Sunday, October 12, 2008

Welfare for Grad Students?

Here's my basic question - Under what conditions would you (as a grad student) consider applying for welfare programs like low income housing or foodstamps?

Here's my situation. One of the main reasons that I decided to switch programs and go to Crunchy U. is that they offer the option to buy health insurance for your spouse and dependents. Ever since last summer when we were living in an attic filled with black mold Beorn has been developing unexplained health problems. He is always exhausted and his blood test show that he is anemic. He also has constant joint pain and a high "rheumatoid factor." We are having more tests done. Needless to say, having continuing health coverage for him is essential.

He feels fairly bad on a day to day basis and so may have trouble working full time unless we figure out what is wrong. In the mean-time, we are living on my stipend and student loans. Last night we discussed applying for disability for him and investigating the possibility of food stamps. I'm having some difficulty with this because if I dropped out of school with my master's degree I would likely be able to find a job that pays more than my TA stipend, so it seems somehow wrong to apply for assistance. On the other hand, I have no way of knowing what kind of work I might find or whether my new job would offer health insurance for Beorn. Most likely it would be difficult for me to support us on one salary and pay off my monumental student loans.

If I stay in school I know I have a job for the next three years at least and health insurance. Given the unstable state of the economy at the moment taking risks doesn't seem wise. Mainly, I want to stay in academia. I love my new department and love the privilege of teaching and researching topics that interest me. If I was to quit school I know I wouldn't find a job I love that would pay me what I need to be paid, at least not right away.

I know many people would never consider applying for welfare while in school, but apparently there is a long tradition of graduate students on welfare, judging by this thread on College Confidential. But here are a couple of vignettes from my week to fuel your thinking about why someone might consider it.

While riding the bus home this week I overheard a conversation between a couple of undergrads. They were discussing the stock market crash. One young guy was telling the other how bad it had gotten for his family. His dad had told him that he might have to get a part time job because his stocks had been so devalued. I sat there shocked that his dad wouldn't require him to a least work a few hours a week for spending money.

Later in the week I ran into one another woman in my cohort - a woman of "non-traditional student" age who had returned to school to earn a masters degree. She told me a little about her background -- how she started living on her own a week after her highschool graduation. She had dropped out of school because her parents hadn't been willing or able to help her pay for college. This attitude is common in working class families and yet there is no way for students under the age of 25 to prove that they aren't getting help from their families. So she dropped out of college and went to beauty school. She joked that she should have just got married or "knocked-up" because then at least she wouldn't be counted as her parents' dependent. After a number of years supporting herself doing manicure and pedicures she decided that she was really tired of massaging strangers' feet. Since she was now 26 she could qualify for financial aid as an independent. She went back to school, got her B.A. and a job she really enjoyed. Now she's supporting herself working as a research assistant in a lab while she gets her M.A.

I also know a number of international students who are in a financial pickle because their spouses don't have work visas. Back in 1998 in the Chronicle, David North from the Department of the Interior urged universities and graduate students to admit that grad students are the working poor.

It is interesting to compare two populations being supported by Uncle Sam: Buck privates in the Army and graduate students working as research assistants on federal grants. While the compensation packages for both groups are complex, unmarried first-year privates receive an average of $17,000 a year, and married ones about $1,000 more.

In comparison, the median stipend for the 41 unmarried graduate students whom I interviewed (in 1996-1997) was $14,000. Universities do not grant larger stipends for students with families; in fact, the median stipend for the 46 married students I interviewed was actually smaller -- only about $12,000.

Most graduate students have to live on their stipends; a few have help from their families or from a working spouse. Many, particularly U.S. citizens, go into debt.

He goes on to advocate that universities should counsel graduate students to use public assistance that they qualify for:

As a policy matter, I believe that universities should pay their graduate assistants at least as much as privates in the military earn -- a step that federal agencies could encourage by slight increases in their formulas for calculating research grants.

Failing that, graduate schools should accept the fact that their Ph.D. candidates are members of the working poor and help those students figure out how to use federal assistance programs. Perhaps graduate students in social work could be hired part-time to help the Ph.D. candidates apply for those programs. Why should the working poor among our graduate students continue to lose out on benefits that they are legally eligible to receive?

The issue of graduate students taking public aid has also been extensively debated on MetaFilter. More recently, an article on the US News site reports that the number of college students receiving food stamps in Florida is up 44% when compared to last year. Considering the current state of the economy, I wouldn't be surprised to see this trend continue. Given the number of low income and working class students that drop out of college should we really begrudge these students some extra help?


Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

You are both the working poor, and an investment on behalf of the state/university/country. There is no reason you should sacrifice your or Beorn's well-being for that reason.

Go ahead and apply. If you feel really bad about it afterward, you can always decline the benefits. Unlike many on assistance, you know your use of state benefits will be limited.

EcoGeoFemme said...

I hope you don't mind -- I linked to this post at the Economical Academic.

It's an interesting question. I think if you actually need it, it's okay to apply. You're contributing to society with your work and there's a big missed opportunity cost to getting a phd. If you believe that the country needs experts in your field, then you should believe that it's okay for the country to partially support you to becoming one. Just because you feel like it's an enjoyable pursuit doesn't mean it's not important for our society/culture.

Anonymous said...

I have applied for absolutely everything I'm economically qualified for, which is state health insurance and WIC. If not for our savings, we would also qualify for food stamps and you can bet your ass I'd apply.

I don't think there are enough social programs so I tend to think if a person is reasonably qualified--without stretching the truth or hiding assets--then whatever restrictions the government has in place are more than sufficient without placing any further restrictions on whether you really deserve or need the benefits. You don't have to be in totally dire straits to benefit from some help.

I'm going to shut up now. :) If you can't tell, I like the limited public assistance I have. A lot.

k8 said...

As the daughter of a social worker I say do it - and I know my mom would say the same thing. The services are there for a reason and the taxes you've paid in the past have sponsored them, as will the taxes you will pay in the future. The services are there for you - use them.

Breena Ronan said...

Thanks for all the thoughtful comments. It's strange because I associate food stamps with actually being short of food and since we have student loan money, we aren't actually running out of cash for food.

Ecogeofemme-Thanks for the link!

Leslie M-B said...

I say go for it. If you're at a large public university, you're working for the state government. If the government isn't paying you a sustainable wage, then you have the right to request assistance.

Did you see this post at Broke Grad Student?

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wolcott72 said...

I applied for and received food stamps while I was doing the teacher education program--I went back after I graduated with my BA--that being said, I only took food stamps during the spring semester while I was student teaching(this was before the day and age of career-switcher programs that eliminated student teaching)--since I was student teaching and required to be at my school from 7AM-4PM and at school functions/events/conferences afer that it was impossible to keep up the 38 hours a week I had been working to pay for things like groceries/gas/car insurance (you have to drive to where you're student teaching and you have no say in where you're assigned). Since my only income was my financial aid--federal aid--it didn't count for purposes of foodstamp income calculations. Be aware though that the income levels are seriously low--a single person can make no more than $1,174 a month and qualify. I was on the stamps for 15 weeks--only applied b/c friends kept asking me if I was eating anything other than the free coffee in the teachers' lounge and the saltines from the salad bar that my students gave me.

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