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How the last decade created a brutal wealth divide

Many Americans are skeptical when it comes to hearing that the U.S. economy is on the mend, and new federal data helps explain why.

A look at the country's financial health finds many ended 2011 in worse shape than they were in 2000, thanks to a nearly 7 percent decline in median household wealth, or a loss of $5,056, the U.S. Census Bureau reported Thursday. But not everyone suffered equally: The richest Americans actually gained assets, while the poorest Americans suffered losses.

"The result was a widening wealth gap between those at the top and those in the middle and bottom of the net worth distribution," the Census said in a statement.

Household net worth is a closely watch measure of economic well-being, and a decline in wealth goes a long way toward explaining why so many middle- and working-class Americans feel generally gloomy about their prospects. The median American household held assets -- including financial investments, real estate and retirement accounts -- of $68,828 in 2011, down from $73,874 in 2000.

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The shift in household wealth may be due to "the types of assets that households hold," Census Bureau economist Alfred Gottschalk said in a statement.

What does that mean? Households with the financial wherewithal to invest in the stock market may have outperformed those Americans whose main source of wealth is their homes, given the still-recovering real estate market. Capital income -- gains from stock sales, for instance -- is now increasingly enjoyed by the top 5 percent of U.S. earners, according to a Standard & Poor's report earlier this month.

it may not be all that surprising that the wealth gap is widening at the same time the income gap is reaching what French economist Thomas Piketty calls "spectacular" heights. After all, as the wealthy grow wealthier, they have a greater ability to put money into investments such as stocks and bonds, while middle- and lower-earners are left spending most of their income on necessities such as food and rent.

The breakdown of how the rich and poor fared during the last decade illustrates a stark divide. For those in the bottom quintile, median net wealth suffered a loss of $5,124, the Census Bureau found. By contrast, the richest Americans saw their net worth surge by $61,379.

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The losses for the least-fortunate Americans came at a terrible cost, sinking the poorest households deep into negative territory, according to the Census findings. In 2000, the lowest quintile had a net worth of -$905. They have sunk even further since then: By 2011, that segment had a negative net worth of -$6,029.

That means that while the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting decimated.

The report found variations in wealth changes based on age, race and educational achievement. Across the board, Americans younger than age 55 suffered declines in their net wealth, with the biggest dips witnessed by those between 35 to 44 and 45 to 54, the report noted.

Seniors came out of the decade with significantly higher assets, with those between 65-to-69-years-old seeing their wealth rise by $40,000, or about 26 percent.

As for race, non-Hispanic whites saw overall wealth gains of $3,730 from 2000 to 2011, while blacks suffered a median net worth loss of $3,746. Hispanics saw their median net worth fall by $5,576, the Census Bureau said.

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