Controversies over privilege are everywhere these days. Everybody knows the classless society is a myth. The rich are getting richer and the class divide is growing, along with class resentments. That's what helped bring us Donald Trump.
Lots of people like to focus on the top 1 per cent. But the real class divide is not the one between the top 1 per cent and the other 99. It's the divide between the educated elite and everybody else. The fortunes of people who graduate with four-year university degrees and the people who struggle in community college are diverging more sharply than ever before. It's the educated elites who dominate the professions and manage our major institutions. They're the ones whose jobs are least likely to be wiped out by automation or outsourced to India (at least for now). They may not live in mansions on the Bridle Path. But they're doing pretty well. And they're very good at passing along their advantages to their children.
"Upper-middle-class parents have the means to spend two to three times more time with their preschool children than less affluent parents," David Brooks writes in The New York Times. Upper-middle-class kids grow up with every advantage that lavish parental investments of time and money can bestow.
Privilege isn't just defined by economic capital (or by race or gender, for that matter). It is increasingly defined by social and cultural capital – those intangible assets that allow people to navigate professional and personal networks to gain power and status. Upper-middle-class kids know the codes. Poorer kids don't. And a minority student at the University of Toronto is likely to accumulate a lot more social capital than a white high-school dropout who drives a cab. How do you rank in accumulated privilege? If you're reading this piece in The Globe and Mail, the question almost answers itself. Just to double check, try this Privilege Test (devised by me) and see how you score:
- Your family income – or your parents’ family income, if you’re young – is $120,000 a year or more. (That’s the approximate cutoff point for the upper one-fifth of earners.)
- You grew up in a stable, two-parent household. (Children who grow up in stable families do much better than children in lone-parent or divorced families.)
- Your mother graduated from university. (Maternal education is an important predictor of children’s educational attainment.)
- Your folks took you to the museum/theatre when you were a kid.
- Your family helped/will help you with a down payment on a house (or you helped your kids.)
- You’ve been to Europe more than once.
- You graduated from a good university. (Bonus point for each graduate degree.)
- Most of your high-school friends went to good universities.
- If there are two forks in a place setting, you know which one to use first.
- You got an internship through family connections (or helped somebody else get one).
- You can paddle a canoe.
- You Tweet, or know people who do. (Tweeting is considered an elite activity.)
Disclosure: I scored 11 out of 13, plus a bonus point.
My point is not that you didn't earn your privilege. You probably did. But it's easy to forget how much of our advantage comes from things over which we had no control. Sure, we're smart, and we work hard. But we're also lucky. The question then becomes what the smart and lucky owe to those who are less so, especially in a world where the gap is going to widen. It's a question that leaves both conservatives and liberals floundering.
On the left hand of the spectrum, the standard answers are to tax the rich and level the playing field with better services for disadvantaged kids. Trouble is, we've gone down that road about as far as we can. We already have a highly redistributive tax system. Nor can the state replace the inherent advantages of intact, two-parent families. Many studies are revealing that early childhood programs do not improve educational performance or life outcomes. People differ in ability, and no matter how good our schools, lots of kids simply aren't university material. Some people think that getting rid of rich ghettos and private schools would help. Good luck with that. Wealthy people will always clump together – and they'll always buy their way into the best school districts, just as they do now.
On the right hand, conservatives like to insist that anyone who works hard and plays by the rules can get ahead. But what if that is less and less true? Look at the United States, where millions of people have been caught in a devastating collapse of industries and traditional institutions, and where entire communities are being ravaged by an opioid epidemic. These people are not going to become software programmers. So now what?
Maybe those of us who scored high on the Privilege Test could think about it. One way or another, this question will dominate our politics for years to come.