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.

  • Toppin (Formerly Known As Just Sayin’)

    I’m going to be honest. When I was in my early 20′s I came to see that single people in this country are getting screwed and it’s mainly due to the TAX STRUCTURE and Welfare laws in this country.

    If you’re single, childless and working you’re getting screwed.

    If you’re a welfare case the red carpet is rolled out for you in so many ways.

    When I was graduated from college I was working a job making about 35k a year. Because I didn’t have any dependents or tax exemptions I was getting taxed out the arse. Add onto that my 401k payments, health insurance (which sucks even if you got), dental insurance, vision insurance, rent (with water/sewer), car note, student loans, phone bill, internet/cable, gas for the car, and groceries….I was damn near broke. Most of my money was either going to the government or bills.

    Then I figured out how to cheat/work the system…

    I started a business. Bought real estate (a tax shelter…thank you Jesus). Learned to save/invest/manage my own 401k etc. Things got better.

    But when I think about everything I went through to get to this point it upsets me sometimes.

    There is no incentive for “doing right” and staying off welfare.

    People on welfare get more benefits than single people trying to do things right (get an education, find a job, etc).

    The incentive is gone. It left when the jobs left this country.

    What is stopping Ms. PHD from collecting her welfare check now? Pride? Perhaps…but that’s probably the only thing.

  • Lady T


  • Queen

    OMG! Yessss! Preach! I’m 24 and I was dicussing this with my mother the other day.. It’s ridiculous how the system is set up. And thanks for the tips Toppin! I will def. be looking into ways I can invest and save my money into something besides just a savings account. :)

  • Stacia L. Brown

    “People on welfare get more benefits than single people trying to do things right (get an education, find a job, etc).”

    The professors this article profiles who are in need of public assistance have done all the things you’ve identified as “doing things right.” They’ve gotten an education, found jobs, and are currently employed. But because of their low wages and the unpredictable nature of their employment, they cannot can’t support themselves. They aren’t cheating the system in order to qualify for (or need) public assistance. Their actual income at their jobs is qualifying them for it.

  • Lady T

    I have always felt that way but quietly because I did not want to make my cousins, co-workers and friends feel bad. Watching the news and listening to the politicians today, it is only a matter of time for the welfare system to be cut. It is going to happen I think in the next several years. They are not building these prisons for no reason. I wish my sistas who are leaning on it would relize that America will be changing for the better, but for only those of us who are wise in our life choices.

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