Monthly Archive: May 2015

What A Real Anti-Poverty Movement Looks Like

May 31, 2015, 1 Comment, Written by , Posted in Uncategorized

There’s no point beating around this bush. An anti-poverty movement led by the middle and upper classes is doomed to failure. Equally, a partisan movement will never manage to get much done. That said, it’s never a bad thing when people discuss these things – there are 45 million people living in poverty in America, after all. Poverty looks like everything.

Occupy Wall Street was a great moment in the progressive movement. It did a lot to change the national discussion about poverty and inequality. But to people like me – from a small town in rural Utah – it looked like a bunch of confused, disaffected youth. Progressives understand their own language, why you might lead a group of thousands by consensus. I saw a woman who had named herself Ketchup waving jazz hands on national TV and realized that this movement wasn’t for me or my people.

I watched the Tea Party form – a populist movement as far as most of its participants understood it. My family members are Tea Partiers, waving guns and flags and talking about federal overreach. But to people like me – a center-left libertarian sort – it looked like a bunch of angry Baby Boomers trying to regain their glory days and demanding that those of us in the younger generations continue to pick up the tab for their lifelong profligacy. Keep your government hands off my Medicaid, indeed. That movement wasn’t for me either.

A movement that works has to be apartisan. It has to be pragmatic. It has to avoid divisive social issues – there are plenty of programs we can agree on, plenty of problems we can point out. It doesn’t matter whether a McDonald’s worker agrees with abortion or not, they still deserve a higher wage.

America’s working classes are pragmatic people. It’s the only way to survive. When a cook loans a cashier ten bucks until payday, nobody’s vetting each other for their ideological purity on drones or gay marriage. It’s just workers helping each other out, because one thing you learn in the service industry is that you’re all in it together.

That’s the ethos that will create a real anti-poverty movement. That’s the coalition that can win.

We need a robust debate in America on social issues. But we do ourselves no favors by essentially splitting our potential support in half before we even get started. Two-thirds of Americans live paycheck to paycheck – what if we got them all asking about counterproductive welfare regulations, talking about how ridiculous it is to worry about the spending habits of the lower classes when there simply aren’t enough jobs to go around?

What would happen if two-thirds of America decided that partisanship isn’t working out so well in Washington and started demanding better?

We, all of us who spend our lives worrying about making rent and buying our kids new crayons when the old ones have been crushed into wax dust, need better representation. We need officials to worry about what happens when they ignore us as surely as they worry about their donors.

The truth is, there isn’t a millionaire in the world who could craft a coherent welfare policy. Programs that require you to quit your job to attend job training courses to get benefits, because nobody remembered to write in an exception, or misunderstandings about the differences in generational vs. situational poverty – those exist because the wealthy tried to imagine what poverty must be like. And they guessed wrong.

A strong anti-poverty movement will be led by the people who understand what poverty really is, why it happens, how we could create workable solutions. A strong movement will be made up of the people who are poverty experts because they havelived in poverty.  There is no one leader in this movement; there can’t be. It has to be a broad coalition of strange bedfellows, because there are 45 million people living in poverty in America. That many people can’t look like any one thing.

Political leaders also need to remember that flyover country is the vast majority. Plenty of people live in coastal megacities. But less than 40% of Americans live in a coastal county. That’s a lot of inlanders that are only courted during political campaign season. If we want to build a movement that will last, we need to accept that we’re going to have to talk to people like me – people who are disaffected by what works in cosmopolitan cities, people who are actively repelled by those tactics.

We will win when finding solutions to poverty becomes more important to us than any other issue, when we stop condescending to people who hold different beliefs and values and start recognizing that just like a restaurant crew, we’re all in this together.

I think most people will understand that people have firm opinions on things. But strategically speaking, I think it’s a good thing if you can say, for example, that people on either side of a fight as divisive as reproductive healthcare access can agree on raising wages. For now, I want to be able to demand fair treatment at work, where my political and social values are largely irrelevant. I want proper safety equipment. I want to be able to file workers’ comp without fear of retaliation. I want paid sick leave and maternity leave and a schedule that I can count on two weeks in advance. I want a wage that reflects the work I put in.

Those things, you can build a coalition around. And when we put the workers in charge of their own destinies, we’ll find that we can win.

This post, written by Linda Tirado, originally appeared at Talk Poverty.

Why Do Poor People Quit Their Jobs? Politics, Poverty, and Dignity

May 26, 2015, No Comments, Written by , Posted in Uncategorized

By Amie Miller


Recently, I lost a friend in one of my work places, out of nowhere, and it made me really sad. I’ve worked

some pretty crappy jobs, and I still do, but those friendships are why I come back to grin and bear it;

workplace friends are sometimes the whole reason you get excited to go to work. This particular friend

is a lot like me: we are both broke, young, educated, and poor. I am too scared to quit, but there is

always that daydream of just quitting and not looking back. My friend has way more courage than I do.

But her quitting got me thinking: why do poor people quit their job that they really need?


I think there is a part of societal thinking in the past ten years that says, “Any job is a good job.” I call

bullshit. I am no stranger to unions — my dad has been working in unions for most of my life. The

benefits have been awesome for my family because, yep, health insurance! I work for a union now and I

am glad I do, because I was in a position where having a second job was going to get me fired. I did

nothing wrong and had the paperwork and literature to prove it. The union backed me up as well as my

coworkers who also had second jobs; if one of us were to go down, we had a team. I can’t imagine

where I would be without the union. Union jobs are good jobs which is why I have a big problem with

the money rigging of politics. I sure as hell don’t support any Koch, I mean politician, who wants to

squash something like bargaining rights. I don’t like this job; in fact, I hate it most days. There is always

that daydream, but for now, it is keeping me alive.


So why do poor people leave their jobs? Well, there is always pursuit of the better pay. Ten extra cents

an hour may not mean much to others, but let’s just say you work an eight hour day and pay 23% in

taxes after on your paycheck. For me, that is enough to buy lunch. I like being able to afford food, don’t



What about those who take lower paying jobs? Ah, well here is where it gets complicated. It is about the

environment. Maybe you have a really crappy manager. You might have such a crappy schedule that it

makes it hard on your family and/or your own health. Kudos to those who work nights! A lesser-paying

job isn’t ideal, but I am sure it beats having a micromanager on your ass while you stock cans. Cleaning

for some can be cathartic and, trust me, there is job security is custodial.


What about those who quit and don’t have a job (or even look)? Here is where it’s more complicated to

explain. In rare instances, it is better to stay unemployed than to be employed. For those of you not in

the know, Republicans really don’t like any form of public assistance. If you watch Fox News at all, you

have probably seen at least one piece about how poor people are lazy, uneducated, and make bad

decisions. This is coming from nice looking white people in a studio.


Poor people are smart as hell. Formal education after high school is optional, but practical knowledge is

not. We know where to find things and services in the little known places that surprise me every day.

We are creators and innovators. These are the people who showed me that white vinegar is the best

cleaning solution out there. These are the people with an intricate community system of our own

services. Poverty is an it-takes-a-village mentality that binds communities. After all, it’s easier to get

through the tough times when you have a community of solidarity. We know that if we don’t stick

together, we will fall.


We are also smart enough to know where most of our tax dollars go. Even with those really crappy jobs,

taxes come out of our paychecks. We pay into the same system the rest of the 99% does. Sadly, after

taxes, there isn’t much of a paycheck left. Take an instance where a person is working full-time at

$8.35/hour in the state of Ohio where paychecks are taxed close to 30%. After taxes, you’re left with

close to $233. Do the math with your average living expenses in the state of Ohio: you’re still in the red

no matter how careful you plan your spending, let alone any strange emergencies like your car breaking

down. With the little money you make, you are still taxed enough to put money into public assistance



Sometimes you wonder though, at the end of your payday, if it was really worth it. I mentioned before

in my previous article about college and the poverty trolls and how I failed to qualify for public

assistance to help me make through a difficult summer. Here is what I learned about Public Assistance: it


works. Of course you will hear about the guy who buys lobster with his food stamps, but trust me, those

people are rare. The people on food stamps make every penny work for them to help them stay

sustained until the first of the next month. Reckless spending of precious tax dollars doesn’t exist for us,

but it does in the hands of our politicians. Who are we to blame, exactly?

Anyway, poor people think like others. We quit jobs for the same reasons. I just quit one of my jobs

because it wasn’t paying me enough to justify staying there. I had a terrible boss. I just wasn’t happy. I

needed a change of scenery. I wanted something better for myself. See, rich people? We are pretty

much the same.


The way the system is set up and the current economy, being on assistance and looking for new work

can be mutually exclusive. To qualify for assistance, you have to be in a certain income bracket, and also

have to have dependents (it is incredibly hard to qualify as a single person). I know a lot of people in the

system. Shit happens. A lot of them got out. What happens to the people who can’t? I know those

people, too. It isn’t a case-by-case situation. If you make just one measly dollar over the tax bracket, you

lose that assistance. You lose that hundred or more dollars to buy groceries. You lose that public

housing. You are back to where you started. These are the people who are trapped. I feel horrible for

those people, but worse for their kids, because they’re the ones who really lose. At this point, it is better

to quit your job.

Trapped in the Kafka-esque Revolving Door of the NYC Shelter System

May 21, 2015, No Comments, Written by , Posted in Uncategorized

This essay was originally posted on Hopes and Fears. It has been re-printed with permission.

By Scott A. Hutchins

I’m 39 years old, and I entered the Bellevue intake shelter in New York City on May 25, 2012, seven years after earning my master’s degree in cinema and media studies from the College of Staten Island. Hundreds of job applications had only gotten me part-time tutoring work and unsuccessful stints in telemarketing that did not come close to paying the rent, even in the Bronx. Job hunting has been made harder by my worsening combination of scoliosis, herniated discs, sciatica, and plantar fasciitis. My father passed away in September 2007 and I received $37,000 in life insurance money. By 2011, this money was gone, my things were in storage, and I was inducted into the New York City shelter system. I’ve been in one shelter or another ever since.

I arrived at my current shelter in August 2014, and the stated nine-month stay means I can expect to leave by the end of this month. The room I stay in is dark and gloomy—the walls like lightened coffee, the floors like mud. At least, unlike any of my previous shelters, I have a private room. It’s about eight feet by ten, and I have a locker next to my bed. The inside of it is filled with apocalyptic rambling from a previous resident. I’ve seen mice climbing on top of my suitcase, which sits upright in the larger half of my locker when not in use. One of the counselors denied me a Christmas present, on the grounds that my room was too messy, just because my suitcase and the things I normally store on top of it were on the floor.

The heater in the room was blistering, even after keeping the window open all winter. Others’ rooms are barely heated at all. This is also the only shelter where I have stayed that does not force residents to leave in the morning (7-9 AM, depending on the shelter) and not return until 5pm. My previous shelter did not even allow residents to stay on weekends.

THERE ARE THREE BATHROOMS ON MY FLOOR, all with leaking walls that make water pouches of large sections of paint. There are also three shower rooms on my floor, all private with locks. Only the one nearest to my room is usable. The second shower can’t get above lukewarm; the third reeks of rotting fish and has a shower head that comes off easily.

Food poisoning is rampant in the shelter system; I seemed to get sick from every meal. My case manager called it a “weak stomach.” I developed gout and hypertension. Since most of the time it’s impractical to prepare food, and it cannot be stored in the rooms, I use my SNAP benefits on ready-to-eat things, which often means spending and eating too much. I would estimate the average cost of a meal at $7; that’s 27 1/2 meals per month. I usually have at least one shelter meal per day, usually including excessive red meat and salt (corned beef hash or sausage is common at breakfast; hot dogs, hamburgers, Chef Boyardee beef ravioli, and Jamaican beef patties common at lunch). Bag lunches are provided only for those who work, and it’s always bologna.

Trapped in the Kafka-esque revolving door of the NYC shelter system. Изображение №1.

I AM CLOSING IN ON 3,000 JOB APPLICATIONS IN THE 35 MONTHS THAT I HAVE BEEN HOMELESS. I’ve been told that the only way to get editorial work in my field is an unpaid internship, which is illegal if one isn’t a current college student. I have gone on 27 interviews since the month before I became homeless. None of my health conditions make me disabled by the standards of the Social Security Administration because my education and experience show that I can do a desk job. So, it turns out that all I did in running up $65,000 in student loan debt was make myself ineligible for disability benefits. My case manager, as per standard protocol, sent me to a psychiatrist once, hoping he could get me out of the shelter on a mental health disability, such as depression or a sleep disorder. All he found was “adjustment disorder,” which essentially means that I’m a normal person, the shelter system is a virus, and the disorder is a cold that will depart soon after I am no longer living in shelter.

My case manager’s office looks a lot like my room in terms of shape, size, and colors, only he is allowed to decorate it with memorabilia from various trips, a picture of himself with his wife, a diagram of his house upstate, religious iconography, and an award for being the Best-Dressed Employee. He grumbles that I have not been attending the mandatory “relapse prevention” meetings.* I respond that this is because I do not have a substance abuse problem and cannot legally be required to attend such meetings. At my request, he rifles through his file cabinet, struggling to find a copy of the form residency letter which he fills out by hand. This letter, combined with a monthly invoice for my $250 storage unit, is what HRA requires in order to pay for storage. The provide this service if your unit is in the tri-state area, you are on public assistance, and you live in a shelter.

Every night, we must sign a bed roster by 10 PM curfew, which was imposed by Police Commissioner William Bratton under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani as “quality of life laws” (which include penalizing people—often the homeless and people of color—for loitering and eating in public). Late passes are not allowed unless you’re working. When I was offered temporary legal proofreading work, I could not take it because most proofreading work is assigned day of and the shelter demands at least two days of employment be fixed, rather than “on call.” I previously lived in a shelter with heavy security and metal detectors that banned all electronic devices other than welfare phones. This ban included tablets, music players, and laptops. I was offered a used laptop by a friend, but because of the policy I couldn’t accept it.

Trapped in the Kafka-esque revolving door of the NYC shelter system. Изображение №2.

In order to stay in the shelter, I have to spend a significant amount of time moving money and paperwork from one government office or private contractor to another, which re-absorb most of my benefits. The Independent Living Plan (ILP) is a document that says that I agree to look for work, comply with the rules of the shelter, and the rules of the New York City Human Resources Administration (HRA), the welfare office. The job developer won’t let me use the computer lab to look for work because my aforementioned health problems make only a desk job tenable in my condition, and he says there aren’t any, and is not willing to let me “waste my time” in order to look. It’s become routine by now. I won’t qualify for unemployment benefits until I’ve worked on a W-2 job for six months straight; I receive $45 in public assistance, $194 in SNAP benefits and $30 per week for a Metrocard (though it’s only received when in Back to Work programs). The city receives much more to house me—some say the city pays out over $3,500 to the shelter system per month—three times as much as the one-bedroom apartment from which I was evicted.

After my unemployment ran out, I have been required to be on public assistance in order to stay in the shelter, which I’ve been required to exchange for unpaid labor in the Work Experience Program (WEP)—as though time off unemployment benefits (UIB) means that you have somehow lost your skills and experience. In the past, the program has placed me in jobs filing at a food bank and an activist bookstore, and as a computer room attendant at another shelter.

When I’m not in WEP, the rest of the week is spent from 9 to 5 in the Back to Work program, which mostly entails sitting in a holding room, doing nothing but waiting for the computer. You could get a pass to use the computer lab for 45 minutes at an appointed time, with an occasional lesson with an instructor, who might spend an hour discussing dress code, sexual harassment, interview tactics, networking, etc., but it wasn’t every day. I thought it was ironic that they would give us a lesson on networking and how much better it is than an internet job search, while making us spend six hours per day in a room full of unemployed people.

They also give you numerous aptitude and personality tests. I don’t understand the purpose of the latter. One test told me that my ideal job match was as a philologist, a specialist in historical and comparative linguistics. The only ones that really seem to matter are the ones that determine what sort of WEP assignment you should be in. I tested into “clerical,” which is as advanced as they get. Others include janitorial and retail/food service. I also remember taking a test that involved counting nuts of the hardware variety and one to see if you could assemble some sort of metal tool.

I am not currently in WEP or Back to Work programs as I write this because any time there is an administrative mistake, I get excused for several weeks while they try to straighten things out. This has occurred many, many times on in my case. In addition to having a supervisor misplacing my paperwork, and a failure to carry over my medical restrictions from one cycle to another, the most recent incident included the closing of FEGS, a not-for-profit employment placement organization which was shut down earlier this year pending an investigation into a $19.4 million loss.

HRA Commissioner Steven Banks announced on October 1st that the WEP would be phased out, but later he admitted to a delegation from Picture the Homeless (a by-homeless, for-homeless activist group of which I am a part) that this would take about two years. It’s business as usual until then.

Trapped in the Kafka-esque revolving door of the NYC shelter system. Изображение №13.

I ATTENDED MY FIRST HOUSING MEETING AT PICTURE THE HOMELESS on October 4, 2012. The organization lobbies at city and state levels against discriminatorybroken windows policing, and holds events like The Longest Night: a national memorial service for homeless people who’ve died in the past year. It honors this by opening Hart’s Island, the site of mass graves, to visitation.

I’d come to seek help with the common prohibition on charging mobile phones in shelters, but that soon seemed insignificant compared to what Picture the Homeless had discovered from a 2011 city-wide door-to-door survey: enough vacant property to house 199,982 people (about three times the current record high shelter population) in only 20 of New York’s 59 community boards. The survey reveals that the real estate industry is lying about a 2% vacancy rate in New York City to keep prices inflated; 10% of that real estate is city-owned. Luxury apartments lie fallow while the shelter population skyrockets.

One of Picture the Homeless’s most important goals is its affordable housing initiative. PTH is a co-organizing member of a coalition called the New York City Community Land Initiative (NYCCLI): a housing campaign with several ally groups and nonprofit housing developers which aims to move neglected low-income city owned buildings into a citywide community land trust. Under this model, a nonprofit organization acquires land, permanently removing it from the speculative market, and allowing residents to buy their own apartments as “shares” for as little as a few hundred dollars. It can can veto any developer who wants to put in something from which the residents in and around the community do not benefit.

Trapped in the Kafka-esque revolving door of the NYC shelter system. Изображение №14.

When Anthony Williams and Louis Haggins, Jr, founded PTH in 1999, many group members had the stereotypical problems of homelessness. More recently, there has been an influx of those who have worked all their lives who have suddenly been priced out, are unable to find employment, or dealing with foreclosures, either of their own property or that of their landlords. I am not the only one in the group with an advanced degree.

In the 1990s, I was a moderate conservative. I voted for Bob Dole in the first presidential election I was old enough to vote. I have since become a far left progressive, woken up to the damage that the capitalist system causes to such a large portion of the citizenry, as private corporations contract both the supplies of money and jobs. The Bowery Mission, a Manhattan-based Christian homeless shelter, has a newsletter called “Red Door”, which each month highlights a homeless person that they have saved from the throes of addiction to drugs or alcohol. Not afflicted with such a malady, I will never fit into their narrative of what a homeless person looks like, nor will I accept the narrative that I am responsible for my plight when the structural problems of the system are so readily apparent, a revolving door through which I never want to return.

The Poverty Pile Up

May 18, 2015, No Comments, Written by , Posted in Uncategorized

This essay was originally posted on Almost Interestingly Enough. It has been re-printed with permission.

By Pyno Mrah

My family lives paycheck to paycheck. Every week, by about Wednesday, we’re scrambling to make it through the last few days of the week. This happens even though both of us bring in paychecks. It happens even though we both have degrees and other certifications. It happens even though my husband makes “good” money by making about double minimum wage.

We are as frugal as we can possibly be. We’ve cut back on everything. We don’t buy paper towels because they are a frivolous purchase. We buy the best toilet paper for a septic system because we can’t buy more than one ply at a time anyway. I even wash my hair only once a week to save money on shampoo and conditioner. (Which has actually turned out not so bad for my hair) We spend next to nothing on food. Seriously, how many of you can feed a family of three on half a pound of bacon and five refrigerated biscuits? And we take care of our shit too; that way we don’t have to buy new shit. How many of you have flip-flops that are six years old?…that you have worn daily for those six years?

We go without. We go hungry. Our youngest has never been to a dentist and has only seen a doctor when she needed her vaccines…she’s 9. We have next to nothing to show for all of our efforts. The only thing we will pass down to our kids is a mountain of debt.

And, no matter what, we will NEVER come out of this.

Here’s an example of why:

Towards the end of February we got our tax return. It was significantly smaller than previous years. We used almost all of it to catch up on rent that we were behind, then breathed a sigh of relief that our rent was caught back up and we were finally going to able to nudge a little ahead again.

Two weeks later we get a visit from our landlord telling us he is evicting us. We have 30 days to move….but he still expects us to pay rent for those 30 days.

We don’t.

Instead, we use the next month’s pay, plus the little we had left over from our tax return, to move. We found a place for under $500 a month, and pay triple that to move in. Since the place is half the size of our old one, we also have to get a storage unit for all of our tools and books. We then have to spend another $200 for a month of extermination services before we can actually move in. The deposit to change the electricity to the new place is $455. Phone is $200.

During all of this, while we are waiting for the extermination to conclude, I get pulled over for my tag lights being out; then arrested for “resisting” during the stop. Any money we had left over from moving, plus a lot more, has to be used to get me out of jail and start paying off all of costs, fines, and fees that we keep getting hit with. Including a $50 charge for the public defender I am constitutionally guaranteed if I am too poor to afford an attorney.

While this is going on, we spent three weeks without a functioning septic system because our new landlords told us to fix the problem ourselves because they don’t fix basic clogs…we had only occupied the house for 8 days when everything clogged. We spent another $200 on a plumber who told us that our “just pumped” septic tank is now 75% full and that our clog was caused by the cast iron pipes…which will continue to clog no matter what we do because that’s what cast iron pipes do. We also had to spend a lot more money than we actually have because trying to live without running water for almost a month is super expensive.

Now, because of all of that, we are about to be evicted again since all of those costs piled up at once and we had to spend our rent and the money we were going to use for few other bills to fix these new problems.

Our electricity is going to be cut off because the cost of the deposit was more than three months of electrical use, and we didn’t make enough in time to recover that loss. My phone is going to be cut off because I had to use the phone money to get through those three weeks without water. My storage unit might be lost because I won’t be able to pay all of the late charges on it. Of course, I can always let my car be repo’ed to keep the tools and books that are in my storage unit. If we lose those tools we lose any chance of making extra money…but if we lose the car we lose any chance of making our current money.

Now let me go over some of the less visible consequences. Not having running water or electricity risks child protective services coming in and taking our daughter away from us. She already lost her spot on the school honor roll because we lost track of half of her school supplies during the move. Her grades are slipping fast because she is starting to reach that point most poor kids reach where school seems pointless in the face of what she’s been through over the past few months. If we don’t get our income stabilized she’s not going to make it through school and will probably have a record (or a kid) before she finishes high school…if she finishes high school.

And things are not going to get better for us; they will only get worse. No matter how hard we try to avoid it, this is all going to cost us even more money that we don’t have and put us even further behind. And what sucks the most of that all we need to get out of this and stop having costs pile up on us is comparatively little.

All it would take for me to avoid jail, us to avoid eviction, and being able to keep our kid, is the equivalent of a month’s pay. An extra month’s pay ($2,000) and we’d start breaking even again.

But what’s going to happen now is that, since we can’t manifest that money, we’re going to keep getting further and further behind; which is going to cost us more and more money. We’ve already sold everything we could con people in to buying so we have nothing left to sell. I’m even considering going back into webcam porn to try and make a few extra dollars…but I’d have to spend money to make myself presentable enough to make any money at it, so that’s out too. We, literally, have no options left.

And we’re not alone. This isn’t something that’s happening to just us. When I went to court, I watched people plead guilty to charges they should have fought (and could have won) because they couldn’t pay the $50 to get a public defender. People were copping to jail time because they couldn’t afford the “one will be appointed to you” attorney. I watched a kid with a first time shoplifting charge, for stealing an item worth $3, leave the courtroom with almost $500 in fees and fines. I was the only person to walk out of that courtroom with less than $300 in additional fines…and that was only because I asked for a public defender. How is this justice?

All of this is stupidly unnecessary. Hard working people are making so little that they can’t even make enough to be able to keep working. They are forced to cut corners until they end up in jail/court over bullshit like having an expired license. Then, we you can’t buy your way out of those unnecessary consequences, you’ll be hit with more and more until you end up as part of our overpopulated prison system. Of course, once that happens, you won’t be able to get a job because you’ll have a record.

And it all just keeps going.

It never stops.

It just keeps piling up.

76% of Americans now live paycheck to paycheck. More than half of us are one minor problem away from being homeless. 46% of Americans have less than $800 in savings. 22% of those have less than $100. 21% have $0. Leaving only 3% in the up to $800 in savings category.

How do you do what you are supposed to like this?

And how are we ok with this?

The Ageing Unfairness of the Cash Grant System

May 15, 2015, 1 Comment, Written by , Posted in Uncategorized

By Adrienne Parkes

I’m writing to talk about an issue that’s important to me. One of the women at Just Harvest, an organization that works to reduce poverty and increase access to healthy food for those in need in Pennsylvania’s Allegheny County, recently came to my school (CCAC) to talk to a group of women in a program where I do my work study. It’s called the KEYS program, and it helps women who are on public assistance get through their first year (ideally two years) of school. It provides things like access to childcare subsidies, help with transportation costs, and the cost of books. I started out as a client, and now I work there temporarily, though it may become permanent once I finish my degree.

At the recent public event I attended, someone from Just Harvest brought up the fact that the organization is fighting to get the cash grant for people who are on cash assistance increased. Out of ALL the things that would help me, this is a major one. I have been on CA for about two years, and as you might know, after a certain amount of time, the amount of hours you have to be working increases. They don’t give a damn if you’re a single parent or if you’re in school; you have to work 20 hours and that’s that (30 hours once your child turns 6). I am going to be starting at the University of Pittsburgh in the fall, and when that happens, I will lose my cash. I know that the cash grant hasn’t been increased since something ridiculous like 1990, so I fully support what they are trying to do. I’m not sure if the increase would mean I would continue to qualify, or that I would just get more as long as I meet the 20 hours, but either way it would be beneficial to so many people.

I use cash assistance for so many things, but for the most part it really helps me offset the fact that I receive no child support. I am lucky to have resources like WIC and food stamps, as well as CCIS, so that my food costs and child care costs are mostly covered. But when it comes to other things like car insurance/registration/repairs, utility bills, etc., that $198/month really helps. Anything additional would be a dream. So, I’m not sure if I’m too late and if you’ve already met with Congress, but in case you didn’t, this is what I would have liked you to address: increasing the cash grant to match the inflation rate for the last, what? 20 years? However long it has been, it’s long overdue.

I Will Not Be Lectured To. I’m Too Busy Teaching.

May 11, 2015, No Comments, Written by , Posted in Uncategorized

This essay was originally posted on The Tattooed Professor. It has been re-printed with permission.

By Kevin Gannon

I was having a really good day today; recovering from post-semester burnout, recharging the batteries–all in all, getting to my Happy Place. But then I read Mark Bauerlein’s Op-ed in today’s New York Times, and now I’m all irritated. “What’s the Point of a Professor?” Bauerlein asks; he then goes on to tell us, basically, “not much.” And who’s responsible for this lamentable state of affairs, you might wonder? Well–there’s students, for one. In today’s consumerist and career-over-true-education society, they just don’t engage with professors outside of the classroom transaction. “They have no urge to become disciples,” according to Bauerlein. Why don’t they want to become disciples? Well, colleagues, there’s where it becomes our fault, too:

Sadly, professors pressed for research time don’t want them, either. As a result, most undergraduates never know that stage of development when a learned mind enthralled them and they progressed toward a fuller identity through admiration of and struggle with a role model

Who even realizes they want to become an acolyte of a rock-star professor if they never get to the right “stage of development?” College seems to be reduced, in this view, to a several-year series of rote careerist transactions between infantilized students and disinterested professors. Gone are the halcyon days of yore when professors dispensed wisdom to adoring throngs of geek-groupies, never to return. O THE POOR CHILDREN.

Who wants to be my disciple?

Here’s the thing: I. Am. So. Done. with being lectured to by academics from elite institutions about how I–and many others in similar career arcs–am somehow failing students, the liberal arts, other faculty, civil society, western civilization, the Cleveland Indians, or any other institution that has fallen on hard times. And I’m really hacked off when that scolding comes from obliviously pretentious Older White Male Professors who come across less as committed to education and more like committed to telling the rest of us how we don’t do things nearly as well as they did In My Day. Hell, Bauerlein’s column has it all: the reminiscing about crowded hallways in the UCLA English Department as every student was lined up to learn at the knee of some senior don, the obligatory paean to faculty as moral authority, even a Todd Gitlin shout-out. Now, Bauerlein wants us to see him as understanding. I get it, he seems to say, students are more occupied and distracted than they were in previous years. (And more stupid, if you go by the glib assertion in his most well-known book’s title.) They need more guidance, to be steered toward the things they don’t know that they don’t know. Help them help themselves by being a beacon of the humanities. And that’s where the corporate university and its consumed-by-research faculty have failed them, he concludes:

You can’t become a moral authority if you rarely challenge students in class and engage them beyond it. If we professors do not do that, the course is not an induction of eager minds into an enlarging vision. It is a requirement to fulfill. Only our assistance with assignments matters. When it comes to students, we shall have only one authority: the grades we give. We become not a fearsome mind or a moral light, a role model or inspiration. We become accreditors.

It would be easy to characterize this as a grumpy old man’s lament, a “kids these days” monologue that we all have heard from the should-have-retired-six-years-ago colleague in the coffee room. I could just make a “get off my lawn” joke and be done with it. I could take his wish for 1960s-style profs to gather disciples and compare it to Donald Sutherland’s lecherous professor character in Animal House. It’s all low-hanging fruit.

But my problem with Bauerlein’s essay is deeper. His argument is based on shallow archetypes and anecdotal assumptions; it renders simplistic matters that are actually much more complex, and confuses correlation with causation. It is one of a larger genre of student- and faculty-shaming jeremiads that have emerged in recent months, written by established, tenured scholars at elite R-1 institutions (Emory,in Bauerlein’s case), affecting a faux-benevolent tone to chastise all of us for not “doing it right.”

It’s easy to tell your colleagues that they’re too engaged in research, and not enough with students, when you teach at an institution that has a 2-2 (maximum) class load and ample support for research. It’s easy for someone at Princeton to tell us we’re doing conferences wrong because they go to so many that all the annoying things that happen there run together after a while. Oh, they wail, if only our academia was like it Used To Be.

This is academic classism, pure and simple. In its shallow portrait of student attitudes and naive calls for professors to be moral authorities and fearsome minds, Bauerlein ignores what is happening outside the walls of his tiny elite cloister, perched amongst the ivy and resting comfortably on scads of tuition dollars and a jumbo-sized endowment. “What’s the point of a professor,” he asks? Let me tell you one answer.

In my Tiny Liberal Arts College With Professional Programs Too, a professor teaches four (sometimes more) classes a semester. These professors also advise anywhere from 10 to 40 students (unlike large, R1 institutions, we do not use professional or departmental advisors). They sponsor and advise student organizations. Our one-person Theatre Department runs four productions a year, our two-person Music Department sponsors a pep band and a choir that travels across the US and over to Europe, guided and mentored (and chaperoned, and checked into their hostels) by their professors. These professors will knock on a dorm room door if one of their students has missed several classes and is in jeopardy of being on academic probation (this may or may not have been someone who looked remarkably like me). These professors are on the hospital floor for 8-hour clinicals with a cohort of 19-year-old Nursing majors. They help find translators for a Bosnian student’s parents (who don’t speak English) to open up a bank account in town. They sit through interminable afternoon meetings and then teach a three-hour Social Work seminar two nights a week. These professors go to their student’s graduation parties, they get thank-you cards from grateful students (and relieved parents*), they go to former students’ weddings, they are invited to law school commencements for former advisees.They take students who don’t think they’ll ever understand Foucault or Hayden White and help them get admitted to a top graduate program a year later. They tell students who have been told they’re less-than all of their lives that they are capable, and that they can do this thing. And then many of those students go on to do that thing. And as Director of our Teaching Center, I can personally attest to the fact that they TEACH THE SHIT OUT OF THEIR FIELDS in the classroom. Oh, and we still write articles and books and speak at conferences.

We. Have. A. Point.

Moreover, our students know it.

Now, I’m not at Harvard (though I am at the Harvard of East Des Moines). But my experiences echo most of the faculty out there, many of whom are adjunct or non-tenure track. We teach heavy loads, are still expected to produce scholarly work, and often have even heavier service requirements given the type of institutions in which we labor. We are not just teachers, but mentors, advisors, life coaches, confidants, chaperones, and more to our students. This may not match the idealized picture of eager undergraduates waiting outside the Lit prof’s door, ready for a stimulating gab session on Modernism. But that vision’s a pipe dream for 98% of faculty and students on American college campuses, and I wonder if reminiscences of such idealized settings haven’t gotten more romanticized by those less pleased about today. Just because our mentorship, our “moral authority,”** and our inspiration don’t take place in a gothic building where even the ivy has ivy doesn’t mean they’re not happening. Ouracademia is one where both students and faculty are pulled in myriad directions by both personal and professional commitments. Remarkably, in spite of all that, professors in this academia matter urgently, deeply, and personally to a majority of our students in one way or another. For some, we are an intellectual inspiration. For others, we listen when others don’t, or affirm where others haven’t. For others, we open doors that they didn’t know existed. For professors to have this kind of “a point” in the environment in which we and our students find ourselves is testament to us and them. But it’s being ignored in much of the discourse surrounding higher education of late, because it isn’t happening where elite academics are looking. And that’s a damn shame.

So if you’re a Tenured Erudite Professor teaching a course per term at an elite school, and you’re of a mind to write a piece about how academia’s doing it wrong, let me give you some advice. There’s plenty wrong with higher ed, no one’s doubting that, but don’t miss the target. Don’t distract from the real work that needs to be done by pedantically lecturing at the people actually doing it. Don’t begin with an idealized example and then scorn any deviations from it. Life is messier outside the campus fence; teach the students you have instead of pining for the ones you want. Use your privileged position and voice for what we really need in order for professors to matter: condemn the adjunctification of higher education. Hell, treat your own adjunct faculty with fairness and dignity. (Do you know their names? Are you sure?) Help open the faculty ranks to those who may not have taken their Ph.D.s from an ivy–I promise, we can do cool things, too. Argue for a return of public and political respect for our colleges and universities, and the funding that goes with it. Advocate for the less-privileged; these 4-4 loads don’t leave much time for writing national op-eds. Lobby your administration to embrace financial empowerment programs for students. Be a part of building the spaces (literal and figurative) on your campus where students and faculty can be present with one another in a variety of ways (including, if necessary, online). Recognize that your perceptions may embed privileged assumptions that are alien to many current and potential students–and faculty! Help the rest of us do the work that is ours to do in today’s difficult climate.

Or, tell us to get off of your lawn. Whatevs.


*One time, an advisee’s mom made me an apple pie for helping her son get back on track for graduation. It was awesome.

**I would argue “empathetic legitimacy”gets at what we want much better than “moral authority,” which for me carries overtones of conformism and rigidity rather than modeling the truly oopen and capacious nature of the life of the mind.

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