Lady Business: You want food stamps to go with that advanced degree?

growth in welfare recipients chart--details below in post


Pursuing a life of the mind is expensive. The recent hubbub over the cost of student loans proves that at all levels, from undergraduate to graduate school, the investment pays off…unless it doesn’t. Essentially, a Ph.D. is worth an estimated $17,000 a year, but for a number of reasons, there are huge swaths of people who are increasingly not seeing the benefit of the six- or seven-year degree.

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently published this piece about an increasing number of Ph.D.s who are relying on federal aid and food stamps. While the story does point out that people who don’t go to college at all are more likely to end up being food stamp recipients, it highlights college faculty as 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.

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.

So, I thought the point of making the investment to get more education was to not rely on government assistance. I want to be careful about my tone, since I was a welfare recipient as a child. I don’t think we should stigmatize men or women who need assistance, but this is a frightening precedent for institutions to set for women and families. Any institutional structure that does not pay its employees enough to care for themselves or for their families is a structure that needs to change. If you are educating future leaders of America, you should not be bagging groceries right next to them. 

I thought food stamps were dependent on government poverty guidelines, but it actually seems easier than that to qualify as long as you don’t own anything. I was under the mistaken impression that pursuing a tenured position at a college by earning a Ph.D. would enable me to avoid the awful Black Welfare Queen stereotype for the rest of my life, but apparently that’s not the case.

As writer Stacia L. Brown points out, this is a problem not just for tenure track professors, but also for adjuncts, since those of us who have worked on low-wage contracts for a few months at a time now comprise 70 percent of U.S. college faculty. What makes this even more annoying is that women who are in the ranks of academia are the majority in areas that aren’t well-paying anyway: Chris Blattman, a professor of political science and economics at Yale University, took a look at the percentages of women in all fields last year. The top five areas where more than 60 percent of Ph.Ds were awarded to women were Psychology, English Literature, Anthropology, Linguistics, and Sociology.

Here’s Christina Hoff Sommers with more of a breakdown:

Women now earn 57 percent of bachelors degrees and 59 percent of masters degrees. According to the Survey of Earned Doctorates, 2006 was the fifth year in a row in which the majority of research Ph.D.’s awarded to U.S. citizens went to women. Women earn more Ph.D.’s than men in the humanities, social sciences, education, and life sciences. Women now serve as presidents of Harvard, MIT, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, and other leading research universities. But elsewhere, the figures are different. Women comprise just 19 percent of tenure-track professors in math, 11 percent in physics, 10 percent in computer science, and 10 percent in electrical engineering.

And the pipeline does not promise statistical parity any time soon: women are now earning 24 percent of the Ph.D.’s in the physical sciences—way up from the 4 percent of the 1960s, but still far behind the rate they are winning doctorates in other fields. “The change is glacial,” says Debra Rolison, a physical chemist at the Naval Research Laboratory.

Over at Feministing, Jos breaks down more horrific statistics in a post called “Women need a Ph.D to earn as much as men with a BA.” Say word: “Women earn less at all degree levels, even when they work as much as men. On average, women who work full-time, full-year earn 25 percent less than men, even at similar education levels.”

Ironically, I’m considering getting a doctorate degree. So I’m definitely interested in whether or not it’s the best economic route to take. The evidence doesn’t really stack up. Women in academia that I’ve talked to have complained that the academic world and womanhood can sometimes be incompatible (which, apparently, is also true in life). These findings take things to a whole new level, though.

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Joshunda Sanders is the author of I Can Write the World, How Racism and Sexism Killed Traditional Media: Why the Future of Journalism Depends on Women and People of Color, and The Beautiful Darkness: A Handbook for Orphans. She lives in the Bronx, New York, and sometimes tweets @JoshundaSanders.

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16 Comments Have Been Posted


Definitely troublesome. And ironic, since I start grad school in economics in the fall....

Though, to be completely fair, I don't think anyone who successfully pursues a PhD is doing it for the money (not entirely, anyway). To spend that much time and effort on something, you have to love it. A lot.

Definitely Worrisome

I agree about the motivation for getting higher degree. My entrance into graduate school was definitely prodded by the lack of Bachelor of Science jobs, but the main driving factor for me to go back to school was to become a better scientist. In life sciences, most jobs, that aren't route technician jobs, require some form of higher degree. Additionally, many of the skills necessary to be a scientist are gained by conducting research as a graduate student.

Nonetheless, it is still troubling to think that after all the sacrifice, it might not be recognized by other people.

Money as a Motivator

<p>Miss Tiggy: I'm agree...I'm not motivated to become a PhD because of money, but I definitely keep hearing that women with PhDs make more money in the long run. I guess I just wonder how long the long run has to be and if there are a number of years after you get the degree where you may have to take low-paying work and supplement your income.

Seems like a big caveat.</p>

While I'm not going to become

While I'm not going to become a professor or probably even an adjunct, I did just finish my MA in history. When I finished by BS, all the jobs I was looking at required a masters, so I went and got that. Now I still can't find a job because they're either not there or require so much more experience than I have or is really even plausible for what they want to pay. I have six months to find a job before I have to start repaying my loans and my husband is already having to pay back his and they're more than he makes in a month! I'm planning on applying for a bridge card because, now that I'm not in school, since I don't have a job I qualify. This was not what I went to school for, and my husband either. We'd like a family but don't want to do that until we can afford it. And when will that be? It's so frustrating and appalling.

Student loans


It is frustrating. There are some ways to help a little bit on the student loan front, though. Your husband, for instance, could apply for a reduction of his student loans based on how much he makes. I just did that, and it may mean that I'll be paying back the loan for a little longer, but it's definitely made the loans easier to manage. Not that I'm a financial advisor or anything...but just wanted to throw that out there.</p>

I could be one of those with

I could be one of those with a professional degree who is also on food stamps, and my fiance could be among the Master's holders on food stamps - the only reason we're not currently is that our respective parents are still helping us pay the bills (a huge privilege in and of itself).

Ironically, I got a J.D. from one of the nation's top-ten law schools in the first place because I was told it was a much safer economic bet than pursuing my actual love, which is literature. We weren't told we were graduating into a field in which there were 100 graduates for every one open position.

At this point, I really don't see what I have to lose by getting that Ph.D. I've always wanted. If I practice law for the rest of my life, I'll die regretting what I didn't try to do - and even adjunct work doesn't pay less than my current position.

No Regrets


Yes. I totally agree with you that the idea that I might regret not pursuing a Ph.D. weighs more heavily on my mind than not pursuing it. I wish that I had the privilege of having someone to help with the financial ramifications of that. But perhaps that will just make me more of a hustler/job wrangler in the interim.

Don't go to grad school in the humanities

Those of us in the humanities are having the biggest problems because there are WAY TOO MANY of us. I'm one of those ABD humanities people who was on a form of public assistance at one point (my son was on Medicaid for about the first 6 months of his life). One of the issues with the Chronicle article is that it doesn't explore the root of the problem: too many graduate programs turning out more MAs and PhDs than are needed. If there weren't so many of us scrabbling for any kind of work in our fields, they wouldn't be able to pay us less than minimum wage to teach at the college level. Yeah, tenure's going the way of the dodo, but even yearly contracts have more security and usually pay better.

My husband and I are both in

My husband and I are both in the humanities. I could not agree with you more. I know so many people in my program that were just there because they felt they should or felt pressured from their parents. There was no reason for them to be there. I'm not anti-higher education at all, but not everyone needs to go to college or get an advanced degree. It's just been so drilled into us that that's what we're "supposed to do" and it's just not beneficial.

in defense of the humanities

Anyone who expects to quickly find financial security with a degree in the humanities is misled. However, I don't regret my graduate degree in History. I don't believe that science or business is more relevant or that people in these fields should be paid more or are more accomplished. I may only dream of actually working in my field (I have left academia to be better able to support myself), but I believe in the skills I learned, and I believe in using these skills in activism/public engagement to promote a more critical view of history, memory, and current events.

Industry is the key

I'm a woman with a Ph.D. and I'm doing ok -- the difference is that I'm an engineer. In fields like this, industry is the "relief valve" that absorbs the excess PhDs that don't get academic jobs. If a field doesn't have a relief valve like this, wages are wildly depressed.

But why do women disproportionately get PhDs in fields without strong industries to support them? Why do graduate schools continue to churn out more PhDs in those fields than the market can support? Why is it that women in adequately-employed fields like mine still face a wage gap?

I learned today that 50% of recent college grads (bachelors) are unemployed. Could there have been a higher education bubble? Something is broken in this system.

Relief Valves

Yeah, it doesn't seem like there are a lot of industries/professions that are conducive to women's fields or degree choices unless they are earning advanced degrees in science, engineering, computer science or medicine -- all areas where they are underrepresented. I think this may also have something to do with women's low tolerance for risk. I won't generalize -- I am among one of the risk-takers I know and love -- but there's a formula in my head: societal messages + conditioning that "you're not good at math or science" = friendlier but less lucrative humanities career path.

I also come from a family that has a disproportionate number of black engineers in it. But I never considered that path. Not until we started having this conversation.

Job Market.

Whit out perfect information there are always imbalances in the labor market for any field, they usually return to balance after the information starts to come out. The thing with the academic labor market is that it is highly interfered with by the government, resulting in a less flexible wages and unrealistic expectations of the job market. Expected salaries for subjects with little to no practical application outside of academia are fixed at the same rate than fields with higher demand.

Education and money

Universities are for lifestyles and shaping of personality. There is no promise of making money unless you practice medicine where you have to do all sorts of grotty things to sick bodies, or practice pharmacy where you spend days counting pills, or you do law where you deal with moody judges, less than social clients and so on. If you want to make money and practice all the conversational, drinking lifestyle things you learnt at university or college then click on
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