Every morning I wake up and check off the same two things on my to-do list. The first is to turn the alarm off and scroll through social media lest I missed some uber-important news that couldn’t wait until after I’ve finished washing the sleep from my eyes. Then, I look to the far corner of the room where a whiteboard with black trim hangs next to my bookshelf. It contains an elaborate, color-coded picture of my financial responsibilities.
My monthly bills, written in light green, include rent, Duke Energy, several credit card payment amounts. They’re coded in green to signify these bills won’t change. On the top half of the right side are services like Spotify, Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon written in purple. Beneath both amounts are my take-home pay after taxes, the total of my monthly bills split in half, to be paid per paycheck, and the exact dollar amount for how much will be leftover when everything is paid in full in orange.
The empty space is reserved for purchases I need to work into my budget. Luxury items like Jordan sneakers, PlayStation games, smartwatches, and other fancy objects of my desire that require some level of planning or at the very least, a reminder of where my money is going before it actually arrives there. I put those items in red to reinforce the idea spending funds on those items may impede the goal that inspired this idea.
I created this list two years ago to aid my quest in being completely free from credit card debt by the end of 2021. It’s also a way to quiet the panic my brain creates from constantly making mental calculations on where my money is every time I swiped my card and whether I had enough leftover to make it to the next paycheck. Those methods were a trauma response for consistent under/unemployment that gave debt a vise grip of control over my life.
Debt determined the kind of car I drove, clothes I wore, and how I spent my free time. No fun moment felt truly safe because my brain constantly attacked me with the same pervasive idea: “All the money you’re spending on these brief moments of pleasure could be going toward paying what you owe.”
Debt kept me up at night. It’s why, as a television news producer, I signed up for overtime pay at my job. My decision turned a five-day workweek into a six-day one, and a 45-hour workweek into 60 hours plus. It’s a schedule I kept up from October 2019 to March 2020, with some Friday-to-Saturday overnight shifts lasting at least 17 hours long. And today, even though my current salary is more than enough to lead a comfortable life, the thought of not having enough money haunts me. That’s why I work two jobs and recently interviewed for a third.
From 2012 to 2018, debt was a handwoven sweater made from the best fabrics and I wore it every day of my existence. It affected my self-esteem, my romantic and familial relationships, and my relationship with food. As a first-generation college graduate, it was clear, early, there wouldn’t be much help to shoulder my financial burdens. There was no inheritance to save me, no golden piggy bank to open in times of emergency, and no security blanket to catch me if I fall short.
Although my story is one of tentative triumph, it isn’t unlike many Black people of my generation. In fact, I’d consider myself privileged since I managed to survive the struggle. Still, it’s but one tale in the overarching story of why so many Black millennials are falling behind in the growing segregation of millennial wealth.
Researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis found that while White millennial families made huge strides between 2016 and 2019, Black millennials are behind not only their peers, but previous generations of Black Americans. White millennials benefit mostly from having wealthy parents. It means they have more resources for down payments on a house or to help with student loans. Meanwhile, 80% of Black millennials with at least a bachelor’s still have student loans, compared to less than half of White millennials, and less than a third of Black millennials own a home.
American racism is one major reason the parents and grandparents of Black millennials are so broke. Black families have historically been unable to receive bank loans, or quality rates, in the same way as White families. When Black soldiers came home from World War II, lawmakers crafted the GI bill to help them adjust.
The bill offered low-interest mortgages and tuition stipends as a way to expand the middle class and prevent economic turmoil. Nine million vets received close to $4 billion but Black veterans didn’t have access to much of that money. The bill’s language left 1.2 million Black veterans without a viable path to the housing and educational opportunities afforded to their White counterparts.
And though housing discrimination may not be as blatant today as it was 50 years ago, aspiring Black homeowners are still disproportionately denied home loans. And for Blacks who are able to secure homes, they face discrimination when trying to sell their properties.
In addition to discriminatory laws that locked Blacks out of education and housing opportunities, another reason the racial wealth gap continues to persist is income equality. According to a 2021 report by the organization PayScale, people of color and women still earn less than White men despite having the same experience, education, and jobs. Covid-19 has exacerbated this problem as unemployment for Black Americans was higher than any other racial group during the pandemic. PayScale found that the wage gap between Blacks and Whites is so large it’d take 228 years to catch up.
My debt story is not unique among my peer group. Yes, we have college degrees, good jobs, work in our communities, kiss our mamas, lend money to our cousins, and try our best to be role models to the generation after us. But major life milestones like buying homes, starting families, and paying off debt were delayed in a way we didn’t expect because we were, unexpectedly, broke.
It’s standard for my generation to be career-oriented with full-time businesses on the side, to work both nine to five and five to nine, to work two and, sometimes, three jobs. And, it’s not because we love the idea of working inasmuch as working past the point of exhaustion is far less terrifying than not having a safety net.
I’d consider us lucky because even though we’re burdened and fatigued from simultaneously juggling so many aspects of life, liberty, and the pursuit of whatever it is we’re calling happiness, at least we get the opportunity to do so. As living through a pandemic has shown, everybody isn’t as fortunate. And, I’d consider us the lucky ones.
Debt is universal in that most people of any race will have to find a way to improve their circumstances. But the journey is certainly different for Black Americans. Savings, entrepreneurship, a strong family structure, working hard, and homeownership don’t really fix years of discriminatory laws, hiring practices, and wage inequality.
America made a conscious decision to limit Black success and every generation of Black America has suffered because of that choice. Black millennials’ money problems are a direct result of all the ways the White power structure blocked attempts at wealth building and robbed our parents, grandparents, and ancestors of life, liberty and happiness.