Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Let's talk about hard things - foodstamps and the 'life of the mind.'

I'm trying to have faith, but I think the hardest part is what if God's plan for us is to be really, really poor and uncertain this next year?

It makes me nervous to move all of our belongings, which would not be cheap, across the country when we don't have any specifics.  And what if it doesn't work out - what do we do then?  We need to have some kind of job.  And if Avram wasn't adjuncting, or almost worse if he only got one class, I would rather that he found some kind of full time position, even if the pay were not great, than trying to cobble together a couple of part time positions. At least then we might get some kind of benefits, and if nothing else he would be working more than 29 1/2 hours a week - the top cap, because heaven forbid if any university went over that amount and - gasp - actually had to pay benefits like health insurance for their adjuncting employees

 There's no guarantee that even feeling peace about our future means that we will have enough to live on, or even that Avram will get three classes to adjunct for.  And it's not like even if he does adjunct we will be making much.  I think America does not realize that one of the prizes of the modern, intellectual age - our University system - is built upon the backs of people who are teaching class by class, and getting paid only around $25000 for an entire year of teaching - and that is if they are able to get three classes throughout the entire year.  We know someone (who is in business, and is quite comfortable) who recently asked if adjuncting paid what, around $80,000? That's way more than even many professors make (in the humanities). I'm sorry to be crass and bring money into it, but I think all too often America and academia hide their poor practices and marginalizing of workers by making talking about money taboo, and by emphasizing lies like it's a "life of the mind."

Do you want to know what the "life of the mind" is like?  It's trying to keep your wife and five children clothed, fed, and sheltered while bringing home 1565 a month - and that is the most (the amount before taxes, at least - this is the after tax amount) that you have ever made before! It is qualifying for - and using -  medicaid and foodstamps because you honestly cannot make the ends meet, and because you are trying to finish your dissertation it does not make sense to pick up another job, since that would just make everything take even longer, and you would be a student for longer.

A boy at our church when questioned about evil said that people who use foodstamps are evil.  Well, now you know. I am evil.  My family is evil.  (Don't worry, I do not actually believe that).  What kills me is that this boy is the son of our very good friends - who knew that we have had foodstamps. So what does that say - are they telling him we are evil? I know kids have their own agency, and are not just puppets of their parents, but I'm pretty sure that idea didn't pop into his head sui generis.

Regardless of your politics - maybe you think foodstamps are evil too - just remember that at your university that you attended has lots and lots of adjuncts, and even if they personally are not on foodstamps (and I can guarantee more than a few are), they all qualify for them if they have dependents. So if you do not believe in foodstamps, it's not as simple as just condemning them - it involves making system that pays people enough to live on.  Most of the people who are on them are not educated - they are not the "elite" who both use government money to eat and who have almost four college degrees between one couple.  Maybe they should have not had children when they couldn't support them (I would like you to meet Enoch - who was conceived through an IUD.  Maybe I should have had an abortion - would that have made the right wing feel better about their lives?)  Maybe they should havbe reconsidered spending eight years of their lives in upper education, living far below the poverty line and qualifying for lots more government aid that they never took, including not using foodstamps for over half that time because they are trying to be independent, and are trying to be self - relient, but it gets really hard when you are not paid a living wage.

Most people on foodstamps do fit some of the stereos attached to them - after all, I have spent hours and hours waiting in the official government offices, and I admit, it is not all roses and sunshine for those on government help.  But I almost feel a responsibility to speak up for them, for many do not have the education and knowledge on how to speak up for themselves.  And they are working, like we are, too. But when you don't make enough to live on, it's not that easy, no matter how hard you work.

For me, I guess I have been able to justify being on foodstamps because we are students, and things are going to get better.  But now, I don't know if they are going to get better. I am definitely not planning on having them after we graduate - without a dissertation to write we can and will fill in our time with side jobs that will pay for our food. But we will still have medicaid, because even those adjuncts who don't have so many dependents, or who have enough side jobs to actually pay for living still do not have access to any kind of medical insurance.

This is the life of the mind.  Sure, we have great conversations about the ancient world, and about religious constructs, boundaries, conceptions of ritual and appropriate religious observances.  Sure, we have a personal library that rivals some medieval  royal libraries.  Sure, we spend our evenings not watching TV but reading and thinking - well, except when we don't (Avram and I do our fair share of zoning out too). But we also have no job security, no benefits, do not make enough to live on, and the field is so lopsided that we will almost certainly never get a tenure track job.  That is our ivory tower that is so out of touch with reality.  That is the rarefied air of academics. If there is an ivory tower it is built on the worn out backs of many who will never be able to ascend its hallowed stairs to a better (full-time) position.

I normally would not publish this. My draft folder is full of posts like this, that are a little bitter, lack some perspective, and perhaps would make me feel awkward if I knew other people had read them. But I am going to publish this one, because I want people to know a few things - one, what a broken Academic system means, what adjuncting, and having more and more adjuncts, and less and less professors actually means.  I want people to have another perspective on those 'evil' people who use foodstamps, and to realize that one of the most highly respected positions in Amercia, that of professor, goes hand in hand with adjuncting and with poverty, and hence with foodstamps.  I want people to know the truth of what this 'life of the mind' entails, and it's not just great mind expanding conversations and late night epiphanies over the human condition, it's also spending a month living on your food storage of beans and wheat (with some fresh produce and dairy) while waiting for foodstamps to come in, because that is how little you have. It is gettng foodstamps again, because although we were off of them for two years, I really, really wanted to buy our own food, and we took on extra debt to do so, we got them again this last fall because they started deducting for our retirement, and there went our food budget), and being as excited about that as about getting a job interview.  This is the dark underbelly of our shining ivory towers, and I think America would do better to acknowledge it than to hide it behind a smoke screen of how embarrassing and tacky it is to talk about crass and plebian topics like money, benefits and foodstamps.


  1. The job situation is similar in other fields in the US, not just humanities. I know a lot of math PhD students who haven't found any jobs, and have had to figure out how to reinvent themselves to find *some* job. Lots of friends have left academia. And sure, math *sounds* useful, but nobody really wants to hire someone who spent the last five years studying the p-adic properties of Heegaard floer homology, or whatever. It's really very depressing. More and more tenure track positions are being replaced by part time adjuncts, to save money. And state legislators are cutting funds from state schools, and there are fewer college age students to pay the tuition at the private schools, and we seem to be in a downward spiral in the US. I'm actually somewhat more hopeful about Australia, which is why I took a job there. They are better at paying living wages, to everyone, and there is state health insurance. And everything is more expensive, consequently, but they seem to do a much better job of taking care of their people. All people, not just rich people and lucky people. Fingers crossed that they also take care of academic people.

    1. That is encouraging about Australia. It is hard figuring out that we are (seemingly) inextricably intertwined with a broken system. I find myself wanting to become a doomsday prophet, telling earnest young students to stay out of academics. And then that breaks my heart, because I always wanted to get a Ph.d. The irrational part of me still does. But although there are so many intangible benefits to education, I also don't think it is worth five or seven years post undergraduate to go to school that is for education in a broad sense, but also very much for vocational training, and then not be able to get a job in the field you went to school for. I don't know if math has the problem with humanities, where there doesn't seem to be a good sideways career move option either (like with science, where it is common to not stay in academia).

      I am interested to follow your life in Australia, and excited that you liked it so much when you were there this last year.