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The dying American dream, perfectly illustrated with Legos

If you’re suffering from Ice Bucket Challenge fatigue, here’s another video worth watching: the dying American dream, perfectly illustrated in Lego bricks.

The expanding wealth gap in America has been well-documented in the years since the recession. Data released today by the U.S. Census Bureau shows that the wealthiest households in the U.S. were worth nearly 40 times as much as the poorest households in 2005, accounting for both debts and assets. By 2011, they were worth 87 times as much.

As troubling as that seems, the three-minute video posted by Richard Reeves, an economist with the Brookings Institute, he captures an even more pressing concern — the startling difficulty that the country’s poorest households have at ever working their way up the income ladder.

“We can have a long argument about the gap between the rich and the poor,” Reeves says. “But I think we can all agree that we don’t want to live in a society where where you’re born determines so strongly your chances in life of where you end up.”

Here are some of the highlights (see the data behind the video here):

One out of every three children born into a poor household — defined as a dual-income family earning less than $31,500  — in the U.S. will remain stuck in poverty. They have a less than 20% shot at making it to the middle class, and only one in 10 will make it to the top rung of the income ladder.

Source: Brookings Institute
Source: Brookings Institute

Black Americans start out with even a bigger disadvantage. A mere 3% of black children born into poor households will make it to the top, while more than half will be stuck in poverty.

Source: Brookings Institute
Source: Brookings Institute

For white Americans, the outlook is significantly brighter.

Source: Brookings Institute
Source: Brookings Institute

But race, Reeves explains, will only get you so far up the income ladder. Education plays a much larger role.

Those without a high school degree are up against the worst odds if they want to work their way up. Only 1% of poor high school dropouts will make it to the top 20% of earners.

Source: Brookings Institute
Source: Brookings Institute

Getting a college degree changes these odds significantly. College grads have a 20% probability of reaching the ranks of America’s highest-earning households. Fewer than one in five will remain stuck in poverty.

Source: Brookings Institute
Source: Brookings Institute

Reeves, who oversees Brooking’s Center of Children and Family, has studied intergenerational mobility in families for years. At the root of America’s social immobility problem are fundamental differences in the opportunities available to poor and wealthy households.

“It’s the family they’re born into, the parenting they receive, the quality of their education, their prospects of getting into college, their connections to the labor market,” he says. “Many of these are very difficult for public policy [alone] to reach.”

Some solutions include expanding early sex education — half of children born into unmarried poor households will stay poor — improving early childhood education and counseling young people about their options for college and scholarships. In a report released last year by the Hamilton Project, a research arm of the Brookings Institute, researchers found that one of the biggest reasons low-income students don’t pursue degrees is that they weren’t educated about  scholarships and financial aid.

“I think it’s important for policy makers to realize that we need to be intervening at each stage of the life cycle,” Reeves says. “There’s no single solution to what is a multigenerational, multiyear complex problem.”


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