The Food Stamp Ph.D.
Personally, I blame Naomi Schaefer Riley for this woman’s predicament:
“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 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. …
I’m not making fun of Ms. Bruninga-Matteau. I could have been in her position. I quit one of my early journalism jobs and planned to go to grad school in medieval studies. (Naomi Schaefer Riley, incidentally, argues that the tenure system in our universities today exploits academics like Bruninga-Matteau.)
This makes me wonder why our colleges are producing so many Ph.Ds, especially in the humanities, if there aren’t jobs for them. To be so highly educated, and to be reduced to welfare dependency, has to be humiliating. I wonder if colleges ever take applicants for doctoral programs aside and say, “We’d love to have you, but let’s be realistic: you don’t have much chance at getting a job in this field. If you want to come aboard for love of the subject, we’d love to educate you. But it would be irresponsible to let you have any illusions about what the future holds.”