From Advanced Degree to Welfare

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“Racializing food stamps denies that wide swaths of the population, reaching into the middle classes, are dealing with food insecurity,” Karen Kelsey (of The Professor Is In) says.

“I am not a welfare queen,” says Melissa Bruninga-Matteau.

That’s how she feels compelled to start a conversation about how she, a white woman with a PhD in medieval history and an adjunct professor, came to rely on federal food stamps and Medicaid. Ms. Bruninga-Matteau, a 43-year-old single mother who teaches two humanities courses at Yavapai College, in Prescott, Arizona, says the stereotype of the people receiving such aid does not reflect reality. Recipients include growing numbers of people like her, the highly educated, whose advanced degrees have not insulated them from financial hardship.

“I find it horrifying that someone who stands in front of college classes and teaches is on welfare,” she says.

A Shrinking Tenure Track

Ms. Bruninga-Matteau grew up in an upper-middle class family that saw educational achievement as the pathway to a successful career and a prosperous life. She entered graduate school in 2002, idealistic about landing a tenure-track job. She never imagined that she’d end up trying to eke out a living, teaching college for poverty wages, with no benefits or job security.

Ms. Bruninga-Matteau always wanted to teach. This semester she is working 20 hours each week, prepping, teaching, advising, and grading papers for two courses at Yavapai. Her take-home pay is $900 a month, of which $750 goes to rent. Each week, she spends $40 on gas to get her to the campus; she lives 43 miles away, where housing is cheaper.

Last year, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed a budget that cut the state’s allocation to Yavapai’s operating budget from $4.3 million to $900,000. The cut led to an 18,000-hour reduction in the use of part-time faculty like Ms. Bruninga-Matteau.

“The media gives us this image that people who are on public assistance are dropouts, on drugs or alcohol, and are irresponsible,” she says. “I’m not irresponsible. I’m highly educated. I’ve never made a lot of money, but I’ve been able to make enough to live on. Until now.”

Ms. Bruninga-Matteau is part of an often overlooked, and growing, subgroup of PhD recipients, adjunct professors, and other Americans with advanced degrees who have had to apply for food stamps or some other form of government aid since late 2007. Some are struggling to pay back student loans and cover basic living expenses as they submit scores of applications for a limited pool of full-time academic positions. Others are trying to raise families or pay for their children’s college expenses on the low and fluctuating pay they receive as professors off the tenure track, a group that now makes up 70 percent of faculties. Many bounce on and off unemployment or welfare during semester breaks. And some adjuncts have found themselves trying to make ends meet by waiting tables or bagging groceries alongside their students.

The percentage of graduate-degree holders who receive federal food stamps or some other aid more than doubled between 2007 and 2010, but shame has helped to keep the problem hidden. “People don’t want their faces and names associated with this experience,” says Karen Kelsey, a former tenured professor who now runs The Professor Is In, an academic-career consulting business.

Some adjuncts make less money than custodians and campus support staff who may not have college degrees. An adjunct’s salary can range from $600 to $10,000 per course. The national average earnings of adjunct instructors are just under $2,500 per course.

Elliott Stegall, a white, 51-year-old married father of two, teaches two courses each semester in the English department at Northwest Florida State College, in Niceville, Florida. He and his wife, Amanda, live in a modest home about 40 miles away in DeFuniak Springs.

Mr. Stegall is a graduate student at Florida State University, where he is finishing his dissertation in film studies. At night, after his 3-year-old and 3-month-old children have been put to bed, he grades a stack of composition papers or plugs away at his dissertation. They receive food stamps, Medicaid, and aid from the Women, Infants, and Children program (known as WIC).

Mr. Stegall has taught at three colleges for more than 14 years. When he and Ms. Stegall stepped inside the local WIC office in Tallahassee, where they used to live, with their children in tow, he had to fight shame, a sense of failure, and the notion that he was not supposed to be there. After all, he grew up in a family that valued hard work and knowledge. His father was a pastor and a humanities professor, and his mother was psychology professor.

“The first time we went to the office to apply, I felt like I had arrived from Eastern Europe to Ellis Island,” he says. “The place was filled with people from every culture and ethnicity. We all had that same ragged, poor look in our eyes.”

Mr. Stegall has supplemented his teaching income by working odd jobs. He painted houses until the housing crisis eliminated clients. He and his wife worked as servers for a catering company until the economic downturn hurt business. And they cleaned condos along Destin beach. They took the children along because day care was too expensive.

“I’m grateful for government assistance. Without it, my family and I would certainly be homeless and destitute,” he says. “But living on the dole is excruciatingly embarrassing and a constant reminder that I must have done something terribly wrong along the way to deserve this fate.”

“It’s the dirty little secret of higher education,” says Matthew Williams, cofounder of the New Faculty Majority, an advocacy group for nontenure-track faculty. “Many administrators are not aware of the whole extent of the problem. But all it takes is for somebody to run the numbers to see that their faculty is eligible for welfare assistance.” Public colleges have a special obligation to ensure that the conditions under which contingent faculty work are not exploitative, he says.

Michael Bérubé, president of the Modern Language Association, says that he and his wife, Janet, qualified for WIC while they were in graduate school in the late 1980s.

“Everyone thinks a PhD pretty much guarantees you a living wage and, from what I can tell, most commentators think that college professors make $100,000 and more,” he says. “But I’ve been hearing all year from nontenure-track faculty making under $20,000, and I don’t know anyone who believes you can raise a family on that. Even living as a single person on that salary is tough, if you want to eat something other than ramen noodles every once in a while.”

Ms. Kelsey, who helps graduate students and adjuncts who are homeless or on aid, says the false portrayal of aid recipients as “welfare queens” is an illusion that was created for political purposes.

“Racializing food stamps denies that wide swaths of the population, reaching into the middle classes, are dealing with food insecurity,” she says. Thirty-nine percent of all welfare recipients are white, 37 percent are black, 17 percent are Hispanic, and 3 percent are Asian. 

But race and cultural stereotypes play a significant part in how many academics are struggling with the reality of being on welfare. 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 while in graduate school, and says she made enough money to live on until she had children. She lives in Lansing, Illinois.

“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 federal 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 thought that welfare was for people who didn’t go to school and couldn’t get a good job,” she says. 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.”

“I had to work against my color, my flesh, and my name alone,” she says. “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.'”

For Ms. Hawkins-Sledge, there is good news. She will begin a full-time, tenure-track job as an English professor at Prairie State College in August.

Stacey Patton is a staff reporter for The Chronicle of Higher Education. Excerpted from The Chronicle of Higher Education (May 6, 2012), the No. 1 source of news, information, and jobs for college and university faculty members and administrators.

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