The Reality of the American Dream By Leah Burrows
Closing the wealth gap requires getting out — and staying out — of poverty.
n the fight for racial wealth equity, statistics tell only half the story. Numbers can tell you that the median wealth of white households is 20 times that of black households, and that African-American and Latino families were disproportionately affected by the subprime mortgage crisis. But statistics can’t tell you what it feels like to lose your home, your savings and your child’s college fund. Statistics can’t tell you what happens to individuals, families and communities caught in a cycle of poverty. Statistics alone can’t tell you how to fix these problems. That’s why Hannah Thomas, PhD’12, and Alexandra Bastien, MPP’12, spend a lot of time thinking about the human toll of the racial wealth gap, and promoting policy solutions for individuals, families and communities that strengthen financial security through asset building and homeownership. “By helping families build assets and savings, we are giving them the ability to withstand a crisis,” says Bastien, a program associate at PolicyLink, a national research and policy institute in Oakland, Calif. “Assets are the difference between getting out of poverty and staying out.” “A lot of research on wealth and inequality has focused on the household level, but we need to take a broader look at the web of wealth,” says Thomas, who worked as a senior research associate at Heller’s Institute on Assets and Social Policy before becoming a senior analyst in assets and
26 | Heller Magazine
homeownership at Abt Associates earlier this year. “Families with a network of wealthy aunts, uncles or cousins deplete their assets less often than families without such networks.” British-born Thomas became fascinated by the concept of the American dream as an undergraduate at Cambridge University. When she came to the United States for a research project, she was shocked by the vast inequality in wealth. “It became a driving goal to understand why the most wealthy country in the world has so many people living in poverty,” Thomas says. For Bastien, the realities of American inequality were a nine-minute drive from her home in Brockton, Mass., a majority-people-of-color city, to the neighboring towns of Stoughton and Easton, majority-white towns, where income levels were 11 times higher. After graduating from Boston College in 2008, Bastien returned home to see house after house in foreclosure. “The foreclosure crisis decimated Brockton,” Bastien recalls. “I had a strong feeling it had to do with the relationship between race and money, but I didn’t have the framework or terminology to describe it.” Bastien and Thomas came to Heller to better understand inequality in America, and left with the framework and language to fight it. “Not a lot of people can say that they use their degree in their job every day,” Bastien says. “I know I made a good investment.”
A Magazine for the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University