The Chronicle of Higher Education has published a must-read profile on the growing demographic of terminal academic-degree holders who are finding themselves applying for public assistance, due to job scarcity and low wages. Much of the piece focuses on white men and women, with the angle that this trend is particularly surprising and/or mortifying for them because, as one semi-anonymous source, “Lynn,” asserts:
“People don’t expect that white people need assistance. It’s a prevalent attitude. Applying for food stamps is even worse if you’re white and need help.” “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.
“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 can personally attest to the difficulties adjunct professors face in trying to support themselves, post-education. When I decided on this career track, it was with a dreamy eye toward the prestige of being called “Professor,” toward earning esteem in my chosen field, toward publishing and paneling and becoming a foremost authority, and toward eventually transitioning up, into the rarefied echelon of the black upper (middle) class.
But, like Kisha, who testifies that she had to work at three different colleges to make ends meet, even before becoming a mother, I was quickly disabused of those notions.
“Prestige” means little for adjuncts, who now make up around 70 percent of U.S. college faculty. Hiring is contingent on enrollment, is contracted to last only 3-4 months at a time, and is low wage, compared to the salaries of full-time faculty (whose positions tend to be insular and designed for employees to “age out” of them or to willingly retire, rather than to ever be fired. Hence, the job scarcity).
The fact is: without retaining work at multiple schools and maintaining contracts with those schools from semester to semester, the likelihood of a salary that remains above the poverty line each year can be rather slim.
In terms of stigma, however, it’s dangerous to insist that one demographic’s reliance on public assistance is “more shameful” than the next’s. It’s all pretty humiliating. For everyone. In the end, the undereducated and the over-educated–of all racial groups–have to stand in the same line. They all have to endure the scrutiny and criticism of strangers who will label them as part of any trope they wish–be it poor white trash or black welfare queen–without any context.
But, if the end, if you’re still preoccupied with public perception, when your education and employment are failing to meet the most basic of human needs like food and shelter, you’re really worried about the wrong things.