Over at ADeeperStory.com, Suzannah recently wrote about her experience as one of the much-maligned 47%. She was actually born into the middle class and is college-educated. But her husband works with a ministry which gave them secure housing but a very low salary, and for her part she couldn’t find a Real Job (TM) after finishing college. She couldn’t find a job at all that would allow her to afford child care after she became pregnant. All of which explains how she did everything right, came from what people in my social circle would call the right kind of upbringing, obviously has a strong work ethic – and yet was still stuck raising her kids on the horrors of government cheese.
The whole thing is touching, and I recommend reading it. One section in particular affected me strongly, perhaps because I worked as a supermarket cashier in high school, and perhaps because I’ve had to wait behind people using those checks in my neighborhood. It’s long, so I hope you’ll excuse me for sharing it in its entirety.
As it turned out, government cheese is Helluva Good. We ate it for four and half years, and I really did see it as part of God’s provision for our family. Uncle Sam’s chick peas floated us through the lean seasons, which lasted from autumn until tax time.
Sitting on the other side of the desk to turn over our pay stubs was humbling, like nearly every check-out experience at the grocery store.
“MANAGEMENT TO REGISTER FOUR FOR A PROBLEM WITH A WIC CHECK. PROBLEM WITH A WIC CHECK, REGISTER FOUR.”
I learned to shop the out-of-town supermarket, to not dress Too Nice, and to divide my groceries meticulously, with a babe in the sling and a toddler in the cart.
First check & transaction: milk, juice
Second check & transaction: cereal, peanut butter, cheese, bread
Third/(Fourth) check & transaction(s): produce. Make it match $6 (or less); any overage requires a fourth transaction independent of the final one.
Final transaction: our own groceries. More fruits and veggies, turkey for sandwiches, cheese or possibly fish from deli clearance, pasta, almonds [too much?], ice cream [it's on sale], frozen pizza [I have a coupon]. I smile apologetically at the customers behind me, wondering if they’re frustrated at the length of this process, or is their disdain toward My Kind in general?
As a cashier, I have to admit I hated those WIC check-outs. Not the people; even then I knew that the people didn’t deserve my frustration. But the checkouts themselves were complicated. And time-consuming. And, inevitably, I’d muck it up and have to call the manager over and then face the wrath of the other people in my line when they got to me, which (since I’d messed up the complicated transaction at the end of three hours on my feet) would seem like my fault.
Now I live in a neighborhood that’s very heavily Catholic and hispanic, but also low income. That means there are a lot of large families with one or both parents working, but where there just isn’t enough paycheck to go around. So EBT and WIC isn’t so uncommon, and when that happens I try to be nice about it. If a minute or two more standing in line spares the customer and the cashier that anxiety, it’s a small price to pay for the privilege of not having to rely on them. But it really seem to be a hard thing to do in our culture.
The idea that this person may be trying her best to provide nutritious food for her kids, may not be doing anything wrong other than being in the inevitable lower portion of the economic ladder and that there simply aren’t jobs that enable her to meet all of her needs even when she lives right – that idea is hard to swallow. I think because it condemns me more than it condemns her. Because I benefit from the cheap prices and convenience made possible through those unjust wages. And the fact that she needs those special checks for her government cheese is a reminder to me that, while I struggle and work hard for my money, I’m also lucky. I don’t deserve everything I have. That’s scary.
So I’m not perfect here, far from it. But I try to do better than I have in the past. I try to be empathetic and patient and let the people using their food stamps and WIC checks to buy their food without feeling judged. I don’t always manage it, but stories like this convict me of how important it is to try.
This whole story reminded me of a post I read back in 2011: “The Ph.D. Now Comes with Food Stamps.” This refers to a growing class of college teachers called adjuncts, a group I was only vaguely aware of as an undergraduate, so perhaps it’s worth a bit of explanation.
Growing up, I thought of a college instructor as someone who worked full-time at a particular college teaching and evaluating students, and working with them to develop their skills through some mysterious thing called “office hours.” Over the years I realized professors did more than just teach (they helped make policy decisions for their university, and did their own research, but pretty much until I got to grad school I still thought of them as a community of professional scholars. The community part meant that they were part of something that included me but that would go on after I left (there was an air of permanence), and the professional bit meant that they earned enough money that they could focus on helping me, rather than being worried about subsistence things like how they were going to feed their kids. I imagined men and women carefully ensconced in the middle-class, with stable, flourishing lives outside of the classroom, who were committed to me and my school.
It turns out that there are actually four kinds of college instructors, and this really only describes one of them. Specifically, there are:
- tenure-track professors: folks paid a full-time salary + benefits, with the expectation they’ll be around for the long term. They are expected to both teach and do academic research (and contribute to the school), and are generally supported in both goals.
- visiting professors/lecturers/post-docs: again they are paid a full-time salary + benefits, but they’re only signed for a year or two contract. Sometimes there’s a research expectation; usually they’re strictly teachers, with a higher course load. They usually don’t have any say in school policies.
- adjuncts: instructors paid a flat fee to teach a single course, with no benefits and no expectations or support of anything beyond that course.
- teaching fellows: grad students who teach introductory courses in addition to their studies, and receives a scholarship + living stipend in return
When I always thought of professors, the kind you see on TV, I definitely had tenure-track profs in mind, but really I can see roles for all of these folks. For instance, if a professor needs to step down for a year or two, for health reasons or because her research means she needs to spend time in another country or whatever, a visiting professor might be the way to go. They’re also useful if the institution has something that other non-faculty would benefit from, like a particular library archive or research facility, or simply the opportunity to work with another expert in your field. (As a medievalist, I can imagine wanting to work at Oxford for a year or two and then taking what I’ve learned back to State U.) And adjunct contracts really do make sense when they bring in people from outside academia. I mean, who wouldn’t want to take a course in (say) gender roles and modern fantasy novels taught by Ellen Kushner? (Also: where do I sign up?) Or a course on journalism taught by Nicholas Kristoff? Even without the star power, I know I benefited from taking CS courses with working IT professionals. And TF’s get a valuable practical education, often including some sort of training wheels (classroom observation, having to get syllabi pre-approved, extra support in dealing with trouble situations, etc.) There’s nothing wrong with these jobs per se, and academia is definitely the better for having adjuncts and TFs and visiting profs be a part of it.
The problem is one of these roles is being abused, and in a big way. Do the math. The Adjunct Project compares fees for teaching a single adjunct class. Setting aside disciplines like CS and journalism and psychology, where adjuncts are often working professionals, and setting aside Ivy league schools that tend to get established professors teaching a single course with them, most adjuncts make between $2,000 and $5,000 per course. This varies a lot with geography and institution although interestingly, it doesn’t vary nearly so much with the subject – at a given school, people teaching courses politicians usually point to as being useless, like history and anthropology and philosophy, are paid at rates similar to what you see in education, accounting, social work, allied health, and other very practical fields. If I was working as a visiting professor I’d be expected to teach three courses for two semesters. Teaching that amount as an adjunct I could make anywhere from $12,000 to $30,000 a year, before taxes and with no benefits. Visiting professors tend to earn $40,000-$50,000 a year, and full professors earn between $60k-$100k, depending on their field, point in their career, and the kind of institution where they teach. If I was a university administrator and had to choose between replacing a retiring professor with a new hire and finding adjuncts to teach the courses, looking at this strictly from a financial perspective, it’s not hard to see which choice makes sense.
On some level, academics have no one but themselves to blame for this. We see the attacks made on the humanities on the news even before we go into grad school. And we do this for the most part because we love the field and love teaching. But we are also highly-skilled professionals who are entering the job market late (it’s rare to get a Ph.D. before you’re thirty), often with substantial student loan debts. And I could get by on the high end of the adjunct salary range even in New York City. I couldn’t raise a child, and I couldn’t do it if I was carrying a large student loan debt (I have a little but really not very much thanks to parental help, scholarships and fellowships, and in-state tuition). And $5,000 a course is really pretty rare; I’d be hard-pressed to find a position paying more than 3k, which means I’d be getting by on $18,000 before taxes and with no benefits. That’s a really hard nut to crack as you get older and need to start saving, getting the longterm health problems that come with age.
This hurts students because the only “solution” is to teach more and more courses, meaning you have less time to devote to each one. You also can’t risk student displeasure because that means possibly not being offered courses to teach the next semester. So the adjunct problem is not just an injustice to the adjuncts, it does a real disservice to students. I know, it’s hard to talk about fairness when the free market economy mindset we Americans are raised on says a service is only worth what someone will pay for it. Still, it’s hard to look at this system and not come to two conclusions: first, that academics are in demand (otherwise they would not be hired to teach the courses); and second, that a scandalously small proportion of students’ tuition is actually going to pay the people charged with educating them.
I have my own theories about the causes of this situation, but I have to run to counseling and don’t have time to go into all that now. Maybe in another post. I will say that it’s not all about administrators too focused on the bottom line or academics who didn’t plan things out as well as they should, though I think both are a part of the problem. But my main point in going into this was to say that, just like with the story I opened with, the Ph.D. on food stamps is not stupid or a bad person or lazy. She may be all those things, or she may not be. The real problem, I think, comes from a broken system and a lack of whatever would let these very smart, very highly-trained, and very much needed professionals earn a wage that would enable them to live adult, American-dream type lives. As such, the permanent full-time adjunct is part of a much more systemic problem, where even people who are smart and work hard simply aren’t paid enough to survive on their wages alone.
If this is the new normal, inside and outside of academia, we need to start thinking about people on public assistance in a different way. The “welfare queen” was never more than a political card, but it’s really inaccurate for a lot of folks on welfare. And this hurts them. One story at the Chronicle piece really gets this point across:
Kisha Hawkins-Sledge, who is 35 and a black single mother of 3-year-old twin boys, earned her master’s degree in English last August. She began teaching part-time at Prairie State College, Moraine Valley Community College, and Richard J. Daley College of the City Colleges of Chicago while in graduate school, and says she made enough money to live on until she had children. She lives in Lansing, Ill.
“My household went from one to three. My income was not enough, and so I had to apply for assistance,” she says. She now receives food stamps, WIC, Medicaid, and child-care assistance.
Like Ms. Bruninga-Matteau and Mr. Stegall, Ms. Hawkins-Sledge says she had preconceived notions about people on government assistance before she herself began receiving aid. “I went to school. I went to grad school,” she says. “I thought that welfare was for people who didn’t go to school and couldn’t get a good job.”
Ms. Hawkins-Sledge says she grew up watching her mother work hard and put herself through college and graduate school. “My mom defied the stereotype and here I am in graduate school trying to do the same,” she says. And she, too, has worked hard not to become the cultural stereotype of the black welfare queen.
“My name is Kisha. You hear that name and you think black girl, big hoop earrings, on welfare, three or four babies’ daddies,” she says. “I had to work against my color, my flesh, and my name alone. I went to school to get all these degrees to prove to the rest of the world that I’m not lazy and I’m not on welfare. But there I was and I asked myself, ‘What’s the point? I’m here anyway.’”
I have no solutions for the broader problems. I know for myself, I’m working hard to develop not just my teaching and researching skills but also line myself up for a non-teaching career if I can’t get a decent job doing the work I’m trained for and love. But even in the absence of solutions, these still seem like stories worth hearing and thinking about.