The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 6, 2012
By Stacey Patton
"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 Ph.D. in medieval history and an adjunct professor, came to rely on food stamps and Medicaid. Ms. Bruninga-Matteau, a 43-year-old single mother who teaches two humanities courses at Yavapai College, in Prescott, Ariz., 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.
Ms. Bruninga-Matteau grew up in an upper-middle class family in Montana that valued hard work and saw educational achievement as the pathway to a successful career and a prosperous life. She entered graduate school at the University of California at Irvine in 2002, idealistic about landing a tenure-track job in her field. 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. She started working as an adjunct in graduate school. This semester she is working 20 hours each week, prepping, teaching, advising, and grading papers for two courses at Yavapai, a community college with campuses in Chino Valley, Clarkdale, Prescott, Prescott Valley, and Sedona. 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.
Ms. Bruninga-Matteau does not blame Yavapai College for her situation but rather the "systematic defunding of higher education." In Arizona last year, Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, signed a budget that cut the state's allocation to Yavapai's operating budget from $4.3-million to $900,000, which represented a 7.6 percent reduction in the college's operating budget. 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 have a whole lot of skills besides knowing about medieval history, and I've had other jobs. I've never made a lot of money, but I've been able to make enough to live on. Until now."
An Overlooked Subgroup
A record number of people are depending on federally financed food assistance. Food-stamp use increased from an average monthly caseload of 17 million in 2000 to 44 million people in 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Web site. Last year, one in six people—almost 50 million Americans, or 15 percent of the population—received food stamps.
Ms. Bruninga-Matteau is part of an often overlooked, and growing, subgroup of Ph.D. 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.
Of the 22 million Americans with master's degrees or higher in 2010, about 360,000 were receiving some kind of public assistance, according to the latest Current Population Survey released by the U.S. Census Bureau in March 2011. In 2010, a total of 44 million people nationally received food stamps or some other form of public aid, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
People who don't finish college are more likely to receive food stamps than are those who go to graduate school. The rolls of people on public assistance are dominated by people with less education. Nevertheless, the percentage of graduate-degree holders who receive food stamps or some other aid more than doubled between 2007 and 2010.
During that three-year period, the number of people with master's degrees who received food stamps and other aid climbed from 101,682 to 293,029, and the number of people with Ph.D.'s who received assistance rose from 9,776 to 33,655, according to tabulations of microdata done by Austin Nichols, a senior researcher with the Urban Institute. He drew on figures from the 2008 and 2011 Current Population Surveys done by the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Bureau of Labor.
Leaders of organizations that represent adjunct faculty members think that the number of people counted by the government does not represent the full picture of academics on welfare because many do not report their reliance on federal aid.
Even as the number of highly educated aid recipients grows, shame has helped to keep the problem hidden.
"People don't want their faces and names associated with this experience," says Karen L. Kelsky, a former tenured professor who now runs The Professor Is In, an academic-career consulting business. She also operates a fund that helps graduate students and Ph.D.'s who are struggling financially, most of whom are women with children.
"It's gone beyond the joke of the impoverished grad student to becoming something really dire and urgent," says Ms. Kelsky. "When I was a tenured professor I had no idea that the Ph.D. was a path to food stamps."
It's difficult to talk about being on aid, says Matthew Williams, cofounder and vice president of the New Faculty Majority, an advocacy group for nontenure-track faculty.
"We regularly hear about adjuncts on food stamps," says Mr. Williams, who received food stamps and Medicaid himself when he taught at the University of Akron from 2007 to 2009, earning less than $21,000 a year. "This is not hyperbole and it isn't theoretical."
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, according to the Adjunct Project, a crowdsourced database about adjuncts' salaries and working conditions. The national average earnings of adjunct instructors are just under $2,500 per course, according to the American Association of University Professors.
The Road to Assistance
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, Fla. He and his wife, Amanda, live in a modest home about 40 miles away in DeFuniak Springs, a conservative bulwark in northwest Florida.
"This is where the poor folk live," says Mr. Stegall. "It's small-town America. The people are nice, but there's no industry. The only jobs are on the coastline."
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. (He's writing about how Hollywood films portray Vietnam soldiers as psychotic men who return home destroyed by the war.) His wife is starting a two-year, online master's degree program in criminology offered by Florida State. 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. He says he has taught more than two dozen courses in communications, performing arts, and the humanities and he has watched academic positions in these fields nearly disappear with budget cuts. When he and Ms. Stegall stepped inside the local WIC office in Tallahassee, Fla., 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."
He took a number, sat in the crowded lobby, and waited to be called up to a plexiglass window by a brusque woman who screamed his name. The Stegalls and the other parents took turns entertaining one another's children. As he looked around, he thought about his situation as a true academic would.
"I tend to look at my experience as a humanist, as someone who is fascinated by human culture," he says. "Maybe it was a way of hiding from the reality in which I found myself. I never thought I'd be among the poor."
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."
As he sat in the WIC office with his family, Mr. Stegall blamed himself. He made a choice, he says, to earn a graduate degree even as he saw the economy collapsing, the humanities under assault, and the academic job market worsening.
"As a man, I felt like I was a failure. I had devoted myself to the world of cerebral activity. I had learned a practical skill that was elitist," he says. "Perhaps I should have been learning a skill that the economy supports."
'Dirty Little Secret'
When asked if they believe that full-time faculty, administrators, and scholarly associations know that adjuncts are receiving government assistance, scores of graduate students and adjuncts who get public benefits gave mixed responses. In an informal questionnaire The Chronicle distributed through AFT Higher Education, the New Faculty Majority, and other groups that represent adjuncts, the aid recipients said that some of those people know, some don't know, some don't want to know, and some seem not to care.
At Yavapai, where Ms. Bruninga-Matteau teaches, a spokesperson wrote in an e-mail that the college "does not look into the financial backgrounds of its full- or part-time employees."
"If any employee were being helped or supported by a government program, the administration at Yavapai College would not be privy to that information," the spokesperson said. "In comparison to other community colleges in Arizona, Yavapai College's adjunct faculty are the third highest-paid in the state."
Numerous phone calls to Northwest Florida State College, where Mr. Stegall teaches, were not returned.
"It's the dirty little secret of higher education," says Mr. Williams of the New Faculty Majority. "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. "When public institutions fill those seats in the classroom and tell students that they will be better off because of their education, it is absolutely disingenuous for institutions to promulgate a compensation structure of faculty to be on food stamps and other forms of government assistance."
John Curtis, director of research and public policy for the American Association of University Professors, says he regularly encounters tenured faculty members who are unaware of the extent of the problem of contingent academic employment. At the same time, many tenured faculty members are outspoken advocates of improving working conditions for their colleagues in contingent appointments, he adds. The AAUP has been working with faculty groups, scholarly associations, and disciplinary societies to raise awareness, Mr. Curtis says, so there is "no legitimate claim to a lack of information."
Some leaders of scholarly associations say they are surprised to hear of graduate-degree holders being on public assistance.
James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, said in an e-mail that he consulted with his staff, and "nobody has ever heard of this among our members or other historians."
"No e-mails, no postings or tweets," he wrote. "That doesn't mean it's not out there. It just means that historians on public assistance have not crossed AHA communications."
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.
"It was great. It paid for Nick's baby formula and food, and was just the kind of social-welfare program liberals should defend," he says. "It was a temporary leg up until we were paid living wages. Janet's mother also gave us her Social Security checks, so here's another cheer for the idea of social welfare."
Mr. Bérubé says, though, that he is disturbed that adjuncts continue to live for extended periods on these low wages, even after graduate school. As for why scholarly organizations don't think about Ph.D.'s being on food stamps, he says the answer is obvious.
"Everyone thinks a Ph.D. 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."
Many people hold on to hopes that they'll be the one to get a lucky break, even as their economic situation deteriorates.
Marc Bousquet, an associate professor of English at Santa Clara University and the founding editor of Workplace: A Journal for Academic Labor, says that ego, identity status, and prestige may explain why so many people refuse to abandon their aspirations of becoming full-time professors.
"A big part of what we do in graduate education is foster this sense of vocation and teaching for love and passion for what you do," says Mr. Bousquet, who is also a contributor to The Chronicle's Brainstorm blog. "We socialize people into accepting the coin of reputation as status capital. Some people are so deeply socialized into the regime of payment by way of status that they are essentially trapped in it for life."
The Role of Race
Ms. Kelsky, 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, according to data from Aid to Families With Dependent Children. The majority of the dozens of graduate-degree holders on aid who responded to The Chronicle questionnaire are also white.
But race and cultural stereotypes play a significant part in how many of the academics interviewed by The Chronicle are struggling with the reality of being on welfare.
Lynn, a 43-year-old adjunct professor at two community colleges in Houston, who is on food stamps and Medicaid and doesn't want to give her surname, says, "People don't expect that white people need assistance," she says. "It's a prevalent attitude. Applying for food stamps is even worse if you're white and need help."
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.'"
For Ms. Hawkins-Sledge, there is good news. She will begin a full-time, tenure-track job as an English professor at Prairie State in August.