Confessions of a Poverty-Class Academic in Training - I

Grace Cale reflects on her experiences.

November 1, 2015

When I set out to write this essay, I had little concrete idea of what I sought to achieve. I knew that there was something unique about becoming an academic from a situation of clear poverty, and that I needed to make a case for this experience as existing along a real line of marginalization. Or at least call for recognition of the unique difficulties with which poverty-class academics struggle. While we certainly exist as a group, poverty-class academics seem curiously quiet about our origins, compared to academics of color and the LGBT academics, who fought (and still fight) long and hard for their visibility. The question I am left with is, what can we do to better advocate for similar recognition, and why is this important?

There is certainly a need for communal resource-sharing. It seems likely that we are all haunted by the threat of “Ph.D Poverty”, or the possibility of becoming bright, well-trained victims of the adjunctification crisis. And many of us know that we can look forward to heavy bills to pay from ballooning student debt, whether or not we are able to get a job matching our qualifications in an increasingly break-neck, competitive market. I hope that by coming clean about a history some of us actively hide, others might do so as well, and we might share our experiences and expertise regarding how to live in this academic environment which for so long had been quite happy to retain its white-middle-class, homogeneity.

Having frequently struggled with gaps in social, cultural, or human capital, and in struggling to access vital resources, I came to desperately seek social class-based advice for making it through graduate school. Given the few working-class folk in my own department, and knowing my poverty-born friends in other departments were having the same struggles, I called upon the surely endless fount of Internet wisdom available. Spoiler alert: the pickings were scarce. How could this be? Surely there are others besides me and a few peers who wrestle with class-based marginalization in academe. Surely there are others who have felt keenly a lack of resources and solidarity. Yet, despite a few out-of-date websites that attempted to address this gap, there was nothing with the scale, specificity, and upkeep as with those for communal resources aligned to other social equity movements (race, gender, sexuality, etc.).

Growing Up In Poverty

To clarify, let me return to the personal context: growing up, my family of four had an annual income between $8,000 and $12,000. We lived in a rural county in Appalachia, in which, as of the 2010 US Census, there was a 25% poverty rate. Without even needing to ask, all students in all levels of district schools were enrolled for the income-based program for government-subsidized breakfasts and lunches. It was common for our high school classes to have more students than textbooks. Very few of my classmates attended or graduated from college. As a child and teenager, I struggled to understand why every minute expenditure, even for our $1 lunch meat or an occasional $1.25 soda was such a difficult, stress-fraught decision. It was difficult to deal with seldom being able to visit friends from school or try high school sports, not because of time commitments, but because we couldn’t afford to use that much gas for the car. A computer left on overnight was a grave offense in our household, as there was legitimate doubt we could pay for the extra electricity.

Multiple studies support the claim that experiences of childhood poverty follow us well into adulthood, yielding not only socially observable effects, but even effects upon our physiology and genetics.1 In keeping with the findings of other researchers, I have certainly felt that as a young adult, such moments had deeply affected my development as an adult. My sister and I still battle powerful guilt for any purchase that is not materially necessary for our survival or basic health – even when we have had the disposable income. The process of paying bills, a generally unpleasant task for any person, is a viscerally fearful task which each month leaves me trembling and taking deep breaths to force a return to calm – even when I can cover each cost. There is always a nagging fear that no matter how careful and organized I’ve been, a bill has been forgotten, or an overdraft has occurred. We avoid most routine medical care, and only seek medical attention when our bodies cannot function, because we are so used to not being able to afford office visits or medication. Experience tells us that it is nearly impossible to get an invoice for medical services in advance of receiving care; it is usually easier to go without and hope for the best. I had my first-ever eye exam at 23 years old, upon discovering my graduate health insurance covered one annual exam. Turns out I need glasses. Might even get them someday.

Class-Based Struggles In Academia

I do not recite this tale to earn pity-points; despite these issues, I actually had a very happy childhood. But as my sister and I entered adulthood, and as I entered graduate school, these uncertainties and anxieties took on new, more powerful forms. Little differences began to creep into my graduate experience in small, subtly alienating ways, and I suspect that many of these examples will be familiar to readers. Some of these are issues that are generally just a nuisance for many academics, but could be damaging to the career prospects of someone with no savings account or trust fund, no credit, or no experience in which questions to ask their mentors.

I learned that people have different definitions of being “broke.” For some, it means “not much spending money”; for me, it meant the money does not exist. I literally have no money. Bank balance: $3. No cash. No credit. I no longer use the term in conversation; it has become too frustrating to continue doing so.
Some might have the feeling that other students somehow knew something that they didn’t. We have no summer funding in our program, but somehow I felt like the only one in a genuine panic about how to pay my rent for three months, let alone conduct the expected research and study. The possibility of having to beg to stay with my sister in her one-bedroom apartment was a dangerously imminent reality after one summer job, without notice, put all employees on two-plus-week leave due to lack of work to give us. This, after the hard realization that this job did not offer the full-time hours I was promised in the first place. How do so many other students appear to flawlessly “make it work” for these months?
Some may struggle to articulate why many departments’ reimbursement-style travel funding would not allow them to attend conferences for the so-vital-to-success networking experiences. In my case, it was because I did not have any money or credit with which to pay up-front. It wasn’t that it was committed elsewhere – it did not exist. To lay down over $500 worth of registration fees, airfare, and hostel reservations after struggling to buy food, with a possibly six-month wait for reimbursement was tragically laughable. Unfortunately, this funding style is not at all unique to our fairly average university; I see stories of such funding style splattered across various websites, blogs, and forums created as common spaces for academics.
It is also difficult to explain to others in a meaningful way why I did not simply take out loans to bolster my available funds. For people from backgrounds of poverty, debt is a tricky beast. Some have embraced it all too easily, only to suffer afterwards, and others struggle to get access to even small loans. My family lives with a vague, ever-present fear of debt – a fear I inherited as a child. To us, debt is something that can ruin lives. Whether these views are technically correct, they constitute an aspect of socialization with which poverty-class academics must struggle every time we see a need we have which cannot be fulfilled on our stipends or summer jobs. The decision to use credit is seldom a light one.

A Call For Community Among Poverty-Class Academics

These are just a handful of the starker experiences one may struggle with, and yet other subtle day-to-day moments may also reinforce socialized and lifestyle differences. The interesting thing about these experiences and the insidiousness of class-based gaps in cultural, social, and human capital is that I believed these struggles were due solely to my own shortcomings and lack of sufficient efforts and dedication. I felt underserving of the right to complain, feeling that, endlessly, I could have exerted more effort in depriving myself of small joys in order to save money. Really, nobody needs to visit a café. Ever.

It wasn’t until recently that I realized many of these issues were not unique or limited to personal shortcomings. There are many of us, quietly working our way through the graduate socialization process, atomizing ourselves in an attempt to narrow the capital gap; we believe these to be private missions. We have all labored to produce our own solutions, possibly failing to realize that we can benefit from finding each other and pooling our resources and experiences, with the hope that we and others can avoid having to learn every lesson the hard way. In some ways, it makes the most sense for us to band together and take advantage of the resources that we can offer ourselves; our more equipped peers certainly are.

That, I suppose, is my call, and the purpose of this piece. I find it rather surprising that a group of people as resourceful as we are have failed to truly gather those resources. I think we need to better advocate for ourselves. We need to be unafraid to admit our own existence, come out of the poverty “closet,” and share our stories. What lessons did we learn the hard way? What recommendations would we make to new graduate students and new faculty from the same backgrounds, to help lift each other up? Which tips and tricks have we developed to get through our theses, dissertations, and grant deadlines; tips that don’t assume we have the money to attend a retreat, get noise-canceling headphones, or even barricade ourselves in a café? I know that together, we are a veritable fount of knowledge. As researchers, teachers, and scholars more generally, we’ve dedicated ourselves to sharing it with the world. How about we share some of it with each other, too?



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