Looking out of my window in the South Bronx, I see people walking around with masks on, looking both unsure of the future and determined to go on. As the pandemic wears on, I worry about many in my beloved community who are already living on the margins: We are the poorest congressional district in the country, with one of the highest levels of air pollution and asthma rates in New York City. Ninety-five percent of us are people of color.
I also worry for the well-being of my millennial peers: We pursued higher education as its costs ballooned, and entered the workforce just when the recession hit. What used to be called a “career” has become a string of gigs. When our parents were our age, they owned over 20% of the nation’s wealth; today, we have just 3%. Now, just as many are starting families, the coronavirus threatens an economic downturn on a scale that this country hasn’t seen since the Great Depression.
But I’m especially worried about a particular slice of my generational cohort: young people of color, who are far more vulnerable than their white peers to crises like the coronavirus.
The coronavirus has disproportionately affected communities of color. In New York City alone, people of color make up 70% of essential workers, working in public transit, cleaning services, the Postal Service, and child care and health care, among other sectors. States across the country are reporting disproportionate numbers of black and Latino residents dying of covid-19. Millennials of color are more likely to have a family member sick with the virus, and to have to care for them; more than half of millennial caregivers identify as people of color, while two-thirds of caregivers in older generations are white.
Even before the world was thrown into chaos by the pandemic, nonwhite millennials had less financial resources to draw from. The median wealth for black millennials is $5,676, and for Latinx millennials, it’s $14,691, according to a New America study of young adults born between 1980 and 1984; their white peers have $26,109. Millennials of color own less property and have accrued more student debt than white millennials. Due to discrimination on the job market – they are more likely to be unemployed – that debt gives them a lower rate of return.
So, during the current crisis, I know few millennials of color retreating to their family’s summer and weekend homes to escape pandemic hotspots. Studies show that at least 40% of millennials receive financial help from their parents – and as their boomer relatives age, some may even benefit from what’s called “the Great Wealth Transfer” – but many nonwhite millennials live the reverse situation: Eighty percent of black parents and 70% of Latino parents report that they expect their millennial children to support them, according to a Clark University poll.
I’ve spent the past few years reporting about the social and economic conditions of young people of color, particularly black millennials, for my book “It Was All A Dream.” I found that young black people across the country were working harder than ever to make sure they could achieve the American Dream, whatever that meant to them – going to school, getting good jobs and fighting against discrimination – but at every turn they often felt themselves knocked down by a system many believe was not designed for them. I followed up with a few people about how they were coping with the crisis.
Davon Goodwin, 31, had trouble finding a job after he returned home serving in the Army in Afghanistan, injured by an IED. He fell in love with farming, and found his footing: He runs Off the Land Farms in Laurinburg, North Carolina, and, when we last spoke, was looking forward to growing the business. But all of that may change. His work is considered essential, but he fears people may not be able to afford his new vegetable crop in May that he will sell through community-supported agriculture. If sales are low, it may put a “strain” on the budget for the farm, but more troublesome to him, also deny access to quality food he believes his community needs. He also fears that, when his wife’s maternity leave ends, and she returns to work as an ER nurse, the family might catch the virus.
When I spoke to her back in 2018, all Kiyma Cannon wanted to do was move back South. The pace of life was more relaxed, she told me, and young black people had more opportunities. Though a job loss had forced her to return north to her New Jersey hometown from Atlanta, she’d planned to move to back as soon as she got back on her feet. But those plans are on hold. Worried about the risk to her health – she has lupus, and is raising three children – Kiyma has left her job at a doctor’s office until the coronavirus subsides. Now the family lives on her unemployment benefits, and the earnings from a part-time, low-paying customer assistance job, which she can do from home. “It’s OK,” she told me. “At least I am with my kids.”
Miss V was working as a dominatrix and finishing up a graduate degree in Chicago the last time I met with her. Due to fears of the virus, she has had to stop her BDSM work; her part-time “vanilla” job ordinarily provides only 40% of her income. That work, as a sex educator for a domestic violence nonprofit, has only grown more taxing. She told me calls to the hotline are up by 30%, as cases of domestic violence surge.
A 27-year-old who I called Michael in my book can put at least some of his worry on hold: The government suspended payments for federal student loan debt in late March. (In college, due to health problems, Michael lost an athletic scholarship and ended up acquiring more than $100,000 in debt.) When we’d last spoken, he was working in Atlanta for $22,000 a year; he now lives in Detroit, and earns more. But he fears that, with its major fundraisers canceled, the nonprofit where he works may face a revenue gap, putting his job at risk.
Tanisha Colon-Bibb, 32, the founder and principal publicist at the Rebelle Agency, is faring better than many. Though some projects went on indefinite hiatus, the pandemic has prompted her to find creative ways of working with clients, whether through Instagram Live or working on digital shows. “Work hasn’t stopped, it has only shifted,” she wrote in an email. But Colon-Bibb is not at ease. Like most black-owned businesses, her company does not have employees or run payroll, making her ineligible for many government loans. She also worries about the downstream effects of the government’s decision to suspend affirmative action rules for federal, state and local projects, fearing that it could undercut women- and minority-owned businesses in the future. Now, she’s making a point to ensure her business has a greater cash reserve in the future.
In March, a Pew survey of Americans between the ages of 18 and 49 found that nonwhite respondents were feeling the pandemic’s impact more keenly. Twenty-three and 30% of black and Hispanic households, respectively, had experienced layoffs, compared with 18% of young white households that have reported the same. Thirty-two percent of blacks and 42% of Hispanics also reported that someone in their household had their hours or pay cut. That survey was taken as the pandemic was taking hold – and the economic reality for young people of color may become even bleaker in the months ahead.
The coronavirus was never going to be the “great equalizer.” After the crisis abates, many millennials of color will still be caught in its undertow, drifting further away from the American Dream that they remain so dedicated to pursuing. Our bank accounts cannot handle another catastrophic recession. I fear that our spirits cannot either.