The Trap

Daniel Brook

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Selling Out to Stay Afloat in Winner-Take-All America
Daniel Brook
288 pages (Times Books, 2007)

Daniel Brook has added another casualty to income inequality – the loss of new talent willing or able to do nonprofit or public service work. In The Trap: Selling Out to Stay Afloat in Winner-Take-All America, Brook highlights the plight of young professionals who are forced to abandon their passions for six-figure jobs in the private sector, simply to afford what was once considered a middle-class lifestyle.

As background, Brook provides a detailed analysis of how low-wage work and tax breaks for the wealthy have created this country’s enormous gap in wealth. He cites examples of corporations buying congressional votes and swaying academic research with university contributions, and claims that the United States is no longer a democracy, but a plutocracy. As the prices of homes, health insurance, education, and other essentials soar, the middle class is left floundering.

Young, idealistic college graduates are finding that they are unable to provide for their families by following their hearts into nonprofit or public service work. So rather than pursue politics, teaching, or public interest law, they sell their souls for a more comfortable life. Brook argues that only people with inherited wealth can afford to pursue their passions – and that, he says, undercuts both merit and freedom.

Brook, himself a member of the young, well-educated elite (Yale class of 2000), interviewed dozens of his peers who are either struggling to make ends meet in nonprofit or government service jobs, or who have already hopped over to the “dark side,” where they are earning large salaries by doing work that compromises their values. His book contains delightful examples of the common expectation for college graduates to give short shrift to careers in nonprofit or government service. For example, Brook challenges the assumptions of the highly touted Teach for America program, which expects its recruits to move on to schools such as Harvard Business School and Yale Law School.

At heart, Brook fears that the democracy we cherish is gradually being extinguished. These elite-educated, frustrated young people are like the canaries in the mine. Eliminating their choices is a death knell for a free society.

The Trap is both compelling and infuriating. Those of us who are working on the generation gap in nonprofit leadership recognize some of Brook’s arguments. He ably describes the pressures and despair that young people feel when they realize that the most interesting and desirable areas for an educated elite – the cities on both coasts – are inaccessible given the high cost of living. Without a doubt, Brook’s debt-laden peers face extremely difficult choices.

But his case for them is marred by a sense of entitlement (“We’re so smart, we should be able to do what we want”) that muddies his analysis. The fact that young people in certain parts of the country can’t afford to live comfortably off nonprofit and government salaries is an important issue whether we’re talking about Yale grads or community college grads.

As these sectors seek new leadership, they will certainly need to address it. Brook is right that the solution is structural (reduce the income gap), but he misses two important points.

First, not just low income turns people away from nonprofits, we find in our research at the Building Movement Project. Young people also report frustration with other aspects of the sector, from entrenched bureaucratic structures to a lack of recognition and support from older generations. Second, The Trap does not acknowledge that talented candidates for these jobs also come through nonelite channels. He assumes that democracy will fail if well-educated people do not stay in the arts, public service, or nonprofit work. Democracy may fail if only the rich make decisions, but it may indeed succeed if a new group of nonelites gain power and experience. The Trap raises important issues, but Brook undermines the book’s very power. He concludes with the example of Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner who opposed slavery but could not free his own slaves – even in death – for economic reasons. Brook argues that Jefferson needed a structural change, the abolition of slavery, to preserve his wealth. Although this structural solution levels the playing field for the elites, it ignores those who need structural solutions to gain a foothold in society. In the end, Brook believes that money trumps our passions and moral vision. If that were true, slavery would be with us today.

Frances Kunreuther is the director of the Building Movement Project and a senior fellow at the Research Center for Leadership in Action at New York University. She is the co-author of From the Ground Up: Grassroots Organizations Making Social Change (Cornell, 2006).