10 things we learned at Brookings in 2015

For a century, Brookings experts have studied the world’s most pressing public policy issues through independent, high-quality analysis, and offered solutions to meet the challenges. 2015 was no exception. As we move into a presidential election year and face continuing and new challenges, read up on these ten things we learned from our experts about the world over the last 365 days.

America’s upper middle class is separating from the rest of society, and that’s not a good thing

Defined as the top 20 percent of the income distribution, America’s upper middle class is increasingly enjoying more income, higher educational attainment, more stable family structure, and higher engagement with the electoral process. Richard Reeves argues that “When status becomes more strongly inherited, inequality hardens into stratification, open societies start to close up, and class distinctions sharpen.”

Student loan debt is a selective crisis

Most of the increase in student loan default is associated with borrowers at for-profit schools, two-year institutions, and non-selective colleges, according to research for the Brookings Papers on Economic Activity. The 2013 default rate for students in these institutions was 21 percent, while it was only 8 percent for those attending four-year colleges.

U.S. advanced industries employ over 12.3 million workers

Researchers from the Metropolitan Policy Program find that “the combination of intensive technology investment and highly skilled STEM workers in the advanced industry sector represents a potent source of U.S. prosperity—including for workers without a bachelor’s degree.”

More than one billion people have escaped extreme poverty since 1990

While great progress has been made on tackling extreme poverty, 13 percent of the world (about 840 million people) worldwide continue to live on less than $1.25 a day. Can the world end extreme poverty by 2030? Homi Kharas, co-editor with Laurence Chandy and Hiroshi Kato of “The Last Mile in Ending Extreme Poverty,” explains how peace, jobs, and resilience can “start a fruitful conversation about what needs to be done, where, to achieve this goal.”

Iran could become more confrontational in Middle East after nuclear deal

The deal signed this summer between the P5+1 countries and Tehran constrains Iran’s nuclear ambitions over the next 10-15 years but does not address Iran’s ambitions in the Middle East during that time. Kenneth Pollack testified to Congress that “Iran’s most likely course after a nuclear agreement will be to continue to pursue the same regional strategy it has pursued over the past three years,” one that is “inimical to the interests of the United States and its allies.”

There is such a thing as a “leap second”

Every so often, the International Telecommunications Union, which manages Coordinated Universal Time, adds a “leap second” to the calendar to account for the earth’s slowing rotation. There have been 26 such leap seconds added since 1972. Jack Karsten and Darrell West explain why this “irregular” addition of time “can have big consequences for a world increasingly dependent on technological precision.”

Rescheduling marijuana for medical research reasons is more complicated than you think

Marijuana is currently a “Schedule I” substance under the Controlled Substances Act, sharing that designation with substances such as heroin and LSD, and meaning that it has “no currently accepted medical treatment use in the U.S.” Amid calls to change this policy to allow marijuana to be used medicinally, John Hudak and Grace Wallack detail the very complicated process required to re-schedule marijuana outside of the legislative process.

Girls’ education increases economic growth and saves lives

Gene Sperling and Rebecca Winthrop, co-authors (with Christina Kwauk), call attention to “the abundance of evidence that girls’ education has incredibly high returns, including not just increasing economic growth and wages, but also saving lives by making mothers and children healthier, lessening the effects of natural disasters and climate change, and ensuring better access to education for future generations.”

New Census data shows little progress against poverty

Elizabeth Kneebone and Natalie Holmes examine new Census Bureau data to show that “for most regions poverty rates and poor populations continue to outstrip their pre-recession levels.” Uneven economic growth across metro areas, they find, “has largely left low-income people behind.”

We need to rethink “political Islam”

From Tunisia, to Egypt, to the Islamic State spanning parts of Syria and Iraq, Islamists have come to power in varying ways and with varying outcomes. Shadi Hamid and William McCants introduce an initiative to “think more systematically about changes in the mainstream Islamist movement and what to do about it.”