For my entire adult life, a bar from rapper Kanye West’s 2007 hit “Good Life” with T-Pain has defined how I feel about money. “Whether you broke or rich, you gotta get this / Havin’ money’s not everything, not havin’ it is.”
That’s how I was raised. Before there was ever a Youngboy, my grandma, now 92, vowed she would be Never Broke Again. This woman was a victim of capitalism and racism, born in the heart of the Great Depression and came of age in the 1950s when Black women weren’t allowed many professional careers. Living in Virginia in the ’70s, she encountered the worst financial moments of her life when a divorce left her with mounting debt and bills.
What happened next is a story she’s told me hundreds of times: Her older brother came to visit from South Carolina. He helped her devise a plan to pay down debt, pay off specific bills, and save money. To get her started, he’d loan her money. After a few months of repayments, her brother generously wiped the slate clean. From then on, my grandmother promised to always ensure her money was managed correctly.
I’m 37 now and managing my own household funds as well as for my mother and grandmother. Throughout my life, I’ve shared my grandmother’s attention to detail about money — on some days, it careens into obsession and stress, even once sending me to the hospital. That’s something I’ll never be proud of. I’ve realized that I’ve only got so many self-induced stress trips to the doctor before something irreversible happens.
Along the way, I’ve found that this sort of financial vise isn’t just a personal issue. It’s generational. It’s systemic. And, in my darker moments, I worry it may be forever.
Justin S. Hopkins pauses momentarily when asked about the reality of debt and the communities he serves. It’s not because he struggles to find the answer. Financial burdens are nearly universal in some shape or form in every client he sees. Those who experience financial hardships are more likely to experience anxiety, depression, loneliness and other health problems, Hopkins noted.
“Money is absolutely crucial to our well-being and survival. When we’re not in a decent financial position, there’s often an ever-present tension, stress, or fear in our bodies,” the Washington-based clinical psychologist said. “When it comes to Black and other marginalized groups, this has been a common struggle for centuries.”
When I asked Hopkins about the impact of the return of student loan payments this month, he acknowledged that the situation is complex. A typical attitude towards student loans over the last three years, he said, was the luxury of not having to think about them.
Many with student loans see it as a burden that will follow them for the remainder of their lives. In this country, going to college is portrayed as a minimum requirement for a good job and a good life. What is rarely discussed until it’s too late is the financial pain that comes afterward. When those loan payments kick in, the long-term ramifications of obtaining an education are an inescapable emotional burden.
“Out of sight, out of mind has become a popular approach. Really, that’s a sign of hopelessness,” Hopkins said of student loans. “For many folks in this position, they just tried ignoring their situation as much as possible and wait and hope that the government will wake up and decide to help us out. Because they simply cannot see their way out of debt …
“Now that they’re returning, we’re forced to reengage a really dismal financial reality. It’s demoralizing and scary, especially for Black and brown families who thought just maybe they were making it out of generations of financial hardship, only to find that they’re educated, high-achieving young adults and their families are still struggling to make ends meet.”
A September report by the Education Data Initiative showed the racial breakdowns of student loans. Black graduates owe an average of $25,000 more than their white counterparts. Roughly four years after graduation, Black students owe 188% more than white ones. And 40% of Black holders of advanced degrees have debt from graduate school compared to 22% of white graduates.
Of course, student loans are but one of many sources of financial strain and stress. Like most socioeconomic issues involving Black people in America, the original causes can be traced back to slavery and that foundational wealth gap between Blacks and whites. The National Bureau of Economic Research concluded that the gap has actually widened in the last 40 years because of factors such as Black wages decreasing considerably — and the surging rate of appreciation on assets owned by white people.
“But also what a lot of people don’t notice is how segregation and how laws have continued to exacerbate the situation,” said Kevin Matthews II, founder of the investor education company BuildingBread. “If we talk about the impact of redlining for most Americans, your home is one of your biggest assets and the biggest contributor to your net worth. When you lock out an entire generation from homeownership and make it more expensive and harder, that’s going to translate 20 or 30 years down the line. Whether it’s real estate or how banks have discriminated in other ways for business loans or for capital, if you’re starting your own business, each one of those factors contribute to taking on more debt and making life more difficult for an entire group of people to try and dig themselves out of it.”
Growing up, I’d often overhear my mother, grandmother and other women who helped raise me talking about their salaries. Long before rapper Jeezy asked, “How much money does it take to make some more money?” they were wondering the same thing. They’d often vent their frustration over not getting paid as much as the white men who worked at similar jobs.
Those kitchen conversations I heard growing up are embedded in my head. I thankfully wasn’t born in poverty. Yet, the conversation about money was often stressful. I didn’t realize then just how much it costs to keep your family alive.
Maybe it was because two Black women were raising my brother and me. Or perhaps it’s because, during the summer after my freshman year in college, I remember my friend (a young Black woman) and I were paid less than our white counterparts who started at the same time with less experience. Nevertheless, as I got older, I began to realize what pay gaps were and how deep the conversation of pay inequality was and still is.
In 2016, a study by the Corporation for Enterprise Development and the Institute for Policy Studies found that it could take 228 years to close the pay gap between Black and white families. In other words, 2244. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research concluded that if the pay gap between genders continued to move at its current pace, women wouldn’t reach equal pay until 2059. For Black women they’d remain behind the proverbial eight ball an additional 60 years until 2119. Hispanic women were even worse off, with 2224 being their date of “equality.”
“There’s actually [an acronym] called H.E.N.R.Y. That’s ‘high earner not rich yet,’ ” said Hopkins. “There’s a generation of high earners not rich yet, and it’s actually a little more dismal than not rich yet. Living paycheck to paycheck or month to month, just trying to make sure you have enough to put in savings or make it. That’s an incredibly high level of pressure and stress.”
In many ways, I find myself dealing with my grandmother’s financial phobias. The one I see the most is not wanting to mess up or let our family down. I’ve seen her pore over her accounts for hours, making sure each penny was in the account it needed to be. She calls me to this day asking when a payment for a bill is due and how much is in her savings account. Stress, Hopkins told me, is simply the fear of not being able to complete a task in ways we feel we’re capable.
“Money is the ultimate resource,” he said. “For the current generation of young adults, regardless if you grew up financially stable or not, many are chronically stressed about their financial future.”
Every generation experiences catastrophic events that, at least financially, invoke fear. For my grandma, it was the Depression, the fight for civil rights and the Reaganomics policies of the 1980s. My generation is sandwiched between the recession and a global pandemic.
“Between those two and then just the explosion in how expensive child care and home ownership is for this generation, it feels impossible [to see the glass half full],” Matthews said. “Other generations, like my parents’, you could skip college altogether, get a pension by becoming a firefighter or police officer and afford a decent living. That’s almost impossible nowadays. You can’t live on a teacher’s salary in most places and afford a home anymore. So, while it is possible, it’s a lot more difficult. It takes a lot more planning and a lot more effort just to get by in the time and place we are now.”
The fear of not having enough to support my family, for me, is crippling. What compounds the frustration is that I know the fear is rooted in American capitalism and racism. My financial sanity was never supposed to be part of this society’s curriculum anyway. Our value shouldn’t be judged by just money, but as that Kanye lyric stated, not having money is a generational heirloom, that many of us equally fear and dread passing down. The game hasn’t changed, only the players.
I recently found myself reading a Stanford study that said those who graduated during the recession earn less than those who graduate during economic prosperity for at least 10 to 15 years. Later this month, I will head to Hampton University for homecoming. It’s my 15-year reunion. Though it’ll be an incredible time, there’s always the question in my head about how much income I, and so many of my classmates, actually missed for factors beyond our control. That’s nearly two decades of paychecks most of us will never recoup.
The question I find myself asking is beyond just simply making more money, how does the cycle end. How do Black people escape a financial vise and the emotional burden it brings?
“You can’t claim to have a meritocracy in a country built on slavery and genocide,” Hopkins said. “Our country would have to reckon with its original sins in order to get out of capitalism. And that’s just an ongoing, multigenerational trauma that our country just continues to resist healing.”
My goal is to start my son’s financial education as early as possible. Had I been prepared in school to learn about credit, debt, investing and taxes, my paranoia around money might be far less crippling. It’s up to me to teach him about these things to prepare him for when it’s time to handle his own money. There’s a benefit to learning from my mistakes and understanding the lay of a complicated land before it becomes his own.
“There are a lot of people that feel because they haven’t always been perfect financially or they feel they don’t know everything out there, that they’re not in the best position to teach,” Matthews said.
He continued, “Sometimes just exposing your kids to things early and just having those conversations can have a positive impact. It’s one of the best skills you can have, is just by talking and being open and having those conversations be out in the open to help your kids figure it out before things get more difficult.”
My grandmother knows she will leave behind a brighter financial reality than one she inherited nearly a century ago. For that, I am forever grateful. Now that responsibility is on me. A financially secure life is possible being Black in America. That’s the good news. The bad news? It may take the rest of my life.