Mel Jones writes in the Washington Monthly about an issue I and many of my peers are familiar with: how to pay off student debt and other bills in a not-so-great economy, yet somehow build a financial foundation for the future. Her experience, however, is fundamentally different from mine, in that as a person of color she must also contend with what’s come to be known as the “second” racial wealth gap—the second phase in a “financial disparity that stems from continuous shortfalls in parents’ net worth and low homeownership rates among blacks,” which, Jones explains, “works to create an unlevel playing field.”
Since owning a home accounts for over 50 percent of wealth for blacks (compared with 39 percent for whites) and since black Americans are five times less likely to inherit wealth than white Americans generally (7 percent to 36 percent), low homeownership rates among black Americans, which often are the result of discriminatory lending practices, are a large contributing factor to the racial wealth gap. In addition, Jones points out, “[T]he most recent housing bust is estimated to have wiped out half of the collective wealth of black families—a setback of two generations,” resulting in essentially an exponential setback for millennials of color.
Jones cites a recent study published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives on the dynamics of wealth accumulation that found an estimated 20 percent of personal wealth can be attributed to formal and informal gifts from family members, especially parents. But blacks and Hispanics starting their careers are not likely to get such a boost. Moreover, they’re already starting at a disadvantage, given that they take on higher levels of student debt than their white peers, “often to pay for routine expenses, like textbooks, that their parents are less likely to subsidize,” Jones writes. They also often have to work while in college, thus missing out on opportunities to connect with classmates and forge the professional ties that might help them later.
I know I wouldn’t be where I am without “formal and informal gifts from family members,” before, during, and after college. I wouldn't have been able to make decisions toward furthering my professional career if I couldn't, for example, stay on my family’s cell phone plan or receive help covering the cost of an apartment security deposit. Understanding that there are inherent long-term benefits in being able to choose career development over routine expenses is one part of understanding what in current discourse is called “privilege.” As Jones puts it simply: “If you have to decide between paying for a professional networking event or a cell phone bill, the latter is likely to win out”:
When this happens once or twice on a small scale, it’s not a big deal. It’s the collective impact of a series of decisions that matters, the result of which is displayed among ethnic and class lines and grounded in historical privilege.
And then there are medical expenses to consider, life emergencies, and other situations that can easily bring someone struggling with student debt and working on a first-year salary to her knees. When this happens to me (having to get dental work without insurance, or needing a new prescription for eyeglasses), it’s stressful, since it requires deep sacrifices in my daily budget. But I usually am able to pay in increments, and in the back of my mind I know I could always ask for money if I, as my parents put it, "find myself in a tough spot."
Many millennials of color can’t count on Mom and Dad as a financial safety net. What’s more, Mom and Dad expect support from them with life emergencies and medical expenses. Upward of 80 percent of black parents and 70 percent of Hispanic parents expect some sort of financial help from their children, according to a Clark University poll. And “most studies show that a primary reason why people of color are unable to save as adults is because they give financial support to close family,” Jones writes. Why? Because 95 percent of African American and 87 percent of Latino middle-class families do not have enough net assets to meet most of their essential living expenses for even three months if their source of income were to disappear.
This helps explain why white Americans are five times more likely to inherit anything from parents, grandparents or great-grandparents than black Americans, according to Jones. For many white millennials, the funeral of a grandparent may be followed with a check written to them. But millennials of color typically write a check to cover that funeral. Jones herself experienced this in her first year out of grad school and in a new job, when her father died:
I got a call from my mom—she was struggling to pay off my dad’s funeral expenses. I looked at my “House Fund” and sighed. Then I deleted it and typed the words “Funeral Fund” instead. My father’s passing was unexpected. And so was the financial burden that came with it.
To say that the findings in this article are true does not discredit the intentions of white parents supporting their millennial children, something Jones affirms “gift-giving parents see [as] a step in helping their millennial children reach financial independence.” The main point Jones makes—and it’s one I can easily deny if I’d like to—is that you can’t discuss wealth inequality without talking about race:
It all adds up to a slice of the racial wealth gap that’s hard to grasp because it’s made up of many smaller inequalities instead of one massive one…. It’s not the difference between the 1 percent and the destitute, it’s the one between a birthday card from Grandma and paying her hospital bill. The gap in gifts, debts, and inheritances creates a vicious cycle with large ramifications for many black Millennials and their financial future—and when combined with redlining and unequal returns on income and education, the odds are stacked in a terrible way.
And so when we hear staggering figures from economists (the median wealth of white households, for instance, is thirteen times the median wealth of black households) we need to place them in a historical context. There have long been systems that perpetuate racial hierarchy in the United States. The cumulative effect of these on people of color down through generations is considerable and, in some cases, devastating.