Rosamaria Cavalho graduated from the University of California at Berkeley and entered the workforce in 2007. Latina and a woman of color, she is the first in her family to attend a four-year university. She knew that if she wanted to transcend her economically depressed upbringing, she had to attend college and graduate.
A common pressure among first-generation college students, especially those from low-income families or immigrant families who came to the U.S. to give their children more opportunities, is the pressure of finishing. The weight of their family’s sacrifice and struggle is omnipresent.
With all that on her shoulders, graduating into a recession wasn’t even on Cavalho’s radar. But that’s exactly what happened.
“I thought I should be able to get a job with this degree because that’s what I was told. You get your college degree and then good stuff will come. I knew there was value in a college degree,” she said.
A generation lambasted for being the reason America can’t have nice things, while derided for the ways they choose to spend the little money they have, millennials have never fully benefited from our robust economy. Many are still trying to get right after the last recession, which was so bad it earned the moniker “great.”
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Unfortunately, as news headlines keep telling us, a new recession may be on the way.
Like a lot of recent college graduates, Cavalho moved back in with her family. According to Pew Research, in 2014, people aged 18-34 were most likely to be living with their parents rather than by themselves or with a spouse. At first, she applied for office jobs. When she didn’t hear anything, she applied for customer service positions at Wal-Mart, Taco Bell, and Jack in the Box. But still, no call-backs.
Her parents were confused as to why she had gone through the trouble and expense to attend college. Didn’t her degree afford her the opportunity to get a good job and be living on her own?
After a few months at home, Cavalho returned to the Bay Area to find work. She eventually found a job working for a private investigator. She was living in her car and hiding her struggles from her friends. They had been so proud of her for graduating, and she had already felt like she had disappointed her parents. She eventually found a job as a labor organizer for AFSCME and relocated to Los Angeles.
This was the cruel reality for many graduates who went to college to lift themselves out of poverty. They earned their degrees at the same time 30 million individuals were losing their jobs. New graduates weren’t just competing with their peers for what few jobs there were, but with the millions of others who had just been brutally tossed into the job market.
The employment nadir came in March 2009 when 803,000 non-farm jobs were lost. Entry-level jobs became harder to get, as competition came from people with much longer resumes. A wealth of volunteer positions became available, as funding dried up essentially, everywhere. Those who had financial stability and extra time were able to leverage competitive unpaid internships and volunteerism, which could then be used as a way to make up for a lack of entry-level positions. Everyone else was out of luck.
This stunted millennials’ earnings potential for the rest of their lives. In fact, millennials had lower real incomes than previous generations. In the year 2014 (using 2016 dollars), the median earnings for millennial men and women were $40,600 and $31,200. Compare that to the earnings of Gen Xers in 1998 at $44,200 and $32,400 and Boomers in 1978 at $53,400 and $33,100 (still 2016 dollars and median earnings).
Once you start behind on earnings, you never really catch up. And it’s even worse for people of color and women, who get left behind even during good economic times. In March, a report entitled “Clipped Wings: Closing the Wealth Gap for Millennial Women” was released by Insight Center in collaboration with Asset Funders Network and Closing the Women’s Wealth Gap. The authors found that income inequality persists according to race and gender, in addition to generation.
“Young Black people earn 57 cents and Latinx earn 64 cents for every dollar earned by young White people,” the report says. Single millennial men currently have an average of 162 percent more wealth than single millennial women. College educated white women hold two-thirds more wealth ($52,406) than college educated Black ($3,316) and Latinx ($29,889) women combined.
But it’s not just income where those who graduated into the Great Recession have fallen behind. A study published last year entitled “Are Millennials Different?,” by a division of the Federal Reserve Board, found that in the year 2016, millennials were also less likely to own homes and have fewer financial assets than previous generations. They also carried debt loads larger than boomers did when they were young, thanks in part to the ballooning cost of education.
Millennials without access to family wealth were less likely to benefit from opportunities that were available to their peers who had more family or inherited wealth.
Case in point, homeownership. KPCC in Los Angeles analyzed data for Federal Housing Administration loans made to Californians and found that in 2018, one in three borrowers received family contributions. This number was up from one in four in 2011.
Millennials trying to buy houses but lacking help from their family had a harder time buying a home — the very hallmark of middle-class wealth generation. Millennials of color would have been deeply affected if their parents had lost their homes and assets to the foreclosure crisis that followed the Great Recession, due to predatory subprime lending to communities of color.
This inability to build wealth was compounded by student loan debt. Young adults had accepted thousands of dollars in federal loans, in effect leveraging their potential earnings, based on the assumption that a job market would exist when they were ready for it.
Spoiler alert, it didn’t.
Ten years after the beginning of the recession, a third of millennials hold student loan debt, with black women holding the most and white men holding the least. The national student loans debt load outpaced auto loans back in the third quarter of 2009 and is now just over $1.6 trillion. Women hold two-thirds of that amount.
Recovering from a recession takes time. And things such as student debt, high costs of living, and asset and wealth depletion hold millennials, especially millennial women of color, back from choosing what they want to do over what they need. If a new recession comes before they’ve had a chance to get ahead, they likely face empty bank accounts and unknowable challenges.
I recently had dinner with a friend and fellow woman of color who also graduated college in 2009. She says she feels like she’s just now making it; working as a city planner, feeling stable in her job, able to plan for her future, and about to start an MBA program. Cavalho just got into one of the top law schools in the country, accomplishing a goal she didn’t dare admit to herself because she felt it was so impossibly out of reach.
It took us 10 years just to get our feet under us. Let’s hope we’ve gotten far enough to weather whatever comes next.