “Poverty” is a Place

In the last decade, concentrated poverty has gotten significantly worse. In some regions of the country, over a third of residents now live in what are called “poor neighborhoods.” A Slate writer took a look at the 2010 Census data:

In 2010, the overall U.S. poverty rate was about 15 percent. However, about a quarter of all Americans lived in a so-called “poverty area”—defined as a census tract where more than 20 percent of the population lived below the poverty line. … The problem was especially severe in Appalachia and across the South and Southwest, where in most states 30 percent or more of all residents lived in these communities. 

As recently as a decade ago, the situation was much less dire: in 2000, around 18% of the total US population lived in “poor neighborhoods.” Now over 25% of us do. 15% of all Americans — and an unconscionable 21.8% of all children – live in poverty (“In 2012, 73.7 million American children represented 23.7% of the total U.S. population, but made up a disquieting 34.6% of Americans in poverty and a full 35% of Americans living in deep poverty”). Increasingly it seems Poverty is an actual place where Americans live, packed together in isolation, forced to cope with fewer resources, fewer services, fewer jobs, more violence, and the kind of high walls that make Poverty difficult to escape. Metaphorically speaking.

An unrelated article by several economists in Slate suggests that, on a local level, at least, people are acting: towns, even or especially less affluent ones, are doing like Denmark

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Who Lives In All Those Fancy Condos? Human Props & Nobody

One of the fun things about living in New York City is peering into the faces of the people you pass and asking yourself, “Are you a millionaire? Are you, sir, with the mustache and tattoos and mustache tattoos? Are you, angry biking lady?” It’s sort of like the grown-up version of Are You My Mother? but whereas the little bird in that famous children’s book has only one mother, NYC overflows with rich people. They’re everywhere, hiding among us. They have to be. After all, who else could afford to buy those massive luxury condos growing up everywhere like weeds?

Well, turns out that the secret ingredient is salt foreign capital.

According to data compiled by the firm PropertyShark, since 2008, roughly 30 percent of condo sales in large-scale Manhattan developments have been to purchasers who either listed an overseas address or bought through an entity like a limited-liability corporation, a tactic rarely employed by local homebuyers but favored by foreign investors. Similarly, the firm Corcoran Sunshine, which markets luxury buildings, estimates that 35 percent of its sales since 2013 have been to international buyers, half from Asia, with the remainder roughly evenly split among Latin America, Europe, and the rest of the world. “The global elite,” says developer Michael Stern, “is basically looking for a safe-deposit box.” … But much of the foreign money is coming in at lower price points, closer to the median for a Manhattan condo ($1.3 million and rising). In fact, if you’ve recently been outdone by an outrageous all-cash bid for an apartment, there’s a decent chance that, behind a generic corporate name, there’s a foreign buyer and an offshore bank account.

Don’t sweat it, normal Americans! We still have options. We can be HUMAN PROPS

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