Our Body Politic

How Feminists in China Fight Authoritarianism, Facing Food Apartheid in the U.S., and Black Women Get Real about Preparing for Retirement

Episode Notes

Host Farai Chideya talks with author and China expert Leta Hong Fincher about how feminists face up to the country’s authoritarian regime, and the similarities with gender-equality struggles in the U.S. Sixto Cancel of the non-profit Think of Us shares his experience in the foster care system, and what the organization is doing to reform it. Chef Kia Damon explains why she prefers the term “food apartheid.”  On Sippin’ the Political Tea, Farai and two guests dive into the details of saving for retirement as Black women—that’s with Michelle Singletary of the Washington Post, and Gwen McKinney of the platform Unerased: Black Women Speak.


0:14 Leta Hong Fincher on the feminists pushing against authoritarianism in China

12:43 Sixto Cancel on his work to reform the U.S. foster care system

23:13 Chef Kia Damon feeds the people in Brooklyn

31:07 Sippin’ the Political Tea: communications specialist Gwen McKinney and the Washington Post’s Michelle Singletary get real about protecting your finances as you get older

Episode Transcription

Farai Chideya: Thank you for listening to and sharing Our Body Politic. When you listen today, please consider leaving us a review on Apple Podcast. This helps other listeners find us and we read your feedback as we continue to improve the show. Thanks so much.

Chideya: Welcome to Our Body Politic, I'm the creator and host, Farai Chideya. Today, we start by exploring gender equity in China and how that maps with a complicated relationship between that global superpower and the US. Earlier this month, President Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping had a virtual meeting, their third conversation since Biden took office. Analysts say it's still a strained relationship with each leader facing their own prep pressures. Xi Jinping is angling for a controversial third term and his government is waging a "rectification campaign." That means they're cracking down on a wide variety of sectors, limiting ride-share companies, school curricula, learning and gaming apps, and more. One issue that both global superpowers are grappling with is the fight over women's rights and bodily autonomy. Our next guest is an expert on the topic. Leta Hong Fincher is a journalist and scholar who studies the feminist movement in China. Her book, Betraying Big Brother, examines the Chinese government's arrest of five feminists in 2015 and the repercussions of the Chinese movement against patriarchy. Welcome, Leta.

Leta Hong Fincher:

Thanks so much for having me, Farai.

Chideya: I remember going to one of the book launch events for Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China, and in it, you are talking about one of the anti-authoritarian, Chinese feminist Lu Pin. Who is she? And give us the scope of your book.

Hong Fincher: Lu Pin is an incredibly influential Chinese feminist activist who happened to be in the US in 2015 when Chinese police were conducting a really sweeping arrest of feminist activist in China. And they would certainly have jailed Lu Pin as well had she been in China, but she happened to be in New York at the time attending the UN Commission on the Status of Women. She has been living in the US ever since then, and she continues to be quite influential. She's now pursuing graduate at work at Rutgers University.

Chideya: So what happened to some of the other women involved in that circle?

Hong Fincher: This moment, the jailing of these five feminists, ended up making them really famous. They become known as The Feminist Five. And so their supporters were just enormously galvanized, not just in China, but in other parts of the world. And the government ended up releasing them after 37 days, which is quite unprecedented in China, because China tends to jail dissidents for a long time. Some of the activists are still extremely active, some of them have been persecuted constantly ever since then, but what is really extraordinary is that this movement has continued to grow.

Chideya: Is this really about Chinese feminist bucking authoritarianism?

Hong Fincher: I believe they are, although, if you were to interview them publicly, they would say no, they're only concerned with women's rights, but they would never do anything publicly to oppose the communist party. They're very strategically clever. In the past, they always looked for what they thought were safe subjects, for example, the need to increase the number of public toilets for women. So they themselves would say, "No, we are not fighting the communist party." I'm an observer writing about it and I argue that. Basically, China has a patriarchal form of authoritarianism and they basically rely on subjugating women as the key to keeping the communist party in power. And this is why I believe that the Chinese government sees feminism as kind of an existential threat to its rule.

Chideya: Now, let's bring in your book, Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China. What's a leftover woman?

Hong Fincher: This term leftover woman, or a [foreign language 00:04:40], which was widely used, or is still widely used, to describe a woman who is single and in her mid 20s or somewhat older. And in researching the origins of this term, I discovered that it was actually created as a propaganda tool, by the Chinese government, to stigmatize, especially college educated young women, to insult them, make them feel really bad for being single, make them feel like they need to hurry up and get married and have children. Otherwise, they're going to be too old and no man will ever want to marry them. It started in 2007 and it's still continuing today. And it's essentially the government trying to push women back into these very traditional roles of being wife and mother in the home.

Chideya: What you're talking about to me, in some ways, is how gender politics shows up in national and transnational politics among other things. Is that fair?

Hong Fincher: Oh, absolutely. So my books focus very much on what is happening in China, but I think that what you're seeing in China, with the patriarchal authoritarianism, which is making misogyny and sexism a really critical part of authoritarian control and repression of the entire population. I think you can see that all around the world. I mean, you can definitely see it in other autocracies like Russia, I mean, Hungary, or Poland even, recently. And you can definitely see it in America, particularly under the Trump administration, not only under Trump, of course. I mean, there's this huge attack on abortion rights that goes kind of hand in hand with, in America, takes the form of white supremacy and anti-Black racism, and anti-vaccine sentiment, and anti-democracy authoritarian trends in the Republican party. So these kinds of dynamics are global.

Chideya: I want to get into US-China relations. What is your assessment of the status today of US-China relations? I mean, during the Trump years, President Donald Trump had a lot of verbal rhetoric about China, but in some ways, the Biden administration seems to be more determined to reshape the relationship. Can you give us a little comparison or a little context?

Hong Fincher: The US-China relationship hit a really a huge low, I would say, a record low with the Trump administration. And of course, that had a lot to do with racism and the way Trump was using all these racist insults against Asians and against Chinese. And I think the Chinese government was hoping that the Biden administration would kind of reset the relationship and return to the previous dynamic under Obama. But in fact, what we've seen is yes, the general tone from the Biden administration is much more polite, but it has been surprising to see how many elements of the policy on China has been preserved by the Biden administration. So for example, there's a mass detention of Uighurs, in Xinjiang in far western part of China, and the US government, today, under Biden calls that genocide. The Biden administration has been very vocal in support of Hongkongers who have undergone this really brutal, very distressing, crushing of their freedoms in the city.

Hong Fincher: So the Chinese government complains that the US under Biden is being too hostile. But I think that the general response to Beijing, coming from Washington, is actually not too bad. I mean, I think it's necessary to stand up for the freedoms of people, minorities, or in other parts of the world when the Chinese government is clearly violating human rights. So there are a wide range of issues where I feel like the White House kind of has the right goal in mind, but I am really concerned... My biggest concern actually is that the tough rhetoric on China tends to inflame anti-Asian racism in America. And so I would prefer that the Biden administration kind of be more careful about its choice of words in describing policy towards China, to try to separate out its response to a very aggressive authoritarian regime. And at the same time, say that America should be very welcoming to the Chinese people, to people visiting or wanting to migrate here, or fleeing political persecution.

Chideya: As I was researching for our conversation, I came across this roundup in Foreign Affairs of experts commenting on US-China relations. And I asked if you'd read it and you said, "Oh, they asked me to participate, but I didn't." Why?

Hong Fincher: Right. So basically, Foreign Affairs Magazine... First of all, I mean, it's perfectly legitimate for them to do this. They asked a number of experts on China to just say, "Is US policy towards China too hostile? Agree or disagree. And then justify your response really briefly." I didn't want to take part in the not because basically, you're ranked by a number and I've been personally targeted by very misogynistic pro Chinese communist party trolls online on Twitter, and I continue to be targeted.

Hong Fincher: But I came under this really massive attack last year when I did a long Twitter thread about how the Chinese government was carrying out a mass campaign of forcibly sterilizing Uighur and other Muslim women in Xinjiang. And so I've beefed up my internet security, but basically, I didn't want to be a sitting duck for more trolls. But to be honest, I generally do not think that the new US policy towards China is overly hostile in general. I think there are areas where the US can certainly cooperate with China, like on climate change, on North Korean nuclear proliferation, but there are many other areas where it is absolutely necessary for the US to speak out in defense of people's rights.

Chideya: Leta, thank you so much.

Hong Fincher: Thanks so much for having me, Farai.

Chideya: That was Leta Hong Fincher, author of Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China. On the show, we talk pretty regularly with people who see a system that needs fixing and step in and do the work. My next is one of those people. Sixto Cancel is the CEO and founder of the nonprofit, Think of Us. It's a research and development lab focused on child welfare, particularly the lived experience of those in the foster care system in the US. Please be advised, my interview with him contains descriptions of abuse. Welcome, Sixto.

Sixto Cancel: How you doing?

Chideya: I'm really good. And we were talking a little bit before we got started. I actually, at one point, was qualified to become a foster parent. Didn't do it yet, might do it at some point. I was really drawn to your story. So what was your experience of getting into the foster care system and being in it?

Cancel: My story starts as an 11 month baby when social workers took me into foster care because my mother struggled with poverty and her addiction. And while I was in foster care as a toddler, I eventually got to go back to my biological mother and live with her for about a year, between the ages of six and seven. And that's when I actually came back into foster care and was adopted at nine, but it was a very abusive adoption. While the white skin kids got to go to a private school, I was told that because you're a Black, that you have to go to an actual public school. And so I was just treated very differently and found myself really couch-surfing by the time I was 13, because of the abuse that I was experiencing in that home. And so I finally got back into foster care at the age of 15, after I had to really prove what was happening to me. I was this tall, Black looking kid against a short, white looking woman, even though she was Puerto Rican, and the optics were not in my favor. And so I literally taped a tape recorder to my chest and-

Chideya: Wow.

Cancel: ... collected that information.

Chideya: To know that you had the strength to do that and the intellectual, wherewithal, to do that is astounding. What happened next?

Cancel: Then I was able to go to a foster home that I had chosen. There was this usher that I had met at church and I had asked her to start her foster parenting classes so that by the time she got licensed, that she would just be ready. And that's when I lived there for a little bit. And unfortunately, that placement didn't work out. And I ended up going to a couple different more placements until I ended up aging out of the foster care system.

Chideya: What does it even mean to age out of the foster care system? Because as someone who has looked into it, looked into fostering, I know that different states have different ages. And so explain what aging out is and how it's different for different people.

Cancel: So the purpose of foster care is it's supposed to be a temporary situation. And you're supposed to be able to get the services and the supports you need as a family to be able to be reunited. And when that doesn't happen, the next plan is to extend your forever family through adoption, through a transfer of guardianship. But when all of those things fail, when the government literally fails to find you a family, you literally just become too old to stay in the system. And so in many states across the country, that still is 18. At 18, you're putting your stuff into a trash bag, you're walking out the door, and you're literally having to figure out how you're going to feed yourself, live on your own. And for some states, they push that to 21, but that's just not enough. We know that young people need support at least until 23.

Chideya: So were there family... And in this case, I'm talking... There's many types of family, family of love, family of choice, but biological family, who you think might have been able to parent you?

Cancel: A couple years ago, I was in New York City by chance, and my sister on my father's side gives me a ring and she's like, "Hey, I know you're in town and there's a family reunion today." And so we ended up going to this family reunion and you can see people who look like me. And that was really just such an odd experience because when you spend your whole entire life around people who don't look like you, who are different in terms of skin tone, it was just very different to be in that space. And then I finally looked around and saw that there was a Mexican sibling set running around, and everyone was like, "Oh, those are our little cousins." And it comes out to be that those were our adopted cousins. And what struck me in that very moment, what made me really go numb is that I discovered at that very moment, there were four uncles, and aunts, and cousins who were a foster adopted parents. And that they had been fostering and adopting longer than I have been alive. And for that very moment, I really felt like I was robbed of something, that I missed out on something. So much of surviving the abuse I went through, so much of surviving foster care, I just made a role to myself when I was younger that I wouldn't ask myself why, that I wouldn't drive myself crazy asking those questions. And this was the moment where I kind of almost broke that role to be like, "Whoa, how could this have happened?"

Chideya: And so you have devoted a lot of time and a lot of intellectual capacity to doing a report and other work that documents how people like you, who have extended family, who could be what are called kinship placements in foster care, or adoptive parents, or guardians don't actually end up with them. Tell us how you came to do that work.

Cancel: I aged out, went to college, and one of the things that was so important for me was to work on the very system that I felt was just so unjust, and especially to people of color. 53% of all Black families would experience a child abuse investigation before their child's 18, published in their American Journal of Health, right? And so I launched a nonprofit that focuses on finding co-solutions to these issues. And so part of finding a solution is understanding the problem very deeply. And so part of what we do is research and talk to people with lived experience, who've been impacted, and hear these stories and go through the academic rigor of being able to understand that qualitative research. And then we go ahead and prototype solutions.

Cancel: And what we learned was that for many teenagers in foster care, they get pushed into institutions, facilities because sometimes, the state hasn't actually fixed their licensing problem, their recruitment of foster care problems, right? And so there's not "enough foster homes" for teenagers, and that couldn't be further from the truth. It's just easier for states to go ahead and place young people in group homes and they're using them as placements. And so we conducted a study to understand what were those experiences within group homes.

Chideya: What were they?

Cancel: Well, we learned that many young people experience physical, sexual, and emotional abuse that staff, sometimes, are not equipped to actually really work with the untreated trauma. We also learned that these environments actually don't move closer to family, that young people were surveilled, right? Their conversations are being listened to, their letters are being read. And so as I start to say these things, many of you start picturing probably what are jails. And that is the experience that young people told us that they're having is that it feels like they are incarcerated and that they're being punished for not having a family member being able to raise their hand and engage age with the state to take them in.

Chideya: So what do you want to see happen? What's your dream for how children who cannot be raised by their biological parent or original guardian should be treated and aided and loved?

Cancel: Well, I think the first thing I want to see is a system that doesn't criminalize poverty, right? We have almost eight million young people who are involved in a child abuse investigation, and 74% have to do with actual poverty issues. And so when a family comes to our attention because the water's not running in the house, because the lights are off, because there's not enough food, how might we actually just turn around and provide the support instead of having to remove that child. But for those who have to be in care, like my story, right? That it is a system that is rooted in the actual wellbeing, that young people get to heal from the trauma that they experience before entering care, and that they're not being traumatized by the experiences while they're in care.

Chideya: That's very intense, yet you are here, and you are so committed and you are so focused. And it seems that the work that you're doing is so powerful. Before we let you go, what is the joy or the pleasure that you find, either in your work or your life, or both?

Cancel: I think for me, it's like for every single one of these experiences that were rooted in abuse, rooted in disappointment, there's also experiences that I have had that show the beauty of humanity. I was 13 years old and one of my after school teachers knew that my abusive adoptive mother, at that time, was not throwing me a birthday party. So what did she do? She went and got a race car cake. And I celebrated that birthday with a whole bunch of second graders that I didn't know. But it's for every single one of these painful moments, I can point to a counteraction of how different humans showed up and they did their part. My eighth grade teacher bringing me a chocolate egg to school during Easter. And so I think that there are wonderful human beings and there are people who are caught to do this work, to support young people in their development, in their healing, and to be those connections for them. So I'm hoping that we move closer to a system that we see young people are able to heal, they're able to develop, and they're really positioned to thrive.

Chideya: Sixto, really appreciate you. Thank you so much for joining us.

Cancel: The pleasure was mine.

Chideya: That was Sixto Cancel. You can find resources or offer your support by going to thinkof-us.org. Obviously, on Thanksgiving weekend, we're thinking about food. But for my next guest, food is both pleasure and serious business, every single day. Kia Damon, also known as Kia Cooks, is a self-taught chef, recipe developer, Chopped champion, and an advocate for improving food access. She founded Kia Feeds The People, a budding nonprofit working to get quality, organic produce and pantry items to underserved communities in Brooklyn. She focuses on Black, queer, and trans people. She spoke to Our Body Politic a few months back about the work she's doing and how she got introduced to Food Justice by her mother who also inspired her love of cooking.

Kia Damon: Food became politicized for me. Honestly, I feel like it happened before I realized it was happening, before I had the language to explain what was happening. I guess, to go back, to my mother, she has always instilled in us, my siblings and I, a spirit of giving back, a spirit of caring for people. For example, when I would go to the grocery store with my mom, and there would be a young mom there who couldn't afford groceries and was looking for assistance at this low income grocery store, and without missing a beat, my mother would just jump in and help that person. She just always been that way and watching her move in that way, I began to think or wonder like, "Why don't they have what they need? What's going on in this world that they don't have what they need?" But my mother was just always there to give it so I just kind of followed suit in that. I was like, "Well, if someone needs help, I'm going to provide that. If someone is asking for something or needs something food wise, I'm just going to do that." And I feel like I carried that with me.

Chideya: Damon says knowing how many people don't have their needs met, made her angry. And as she moved up in the culinary world, that anger actually grew. With it came a chance to see you the big picture.

Damon: When we talk about food deserts, and this is something that I've come to know or to get language around in the last year or so, is that the term food desert isn't even the proper term. A desert is something that naturally occurs in the world. It's there, the earth has created it, it is supposed to be so. A food desert is unnatural. That's not okay. It should not naturally be this way. Was it created by systems, and colonization, and white supremacy, and capitalism, and red lining, and just centuries, centuries of such deep rooted racism and systematic racism? Yes. It's a man-made thing. It's unnatural.

Chideya: The phrase Damon now uses is food apartheid.

Damon: When you add food apartheid to it, I think that kind of wakes people up a little bit. They be like, "This is intentional. This is an act of violence. This is calculated." As I got deeper in my food practices and in my cooking, and I was like, "I don't want to live in a world where people, specifically, Black folks, Latinx folks, people of color, queer and trans people of color, communities don't don't have access to food."

Chideya: So Damon decided to do something about it.

Damon: I turned to the work of the Black Panther Party. I like to reference their work a lot, flaws and all within the community. I remember learning about their free lunch program, their breakfast and lunch program, and how they put a lot of their energy into just feeding people and providing that. I feel like a lot of times, we just have to look to our own communities to come out of our pockets to help feed folks. But I started to meditate on that and I thought that maybe I could just feed people.

Chideya: Damon didn't wait for her idea to be perfect. She got right to work.

Damon: How could I get folks food? How can I work at farms to see what kind of food we can give away to people? So I started doing supper clubs to at least raise awareness around what was going on and tried to do pop-ups. And then it wasn't until I moved to New York, about three years ago, that I was able to link with like-minded individuals, other queer people of color, other Black femmes, Black women, I'm always loved Black women, to join forces with what they were already doing. I think what I had to realize was that I needed to just add to a wheel that already existed, instead of feeling overwhelmed like I was the only one who was able to get this done. It's a lifelong journey, it's a lifelong mission. And someone will come up behind me and do the same thing, and that person after that, but in order to really get it done, it takes a village. It takes a village.

Chideya: Today, Damon is focused on raising half a million dollars for Kia Feeds The People. One immediate goal packed 200 boxes of organic produce for the community, give out a hundred turkeys during the fall holidays, prepare hot meals for the unhoused. And in all of this, Damon keeps her focus on the community around her, with her, and for whom she does the work.

Damon: Being a visible Black queer femme in food, I feel like activism and community work aside, right? That was all connected, of course, but just in food, it's extremely lonely. And not lonely because there aren't other women doing this work, there aren't other Black women who are out here occupying it. Think it's just lonely because of the load of work or caretaking that is expected of Black women. How, historically, we are the ones starting movements and not getting credit for them, or we're the ones that are like, "Well, if no one's going to do it, I'm going to do it myself." It's just labor. It's tough. Then the only way to continue, really, is to be able to hold space for that difficulty, and to find joy, and find success or your measure of success in the little things that you can do, whether it's just cooking out of your home for somebody, or volunteering your time to another farm or to another org that may be a little further along, or have a bit more hands than you do at the moment, or just being kind to yourself and being like, "Girl, you did your best and we can try again tomorrow, and don't hold yourself to the same standards as this white cis, heteronormative, patriarchal world that says you're supposed to be mama all the time to everybody without replenishing yourself."

Chideya: That was Chef Kia Damon. You can support the fall fundraising campaign this holiday season at kiacooks.com. This week on Sippin' the Political Tea, I'm joined by Michelle Singletary. She's a personal finance columnist at The Washington Post and writes the column, The Color of Money. Welcome back to Our Body Politic, Michelle.

Michelle Singletary:

Thank you for having me.

Chideya: And I'm also joined by the dynamic Gwen McKinney, founder of McKinney & Associates, an African American and woman-owned social justice communications firm. She also works with the group and podcast, Unerased Black Women Speak. Welcome to Our Body Politic, Gwen.

Gwen McKinney: Thank you for having me.

Chideya: So today we're talking about Black women in the intersection of racism and ageism in America. This is a clip from your podcast, Gwen, which explores the issue.

McKinney: Since older women seemingly, at their apex, with well tested acumen, confront job loss, wage disparities, and overqualified rejections. We're objects of jeers and jokes for our tech frailties and old school values.

Chideya: Gwen, you discussed a triple jeopardy of racism, sexism, and ageism. So tell us more about that intersection.

McKinney: It's on so many levels. Economically, politically, culturally, and even on just a very personal internalized level, where you begin to feel the impact in ways that are both subtle and blatant. And economically, it has dramatic effects as we know, our income level starts declining after 55. For my firm, my communications firm, after 55, 56, when I thought I had hit my stride, and in fact had, in terms of experience and understanding of the job and just a comfort level, the phone stopped ringing. And the reason why is because for a lot of older Black women professionals in particular, with college degrees, they are basically viewed as has-beens who are too expensive, who over perform, and yet, are still under acknowledged.

Chideya: And Michelle, give us your financial take on the arc, and the job opportunities, and financial questions for Black women.

Singletary: Yeah. Actually, it doesn't start when we get older, this idea that we don't know what we're talking about, because when we come in the door, they see the color of our skin and there is an assumption that you got the job just because you were a woman of color. And so when you start that, that follows you through your whole career, into your senior years, and then you always have to walk that fine line of showing people you know what you know, without making them feel less than or talked down to.

Chideya: So knowing that the job market always changes, we have upticks, downticks Black people always feel at first, on the downside, with the unemployment rate generally being doubled out of the white unemployment rate. If you are a Black woman who is just turning, let's say 40, how do you begin to think about planning for 55 and beyond? Because you can have many different stages of life after that so it's not necessarily like, "Oh, I'm just going to plan for this and it's over." How do you think about that?

Singletary: So I always tell people, first of all, it's never too late to plan, even if you're playing catch up because that's such a defeat us attitude and we can get there. We have less home ownership rates, we have less wealth, we're more likely to be taking care of extended family members, not just the folks in your house, and all of this coming from systemic racism. So we have so much on our plate that it's understandable that you get to 40 and 50, and you look at your retirement account and it's not where it should be. Or you're carrying more credit card debt than you should, or still carrying a student loan debt. And so I just want to get people permission to forgive themselves if they didn't know how to do it or they did what they needed to do to get where they are. But then once you recognize that there's some personal things you can take care... And this conversation, I think it's really important to talk about policy, things that government, and counties, and all kinds of things that need to be put in place. And then the personal track, because why policy is doing what it does, slow rolling, you, personally, have to take responsibility. There's some choices you have to make. You can't live the life that say, "Some of your white counterparts might." So perhaps, you are going to have to have your adult kids live with you for a little longer if they got student loan debt, you might have your parents come live with you. You can't take all those vacations. You got to keep your car until you are on a first name basis with the local tow truck drivers. You're going to do a whole bunch of other things that doesn't seem fair, but will help you create your wealth and decrease your debt so that when you get to the point where you no longer work or want to work, you have the resources to help take care of yourself.

Chideya: And so jumping back in here, it is not just a question of finances for Black women, as we mature and grow older and thinking about what our present and future is, millennial Black women encounter this triple jeopardy problem. Gwen, can you spell out some of the burdens that you're seeing at play for younger generations?

McKinney: Absolutely. First of all, younger Black men and women are doing much worse than their parents. The whole idea, this notion of the so-called American dream, has been to provide for the next generation a better life. And that was kind of happening for people, especially mid 20th century, but now, it seems we've hit a wall. And our younger millennials, and even some gen Xers, because of the burdens of our economy are just doing worse. The opportunities to generate savings, the ability to have decent jobs, and then add this extra layer of the pandemic. And there is a whole gig economy that they are trying to navigate.

Chideya: Michelle, I remember reading the exchange of articles that you did and your daughter did on picking a college and basically, how not to dig yourself into a deep pit of debt. Tell us a little bit about what you did with your daughter. And that, to me, is very much a millennial finance fork in the road.

Singletary: So my husband and I make pretty decent salaries, but we're not multimillionaires. And so we said, "Listen, here's the deal. We're saving for you to go to state college. We will have enough for you to go and even stay on campus and state. You can apply to any college you want across the US, but if you don't get enough money to go with no debt, either for yourself or us, you cannot go. So you can put our money together with whatever you get and go, but otherwise, you're not taking out any loans and we're not taking out any loans." So my eldest wanted to go to UNC, beautiful campus. I mean, it's the kind of campus you see in movies, you sit in the grass, you look up at the sky. But then we realized because of what we earned was just enough that we didn't qualify for any aid, any free money. And she said, "What if I don't go? I'm just going to die." And so I looked at her and said, "Well, you going to die, chick, because you can't go UNC. I'm sorry." We have University of Maryland, College Park money, we don't have UNC money. So she was praying to get in, I was praying that she didn't get in. And so-

Chideya: But let's just say that this had a happy ending. She did not get into UNC, but she's loving University of Maryland.

Singletary: So clearly, my prayers got through, because I went to church more than she did, but did you know? Here's the thing. She was not happy initially. She was at the top of her class, she went on to graduate school, also in a state school, and guess what? No debt. And now she's a working professional and she's a therapist, so she's not making a lot of money right now, but guess what? No debt. And the other part of that decision is we decided as a family, we encouraged her to come and live home. And she is living with us on purpose because then she can save 90% of her salary. And then when she does launch, she will probably have enough money to buy her home outright. And so that's a financial game changer. So as you can see, from the time they were in middle school to college even, we are doing financial planning with them and making decisions that didn't necessarily make her happy. She's not happy living with her old parents and the dog that she don't like, but she's putting in 15% of... She's taking 15% of her salary and investing for retirement at 26. By the time she's ready to retire, she will be a millionaire.

McKinney: Wow. Can I say something to that?

Chideya: Yes, please.

McKinney: Because that story... Now, if every Black family was like Michelle Singletary, we would have a leveling of the wealth gap on some level. But most of the kids, they didn't have an option where their parents could say, "You're going to go to a state school because we could afford it." Actually, a lot of the kids who are going to state schools have to take out loans to go. The issue of living at home with their parents, well, their parents are struggling. And I think that Michelle's story is one of inspiration that says it's possible in a society where the wealth gap is so hugely based on Black and white. And a part of it is because Michelle is from a generation, like I am, where we had an opportunity. There were some planks in place that allowed us to not only go to college, but to get decent jobs, and to find college as a great leveler. But today, that's not the case.

Singletary: Oh, my gosh, Gwen. So much of what you just said is true because people will hold Gwen and myself up as, "Well, look, they did it." But there were, like you said, there were so many things that were put in place. I got a minority scholarship to go to College Park. That's why I didn't have to take on debt. And then when I got to the Post, part of the reason why I got to the Post is there was an editor who said, "We need more Black business reporters," and so he sought me out. And even though part of the reason was because I was Black, it wasn't only because I was Black. I was also good. I mean, I'm really smart. And so if there's a people listening saying, "Well, okay. I don't really have all what they have." But if we didn't have that money saved up, we would've sent our children to community college for two years and then have them transfer to the four year university down the road from our house. They'll still get that college education, but it won't be the same road. And guess what? As Black folks, we know about taking those side roads.

Chideya: Yeah. I mean, let me just jump in and say that we work with the GenForward Survey and they found that Black women and Latinas were deferring life events, like marriage, children, et cetera, because of student debt. So everything you're saying is just really mapping with the whole life cycle. But I want to move us on to another topic, which is social security benefits, which are changing. And here's a clip from ABC's Good Morning America.

ABC Clip: Social security beneficiaries will see their checks increase by 5.9% starting in late December or early January. The biggest bump in almost four decades.

Chideya: Gwen, what was your reaction?

McKinney: I would say, woo-hoo, and I'm being very sarcastic, because this 6% bump gets wiped out when you consider healthcare costs, which most social security recipients... Most people who are not recipients of social security don't understand that their Medicare payments come out of that social security check. And then in addition, it's only covering 80%, at best, of those medical costs. It does not cover dental, and vision, prescription plans. So all of that, I think it translates when you look at the cost of living and inflation, it may turn out to be about $92 a month. But that $92 a month, Farai, that's erased when you deal with the inflation that we're facing now post pandemic, healthcare costs, and the fight that's going on in Congress now, just to get our social security recipients to have dental, vision, hearing aids covered as part of the Medicare benefits.

Singletary: Yeah. Gwen is exactly right. It really is almost net zero. Also, in addition to healthcare, there's all other higher prices, food costs more, housing costs more. I mean, it'll level it in a sense of they'll keep pace with inflation, but keeping pace with inflation doesn't create wealth. We know that about, what, 57% of Americans live on only social security, which is not a lot. The average payment is about $1,500 a month, so that's not going to get you very far in many areas of the country. What we really need to be concentrating on, in addition to making sure social security keeps placed with inflation, is fixing social security. There is going to be a trust fund deficit at some point where the trust funds will only be able to pay or the income coming in, I should say, will only be able to pay about 70 some percent of benefits, so-

Chideya: And when you're talking about trust fund, we're not talking about one rich person's trust fund, it's for social security trust.

Singletary: That's right, yeah. So that means that's going to be a shortfall, if it's not fixed.

Chideya: And Michelle, what about planning for retirement? Your daughter is already way ahead of people two, three times her age, but in general, how should we think social security or no social security about retirement?

Singletary: Listen, I am an optimist when it comes to this. I believe that you can do your retirement. It just might not be the retirement that you envision, on a beach and a chair in some resort. It just could be you're living with your kids, they're living with you, and you may work a little longer than you want, but that's okay if you can do that. So I think don't lose hope, do what you can now, and really look at your budget to find places to save, so that you can create a retirement well for yourself.

Chideya: And Gwen, just quickly, anything that is not... We've talked so much about finance, but your work on Black women, 55 plus, isn't just about finance, aging, and being a mature woman, has a lot of different angles. Any other quick notes on that?

McKinney: Absolutely. Absolutely. Hope is a good four letter word, first of all. And I think that we have each other, and I don't just mean older Black women have each other, but connecting with younger proteges, and mentees, and family members, because they tend to be connected and help to open doors, not just on economics, but just on cultural kinds of opportunities, connecting with the world because we've been so closed in for almost two years now, we've been locked down in a pandemic. I do believe there is an ability to this whole notion of stronger together is not just a cliche.

Chideya: That is a great place to leave it. Thank you for joining me, Gwen and Michelle.

McKinney: Thank you. I'm grateful for you, Farai.

Singletary: Yeah. Thank you for having this conversation. It's such an important conversation.

Chideya: That was Michelle Singletary, personal finance columnist at The Washington Post and Gwen McKinney, founder of McKinney & Associates and creator of the podcast, Unerased Black Women Speak.

Thanks for listening to Our Body Politic. We're on the air each week and everywhere you listen to podcast. Our Body Politic is produced by LWC. I'm the creator and host, Farai Chideya. Juleyka Lantigua is executive producer. Jen Chien is executive editor. Our senior editor is Veralyn Williams. Paulina Velasco and Sarah McClure are our senior producers. Cedric Wilson is lead producer and mixed this episode. Our political booker is Bridget McAllister. Emily Daly is assistant producer. Original music by associate sound designer, Kojin Tashiro. Production assistant from Mark Betancourt, Elizabeth Nakano, and Natyna Bean. This program is produced with support from Craig Newmark Philanthropies, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies, Democracy Fund, the Harnisch Foundation, Compton Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the BMe Community, Katie McGrath and J.J. Abrams Family Foundation, and from generous contributions from listeners like you.


Chideya, Farai, host. “How Feminists in China Fight Authoritarianism, Facing Food Apartheid in the U.S., and Black Women Get Real about Preparing for Retirement.” Our Body Politic, Diaspora Farms LLC. November 26, 2021. https://our-body-politic.simplecast.com/