How My Family Spends the Holidays Despite ‘Network Poverty'

I promised to care for my siblings when my father died. We use the holidays to care for each other and teach lessons my parents couldn’t.

Black Family wearing pajamas opening gifts on Christmas morning.


As I head into this holiday season, I feel a swirl of mixed emotions. Three years ago, my dad was diagnosed with multiple comorbidities. I first realized the severity of his condition last December during our Christmas trip to visit family in Arizona. My siblings and I understood it was time to ask hard questions, and I learned more about my parents' finances than I ever desired.

He was only 60 years young, married, and working, but he had little retirement or savings. For many, this time of year means finding the harmony of thankfulness and joy amid scarcity and sorrow brought on by the season’s financial stresses. While grappling with the inevitability of losing my father, one thing I did not imagine I would have to consider is the literal cost of racism in the U.S. 

But I did.

Network Poverty in Black Families

I’d often heard, “Your network is your net worth.” It would be more accurate to say, “Your network is predetermined by your zip code and your family ties to slavery.” The former is pithy; the latter is less palatable. But neither easily illustrate the lessons I’ve learned as the oldest daughter trying to make social mobility accessible to my siblings and my household.  

Network poverty refers to “having a personal network including merely or mostly resource-poor people and, thus, lacking ties to resources such as knowledge, wealth, skills, power, and information.” The expression is a close cousin to the “Black tax,” a term used colloquially in Black circles in South Africa to describe the expectation for children to subsidize the needs of their relatives once they achieve some level of financial stability, access, or opportunity. 

I see this firsthand as many of my Black friends and I have “made it,” occasionally exceeding our families’ expectations for success. Yet, many of us are still living paycheck-to-paycheck. Well-meaning, albeit often condescending, community-based organizations sprinkled across Black communities have forced a narrative of poor financial literacy. However, I’ve found it is not a question of poor management. Instead, so much of what we earn is already spoken for before it even comes through the door. My tax form lists two dependents. But the reality is I support many people who don’t quite fit the IRS' qualifying dependent definition.

Generational wealth and poverty are both passed down and contribute to a family’s long-term stability, or lack thereof. Contrary to what you might assume, generational poverty is not the opposite of generational wealth. I describe the opposite of generational wealth as the systems put in place to keep Black people at a disadvantage. Research says the racial wealth gap persists due to structural characteristics of the American economy and the social manifestations of white supremacy. Together they cost Black Americans trillions of dollars and immeasurable trauma

Holding It Together for the Holidays

The stresses of the Black tax and the strains of network poverty leave no visible scars, but the wounds are felt nonetheless. My dad, never wanting us to feel the pain of those wounds, would often take on one or more additional jobs around the holidays to ensure we all had something under the tree. I remember him trading his skills as a computer engineer for our dental work or food. We rarely saw him between Halloween and New Year’s Day, and when we did, he was exhausted. It was nice to wake up on Christmas morning and unwrap a present but looking back, it would have been far more valuable to have him.  

Black parents and children reeling from generational poverty rarely look beyond today. Planning for the future and incorporating things that might change our trajectories, like higher education, career goals, and family or financial planning, are too often aspirational at best. The result is that putting an end to this systemic travesty inappropriately rests on the shoulders of Black families working within a system designed to enslave us. Creating positive change within our immediate familial structures is our work to do. For many of us, it is our life’s work. Black people who have made it, like me, carry a disproportionate share of this burden.

The Tradition of Community Care To Challenge Racial Inequality

As this holiday season ensues, I wrestle with the demands of achievement, familial expectations, and personal boundaries in my role as the family’s “Black Santa.” A few Christmases ago, my siblings dubbed me “Black Santa” because I provide up to five high-end gifts for which we play silly games of chance and skill and fight to the death for during the annual family gift exchange. I wear the title with pride and see it as an extension of my role as “Sibling Breaking Generational Curses” and “Sibling Most Likely to Foot the Bill.” But, there is no joy in financially “making it” alone.

I am the eldest daughter in a family of 10. I singularly make more than many American families with multiple income earners. But I also live and work in one of the top 10 most expensive cities in the U.S. With aging parents to support and siblings still learning to resource their lives, I find myself subsidizing the needs of those I love. Providing for them financially is something I am honored to do, but that also means I have to constantly weigh their needs against the demands in my own life. I find myself asking, “What about the future of my daughter?” My seven siblings and I are spread across a wide age gap. The youngest is only 18 years old. In many ways, I feel a paternal need to impart financial knowledge my parents didn't have. And so, we have collectively taken steps to strengthen awareness and set financial goals for the whole family. We’ve developed a plan to make this possible.

Every other Thursday, all seven of my siblings join me on a video call to discuss family financial goals. We started this practice when dad got sick, and we all pitched in to manage his and mom’s finances. Each of the four older siblings has “adopted” one of the younger four siblings. We check in periodically on financial goals, higher education goals, and family planning and agree on ongoing milestones. We each commit to sharing our lessons learned. We have an open-door policy. 

We know it’s imperative that we are not passing our hardships on to our children; sharing what we learn is a way to avoid that. Finally, we have an understanding that it is each sibling’s responsibility to raise their hand and ask for the help they need. Our fates are linked, and the generational poverty we hail from can only be broken by our collective commitment to do things differently and together. Our annual family gift exchange is an exercise in financial responsibility; in a family as large as ours, overspending in the name of generosity is a temptation. Every year, each person is responsible for one gift with a maximum spend of $50. For our family, this alleviates some of the financial stress felt this time of year, giving us the freedom to focus on what matters most: time together.  

My father was a man of great faith. One of his favorite sayings was the old adage: "If you give a person a fish, they eat for a day, but if you teach them how to fish, they eat for a lifetime." He would tell us, “Our best path forward as a people is to ensure everyone at the table knows how to fish.” On September 22, 2022, minutes before my dad took his last breath, I told him, “I know you are worried about how everyone will be cared for, but I promise I’ll make sure they eat for a lifetime.” 

 He shed a tear, smiled weakly, and quietly went home. 

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