Donald Trump has a special sense of scale to which most of the rest of us can't relate. A 50-story skyscraper? Eh. A 100,000-square-foot casino? Try his Taj Mahal instead. A New York penthouse apartment with only five bathrooms? Not enough for him.
This is the man for whom the greatest compliment is something yuuuuuge. And that's part of his larger-than-life appeal. But then he comes along and says, as he did Monday, something like this:
"It has not been easy for me," he said at a New Hampshire town-hall event hosted by NBC's "Today" show. "You know, I started off in Brooklyn. My father gave me a small loan of a million dollars. I came into Manhattan, and I had to pay him back, and I had to pay him back with interest."
His "small loan of a million dollars" — with interest! — hasn't garnered the presidential candidate a lot of sympathy on the Internet today, for all the obvious reasons. But here's one less obvious misunderstanding baked into Trump's statement: He thinks borrowing money from family is a sign of hard times when an awful lot of Americans can't scrounge money from family at all.
This is actually a familiar disconnect in our presidential elections. Recall Mitt Romney, as Helaine Olen reminds us, urging America's youths to get an education, even if they have to borrow money from mom and dad to do it.
This isn't just nitpicking at would-be presidents for their verbal gaffes. Disparities in intergenerational wealth transfer in America are a significant part of the gap between the haves and have-nots. They're also an important piece of lingering racial inequality in America.
A 2011 Urban Institute study found that black families and Hispanic families are "five times less likely to receive large gifts and inheritances than white families." Other studies have suggested that between 10 and 20 percent of the vast black-white wealth gap in America can be explained by differences in wealth transfer. Today high-earning black households have, on average, less wealth than low-earning white ones. And black students are more likely than white ones to graduate with debt.
Inheritances are part of how historic forms of discrimination are passed on to young generations today. A black family, for instance, that was denied a chance to buy a home in the 1950s is a lot less likely to pass on wealth to a grandchild who needs a down payment to buy a home today. Not surprisingly, home-ownership rates for blacks remain about 30 percentage points below whites.
The ways that wealth and poverty are inherited in America broadly affect education, housing and economic mobility. It's a lot harder to buy a starter home in an expensive city like Washington if no one will help with your down payment. It's harder to bear the cost of high student debt when no one can help you pay it off, and low-income students have to contribute a lot more to cover education than their middle-class and upper-income peers. Meanwhile, opportunities of all kinds — unpaid internships, low-wage jobs in high-cost cities, full-time school without part-time work — are closed to Americans whose lives aren't subsidized by family. Even with interest.
And here we're talking about the consequences of needing a lot less than a million dollars. For many, the alternative to lacking money isn't getting it from dad. It's not having it at all.