On Quinoa, Food Stamps, and "Those People" (Who Teach Your Kids) #CEW2013

This is a post that I've been trying not to write since I started this blog, because everyone hates sob stories and I'd rather use this forum to talk about issues than my own experience unless they're directly related to education.  But there's something very pointed in the timing, as I find myself sniffling over "Those People" - a really wonderful, eye-opening piece by Jennifer Ball at scarymommy.com about the unfortunate assumptions some people make about other people, and how quickly and easily lines are drawn between "us" and "them" when it comes to having, and having not - at the start of Campus Equity Week, which runs from Oct. 28-Nov. 2, 2013.  Campus Equity Week is about drawing attention to fact that all over America, the majority of college classes are being taught by adjuncts, part-time instructors who get paid very little to do very much of the work. This system dis-serves all faculty, and all students, and has created a climate of job insecurity so severe that many adjuncts find themselves relying on public assistance to make ends meet. 

I found myself crying when I read "Those People".  It's a real tear-jerker, in which a woman callously dismisses the quinoa in a food-collection bin for a "Scare Hunger" drive, remarking that "those people" won't know what to do with it.  Implying that "those people" don't deserve something so "fancy."   

And I found myself thinking:  I'm totally one of "those people."  I know exactly what it's like to think of a hearty, healthy, trendy food like quinoa as an extravagance. I know exactly what it's like to squirm through the humiliation of paying with food stamps, and want to scream "You don't know anything about me!  I am a dedicated, hardworking person!  I've never not had a job! I have an advanced degree! I teach at two colleges!" And I figured it was time to write this post.

Because I have been on the receiving end of this contempt.  For me, it was when I was using my FoodShare card to purchase my groceries, mainly fruits and veggies and other staple items for our family - whole grain bread and flour, wheat germ, flax seed, natural peanut butter, eggs, milk, cheese, beans...stuff anyone gets, right?  Stuff that makes your kids full, and healthy. Ingredients.  I'm a mindful shopper, and a really cheap one, who rarely buys anything that's not on sale or something I have a good coupon for - with or without my FoodShare card.

Anyway, on this particular day a few years ago it was the beginning of the month, so I had more groceries than usual but I still didn't have a ton of money on the card.  We received about $150 for a month for our family of four  (I know, I know, you're all thinking "where's the caviar?") - but it was pretty much our whole grocery budget for the month and I needed the basics.  If you like math, that comes out to about $1.34 per person per day.  So I don't think I was really in a "go nuts" situation here.  A lady behind me in the check-out line was eying my cart the whole time, like some ladies behind you do.  Which is annoying even when you're paying in gold bars, I would imagine.  But when she saw me pull out my tell-tale green EBT card, she muttered to her mopey husband: "Food stamps. Did you see that? Flax seed?!"  Never mind my wad of coupons. Never mind that my two young kids were standing right there, listening.  Never mind that at the time I had three academic jobs and had been paying into the system that was helping me through these hard times for the past 20+ years.  Flax seed was a luxury item to this woman, and one that should never pass through the undeserving lips of the three people standing before her.
Are you one of them?

People in this situation know exactly what I'm talking about. It doesn't matter if, like us, you don't buy a lot of junk food or unhealthy stuff.  There's always someone spying into your cart, spying into your wallet, spying into your life to find reasons to believe you don't deserve a "handout."  Looking into your cart for anything that might fall outside of the mental checklist people seem to have of what foods people using FoodShare "deserve."  Looking at your clothes to measure up if you're really poor enough by their standards.  Often it's the clerk ringing you up, or the person doing the bagging.  Or the other customers.  I find myself trying to scope out the "nice" clerks in the checkout lines.  I find myself trying to sneak into lanes so I can be the last person before someone goes on break, so no one will be in line behind me. I find myself compelled to start this paragraph with a justification of my eating habits, and to assure you that I clip coupons.

I'm a full-time graduate student and a college English teacher. A coupon-clipping, FoodShare-receiving college English teacher. At one point several years ago, when my husband was looking for work, and we were on both FoodShare and BadgerCare, I was working three respectable, professional, and relatively-prestigious academic state jobs.  Teaching African literature, as an adjunct lecturer, at UW-Madison; and teaching intro English classes part-time at Madison College (MATC), the local community/tech college.  And doing odd hourly work on campus to make whatever extra money I could.  My real full-time job is supposed to be writing my dissertation, but in the semesters when my appointments don't cover my expenses, I found myself mainly working largely on jobs I love that pay little, require much, and hopefully will one day lead to job security and one full-time teaching position.  Like many adjunct and grad students, I found myself in a situation where I was trying to cobble together a living wage out of multiple part-time appointments, and not even coming close, even after my workload went well over 60 hours a week.

While adjuncts now teach 76% of all college classes, adjunct life doesn't pay. Adjuncts are required to have the exact same credentials as any other college teacher, but they make a fraction of what full-time instructors make for teaching the exact same classes - without benefits, job security, or in some cases even office space.  When you factor in prep time, grading time, student conferences, communications, etc, the $2000-$4000 most adjuncts get paid per class often calculates to a lower-than-minumum-wage rate of hourly pay, especially for grading-intensive courses which require lengthy comments on student work.  Sarah Kendzior best sums up this scenario by calling it like it is: adjuncts are "academia's indentured servants" - a "dispensable" labor force that is nonetheless totally indispensable to the university or college.  Many academic professionals with advanced degrees and grad students are in this boat, working multiple jobs - none of which offer affordable benefits or pay a living wage, and more and more routinely depending on additional assistance to make ends meet. We continue to take these jobs for various reasons, but mainly because we're working on degrees and they offer flexibility while we're still full-time students, or because they give us the teaching experience we need to stay connected to academic communities as we apply for highly competitive full-time positions wherever they're available.  When you're a teacher, you teach.  That's what we're qualified to do; that's what we want to do.  I just always thought it would pay more than a job at McDonald's.

Meanwhile, in Wisconsin (and everywhere), the one protection we have in the fight for job security - our unions - are continually threatened, even as the social safety nets like FoodShare and BadgerCare are being further limited and defunded.  Still reeling from heartless and unnecessary cuts to BadgerCare and SeniorCare in his first biennial budget, Gov. Scott Walker's refusal of federal healthcare funds means Wisconsin taxpayers will pick up an even bigger tab, while even more people are kicked out of the program.  One Wisconsin legislator, Senator Glenn Grothman (R-West Bend), best known for his legendary misogyny, has led the charge to both restrict eligibility and limit the foods one can purchase with FoodShare funds, constantly appealing to his belief that people on food stamps eat "more generously" than others (carts full of "brand name" foods and steaks and lobsters is his favorite anecdotal example).  In one of his "Family Reports," he lamented that "we cannot continue to let the single mother buy food that the married clerk at the food store cannot afford."  Yeah. He's that kind of guy.  He blames single moms for pretty much everything - including child abuse.  Never mind that she probably works at the food store, too, and there's a good chance that both of them receive food assistance.  Anyway, he summed up the opinion he shares with Scott Walker about anyone receiving government assistance of any kind very succinctly in a recent press release:
The real damage is to the moral fiber of the nation.  As people choose to live off the government, they waste their lives.  Perhaps they do drugs or commit crimes.  They certainly are a bad role model for any children they know. 
Yes, he said that.  In his own press release.  Go back.  Read it again.  Think of me this time, the college teacher with two little kids at the grocery store, using her FoodShare card.  Think of how I'm "wasting my life" trying to get a PhD and how I'm "certainly a bad role model" for my kids.  Ask yourself: "Does she also do drugs or commit crimes?" Think of the other people you see using food stamps at the store.  Think of how little you know about their lives, their stories, their skills, their jobs, their situations.  Think about what assumptions you have about the poor and what they deserve.

Both Grothman and Walker are well aware that the vast majority of recipients of state and federal assistance are adults working jobs that don't pay a living wage, children, the elderly, and people who cannot work because they are disabled.  Their willful distortion of  "those people" as those who are "choosing" government dependency over "true independence" (as Walker likes to call it) helps legitimize hateful attitudes toward the (working) poor, pretentious scoffing at the grocery store, and worse. It's an increasingly losing battle, but adjuncts and others invested in organizing to protect their profession and prospects are not giving up the fight.

So this "Those People" piece really hit home for me and compelled me to share this in the hopes that maybe we can finally start demystifying who "those people" are and start talking about solutions to our real problems instead of trying to make it even more difficult for the working poor to move forward.  Maybe one day we call all sit down together over a big plate of government-cheese-quinoa casserole and do something to change this broken, broken system and our own broken assumptions about who deserves what, and why.

I'm happy to say that I wrote long enough to turn my tears into righteous indignation and restore my will to get back to work and keep fighting the system that makes this exploitation of labor possible.

I'm one of "those people."  And I hope to see you in my classroom someday.  Until then, please do me a favor during Campus Equity Week and keep my story - and Jennifer's - in mind.  Maybe it'll make a difference.


Want to learn more about the plight of adjuncts and the academic underclass?  Check out the work being done by groups like these:
  • Campus Equity Week. October 28-Nov. 2, 2013.  Follow the action on twitter at #CEW2013. "Campus Equity Week was started by the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor, a grassroots coalition of activists in North America working for contingent faculty: adjunct, part-time, non-tenured, and graduate teaching faculty. We seek to bring greater awareness to the precarious situation for contingent faculty in higher education, organize for action, and build solidarity among our colleagues."
  • The New Faculty Majority offers a wealth of information and action opportunities for adjuncts and those who care about labor equity in higher education.  Join.  Follow.  This group is the group to watch. 
  • The Adjunct Project Tracks wages and working conditions of adjuncts around the country.  
  • Con Job: Stories of Adjunct Labor.  A new documentary produced and directed by Megan Fulwiler and Jennifer Marlow.  Great interview here. Watch more on vimeo: Con Job: Stories of Adjunct and Contingent Labor from Con Job on Vimeo.
  • MLA Subconference on the "Vulnerable Times" of precarious adjunct and grad student labor, student debt & academic/intellectual autonomy and action. Jan. 8-9, 2014, Chicago.
And since I'm an English teacher at heart and by trade, I'll leave you with some literary moralizing from George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion and my favorite musical, My Fair Lady.  Adjuncts united, with Alfred P. Doolittle, joining the ranks of "the undeserving poor" but stuck, terribly, at the very same time, in the clutches of "middle class morality."  "That's the tragedy of it, Eliza. ...We're all intimidated.  Bought up."


  1. An excellent post; I was directed here from a link on the New Faculty Majority blog. I found your story about how you avoid lines at the grocery store in order to escape the scrutiny of people judging your purchases particularly poignant. It's interesting how some people (such as Glenn Rothman) are so quick to harass and judge every aspect of the lives of those on government assistance, but are silent when it comes to the rich beneficiaries of much larger, implicit government programs - do we see anyone asking if recipients of the astronomically low capital gains tax should be purchasing quinoa, for example?

    Also, I am curious about what you or your colleagues might be doing at UW to improve the situation of adjuncts - are you organizing? Is the union there helpful at all (or at least as helpful as it can be under Gov. Walker) ?

    1. TAA (http://taa-madison.org/) supports grad students at UW-Madison and advocates for all precarious labor at the UW but adjuncts are largely in the lurch - which is why I found myself in the desperate situation above after my grad student "protections" ran out after several semesters of lecturing and I found myself, without warning, suddenly ineligible for benefits. It's ironically more lucrative for me to be a project assistant than to teach a large course that requires supervision of multiple TAs.

      The Part-Time Teachers' Union Local 6100 (http://ptunion.wi.aft.org/) at MATC advocates tirelessly and is actively involved in legal action, but victories are few and resistance is much. Funding is also an issue for both now that dues are not mandatory for state workers, one of the consequences of Walker's attempts to cripple public employee unions with 2011 Act 10.

    2. Graduate student lecturers, as well as RAs, were historically (unfortunately) left out of the TAA's bargaining unit. Within the past couple years, though, grad lecturers *should* have been reclassified to receive all the same benefits that TAs and PAs do. If you're *not* receiving those benefits as a grad lecturer, let the TAA and we'll get Contract Enforcement on the case!