Guest post: A full generation behind

Guest post by James Garnett, a followup to his post yesterday.

We all know this, but it’s worth stating again: being able to build equity over time is a very important way that most of us are able to get ahead in the world. Working hard matters, too, but it’s not enough.

My father worked hard. On his return from naval service in the Korean War, he used the GI Bill to earn a degree in engineering. That got him a good job, with which he and my mother were able to buy a small home on the outskirts of Dallas, Texas. Over the years, they saved money and built home equity, and by the time the 1980’s rolled around they were able to put me and my two sisters through university using a combination of savings and equity loans.

As a result, I started out in life with no debt, and a university degree. I was able to get a good job, and save some money, and then return to graduate school and get a better degree, and subsequently a better job, with which I was able to buy my home.

Now think about the prospects for a black family in 1957, when my father was just starting his university education. It was not until 1962 that the first black man was admitted to the University of Mississippi, not far away from the University of Texas. So in 1957, a good education was probably not foremost on the minds of returning black servicemen. For them, it was blue-collar work, at best.

But they couldn’t buy homes like my father did. They were stuck renting, and renting on a smaller paycheck.

Fast forward to 1980, and my father is a senior research and development engineer at Hewlett Packard, with 23 years of home equity built up. There is exactly one black engineer in his group of ~100. His remaining black peers have been living on lower wages, perhaps even paycheck to paycheck for those 23 years, and have no equity. Are they going to be able to send their children to university? Of course not. Their children are stuck in the same path as their parents.

Now the year is 2016, and I took a route that was smoothed for me every step of the way. The sons of my father’s black peers? They might own homes, if they’re lucky. They still aren’t engineers with good paying jobs, at least not in any of the engineering firms that I’ve worked in.

So you can see how building equity, and having opportunities for advancement, echo through the generations.

Things are a little bit better. It’s possible that the grandsons and granddaughters of those black families in 1957 might be able to start to have the same kind of chances that I enjoyed. But that’s a full generation behind me. And in the meantime, the inner cities have developed a mood of depression, and hopelessness. A mood in which more violence, crime, and suffering thrives.

Donald Trump doesn’t have any solutions to this, because he cannot even recognize it. I’m not certain that I do. The problems have become more complex, and simply making opportunities and striking down unfair laws is no longer enough. All I know is that Trump is not going to help.

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