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Black millennials: Trapped under the weight of racism and a cash-poor economy


Jerry Houston will be another year older in July, but he’s not planning a celebration for his 29th birthday. “There’s nothing to celebrate”, he scoffed. “I’m up to my ankles in debt from school loans and the degree I earned isn’t doing anything for me. I owe $30,000 for an education that I thought would help me land a decent paying job. But that’s not where I am right now. Until I get there, I don’t plan on celebrating any future birthdays.”

In roughly 15 months, Jerry will enter his 30s, a milestone that stirs mixed emotions in the hearts of those of who dread getting older. This transition can be particularly worrisome for young adults who feel as though they’ve underachieved. Jerry, for now, belongs in this category. He works at a high-end clothing boutique in Santa Monica where he’s paid slightly above minimum wage.

Having a steady income allows him to cover various personal expenses, but the debt he incurred in school, compounded with the ever-rising cost of living in Los Angeles, has significantly disrupted Jerry’s progress toward becoming a “self contained adult.”

“I didn’t graduate from college to fold clothes,” he lamented. “This wasn’t the plan.”

In 2006, Jerry was accepted to San Francisco State University on a partial scholarship. He wasn’t sure how he would cover the remainder of his tuition costs, but the joy in his grandmother’s eyes when she read the acceptance letter compelled him to pursue a dream that wasn’t really his to begin with.

“She convinced me that going to college was my only option to achieve success. When I graduated from high school, I thought about taking a year off to work and save money. But she twisted my arm, so I went. When I graduated from college, I was full of useless knowledge. I’m not saying that my time was wasted, but after five years of technically being an adult, I didn’t know how to budget my money or balance a checkbook. I could recite whole plays from Shakespeare, but I was ignorant of how to take the next step as a fully independent adult.”

He continued, “I had a job then, and occasionally I would put money aside for a rainy day. But I wasn’t growing my money. I wasn’t preparing for the future. These things weren’t taught to me at home or in class. My grandmother isn’t responsible with her money because she doesn’t have any. The blind can’t lead the blind. And I’m not blaming her, but I wasn’t equipped with the skills or knowledge I needed to be self sufficient. At 23 years old, I was still very much a kid. I’m just now getting into my groove, but that should’ve happened after college.”

At this point in his life, Jerry thought he would be a thriving architect, or at the very least, on his way to success. But the job market hasn’t been particularly kind to rookies in his line of work, he explained. Architecture was his major in college, but the degree he received remains buried in a box underneath stale textbooks and faded math exams.

“[The box is] a graveyard of broken dreams,” he joked. “And to top it all off, I’m still living with the woman who encouraged me to go to college. I’m almost 30 and I live with my grandmother because I can’t afford to buy my own home, and I don’t see the value of paying thousands to live in an apartment. When my birthday comes, the only thing I’ll wish for is a better job with more pay so I can get the hell out of a room that I’ve been sleeping in since I was five years old.”

Four years ago, Time magazine published a cover story called “The Me Me Me Generation—Millennials are lazy, entitled narcissists who still live with their parents.”

Time framed the millennials’ desperate search for stable work as a privileged character flaw—look at the kids too flaky to handle “choosing from a huge array of career options.”

In response to this scathing editorial, contributor Sarah Kendzior wrote:

“Millennials” have become both a media scapegoat for, and a distraction from, widespread economic suffering. Having experienced no economy other than the recession’s false recovery, young Americans have arguably suffered the most. The remedy lies not in judging their lifestyle choices—or worse yet, perpetuating the illusion that they have money to burn—but by acknowledging the new economy for what it is: a structural crisis, one that future generations will share. Millennials keep getting older, but their problems stay the same age.”

Kendzior and were referring to what psychologists describe as “emerging adulthood,” a new and possibly permanent life phase squeezed between the teen years and late 20s. This group has been unofficially called the “Peter Pan Generation,” because of their perceived failure to actually “grow up” and achieve full independence.

Two-thirds of people over 50 have financially supported a child 21 or older in the past five years, a Merrill Lynch study found last year. “Family dynamics are evolving,” says David Tyrie, head of retirement and personal-wealth solutions at Merrill Lynch. “Adults are living longer, people are retiring later, and millennials are making life choices vastly different than their parents did.”

Studying the same phenomenon, a 2013 Pew Research Center report shows even more startling figures: Among adults ages 40 to 59 with at least one grown child, 73 percent said they’d helped support an adult son or daughter in the prior year, writes contributor Dan Kadlec.

Half of those middle-aged parents said they were their grown child’s primary means of support—in some cases because their offspring were still in school but also, more than a third said, for reasons other than education. In another study, Pew found that nearly a quarter of 25- to 34-year-olds are now living with parents or grandparents, up from 11 percent in 1980. “It’s not at the margins,” says Ken Dychtwald, CEO of Age Wave, a consultant on the aging population. “It’s kind of everybody.”

A Time survey earlier this year found that 30 percent of parents helping to support grown children spend at least $5,000 a year on their kids. Because of this sacrifice, many more parents may have to settle for a less comfortable retirement than they had planned.

From the outside looking in, it may seem that young adults today are dropping the ball on their futures and relying on the safety net being provided to them by their enabling parents and grandparents. But that’s not entirely true, says Jim Tankersley of The Washington Post. In an article published earlier this year, he points the finger at baby boomers and generations thereafter who (as he explains) drained America of its many resources, leading to what is now known as the Great Recession.

“Boomers soaked up a lot of economic opportunity without bothering to preserve much for the generations to come,” he writes. “They burned a lot of cheap fossil fuels, filled the atmosphere with heat-trapping gases, and will probably never pay the costs of averting catastrophic climate change or helping their grandchildren adapt to a warmer world. They took control of Washington at the turn of the millennium, and they used it to rack up a lot of federal debt, even before the Great Recession hit.”

He adds, “If anyone deserves to pay more to shore up the federal safety net, either through higher taxes or lower benefits, it’s boomers—the generation that was born into some of the strongest job growth in the history of America, gobbled up the best parts, and left its children and grandchildren with some bones to pick through and a big bill to pay.”

“[This era] delivered living-wage work for wide swaths of Americans, even those who didn’t go to college, which by the way cost a fraction of what higher education costs today, even after you adjust for inflation. A single earner could provide for a family. Employees could reasonably expect to advance in their companies and work their way into the middle class. Incomes grew across the board.”

Earlier this year, in a paper for the Brookings Institution, economist Robert Shapiro tracked the lifetime earnings paths for Americans who entered the labor market in the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s. He found a sharp generational divide. The typical U.S. household headed by someone who was 25 to 29 years old in 1975 saw its income increase by 60 percent until it peaked and began to slowly decline before retirement. For a similar household in 1982, lifetime income peaked 70 percent higher than its starting point. Those are both “boomer” cohorts.

The groups that came after fared worse. Workers who were 25 to 29 in 1991 saw median earnings peak 50 percent above where they started. For the 2001 group, the peak was just over 20 percent higher. (Though there’s still time, theoretically, for their earnings to rise again.) For both those groups, the high point came much earlier in their working lives than it did for the boomers.

For millennials, it’s not just the money they’re not making today. It’s all the money they won’t make tomorrow. For every one-percentage-point increase in the unemployment rate, new graduates’ starting income falls by 7 percent, according to Lisa Kahn, an economist at Yale.

Total student loan debt infamously eclipsed credit card debt last year at $850 billion, and tuition costs are still rising. “The hollowing out of the middle class means that paying back that debt—and finding ways to pay for an education that keeps us ahead of productivity curve—will be the challenge of a generation,” wrote Derek Thompson (The Atlantic) in 2011.

Amid all the focus on the difficulties of college-educated millennials, one aspect has remained largely unexplored: the continued significance of race.

As a new crop of college graduates joins the American workforce, unemployment rates among minorities with degrees remain distinctly elevated, and their economic prospects disproportionately dimmed, a new report released by the Center for Economic and Policy Research has found.

In 2013, the most recent period for which unemployment data are available by both race and educational attainment, 12.4 percent of Black college graduates between the ages of 22 and 27 were unemployed. For all college graduates in the same age range, the unemployment rate stood at just 5.6 percent,” explains Janelle Ross of The Atlantic. “The figures point to an ugly truth,” she writes. Black college graduates are more than twice as likely to be unemployed.

“We absolutely aren’t trying to discourage people from going to college,” said John Schmitt, a senior economist at the Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research who co-authored the study. “College degrees do have value. But what we are trying to show here is that this is not about individuals, or individual effort. There is simply overwhelming evidence that discrimination remains a major feature of the labor market.”

College-educated Blacks are also more likely than all others with degrees to endure underemployment, which the study defined as working in jobs that don’t require a four-year degree. The proportion of young African-American college graduates who are underemployed has spiked since 2007 by 10 percent to a striking 56 percent. During that same period, underemployment among all recent college graduates has edged up only slightly, to around 45 percent.

Throwing another wrench into the belief that higher education is the great equalizer, a new paper suggests that African-American graduates from elite institutions do only as well in getting jobs as White candidates from less-selective institutions.

The study, published in the journal Social Forces, shows that while a degree from an elite university improves all applicants’ chances at finding a well-paid job, the ease with which those jobs are obtained is not equal for Black and White students even when they both graduate from an institution such as Harvard University. A White candidate with a degree from a highly selective university, the paper suggests, receives an employer response for every six résumés he or she submits. A Black candidate receives a response for every eight.

White candidates with degrees from less-

selective universities can expect to get a response for every nine résumés submitted, while equally qualified Black candidates need to submit 15.

“Most people would expect that if you could overcome social disadvantages and make it to Harvard against all odds, you’d be pretty set no matter what, but this experiment finds that there are still gaps,” said S. Michael Gaddis, the author of the paper and the Robert Wood Foundation Scholar in Health Policy at the University of Michigan. “Once you get out, you still have to deal with other human beings who have preconceived notions and misguided stereotypes about why you were able to go to this college.”

In addition to joblessness, a Brookings Institution report from a pair of researchers at Columbia University points out a troubling new finding: the gap in debt between Black graduates and White graduates increases exponentially just several years after college, a crucial time for saving and laying the groundwork for retirement.

According to Judith Scott-Clayton, an associate professor of economics and education at the Teachers College at Columbia University, and Jing Li, a research associate in the Department of Education Policy and Social Analysis at the college, Black graduates have almost $53,000 in student loans four years after graduation, close to double the amount White graduates hold.

The weight of college-related debt, underemployment (or none at all), and the ever-increasing cost of living in major cities like Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco, are three of the primary challenges keeping young adults from striking out on their own, buying homes, and helping the country’s economic stability.

In some markets, high rents and weak millennial incomes make it all but impossible to raise a down payment for a home. According to Zillow, for workers between 22 and 34, rent costs now claim upward of 45 percent of income in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, and Miami, compared to less than 30 percent of income in metropolitan areas like Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston. The costs of purchasing a house are even more lopsided: In Los Angeles and the Bay Area (each densely populated by minorities), a monthly mortgage takes, on average, close to 40 percent of income, compared to 15 percent nationally.

As the overall U.S. housing market recovers, the economic and housing prospects for millennials, communities of color and the working poor are on life support, according to recent research by Zillow based on an analysis involving TransUnion.

“Our research on housing has unlocked issues that are closely linked to broader social and economic problems in the U.S. — such as poor access to credit, weak income growth, and social mobility,” said Zillow chief economist Dr. Svenja Gudell in a statement.

Unfortunately, these daunting statistics apply to the offspring of both poor African Americans and those from the middle and upper classes.

“Even Black Americans who make it to the middle class are likely to see their kids fall down the ladder,” writes Richard Reeves, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. In a recent blog post, Reeves says that seven out of 10 Black children who are born to families with income that falls in the middle quintile of the income spectrum will find themselves with income that’s one to two quintiles below their parents’ during their own adulthood.

According to Reeves, “In terms of opportunity, there are still two Americas, divided by race.”