Limits of Doctoral Education – Hunting for Public Aid

Erika G Abad, PhD, received her American Studies PhD at Washington State University in 2012. Since then, she has worked as a customer service associate, a scheduler, Caddy Head Counselor, Field Director for a policy education campaign, Farmers’ Market team member and oral historian–in that order–since completing her degree. She is currently a regular writer for Women in Higher Education and will be starting teaching full-time this fall. 

Writing this as a PhD is hilarious, in the midst of so many narratives regarding PhD poverty. Unlike those, however, I approach the conversation cognizant of my choice, my white collar poverty’s flexibility of time and of the systemic issues at play.

When applying for affordable care act (ACA) mandated insurance last April, a friend walked me through process, as he was employed by a grant specified to educate new participants. I picked my insurance, made the consistent monthly payments. From April 2015 to January 2016, income has changed, creating the possibility to qualify for public aid. This is the amusement of millennial scholars, and the heartbreak of parents and families who hoped a quality education would keep their progeny from the ‘shame,’ and stigma of relying on ‘government handouts.’

Chasing Eligibility

The millennial scholar amusement, that despite being a generation removed from limited education, two generations removed from the ability to read and write, those skills and assets do not secure a better income. And, the varied jobs I have had outside of (higher) education, reinforce the freedom to choose to live this way. It’s a commitment to the dream issue, which I have often questioned, much like I struggled with believing in the democratic necessity of a liberal arts education. The experience both with ACA and most recently, public aid eligibility paperwork, has brought that to light.

I begin writing this reflection in the midst of trying to assess where my paperwork is. It’s January, nearing the deadline, and the last thing I need is to be penalized for something that I can’t control and something that I did. In other words, I have submitted the paperwork, waiting for a response could cost me eligibility and any assistance, so I stop working to primarily address this issue. I stop working to call the series of north side offices where I would presume my file could be. During the first call, I connect with an immigrant woman who, assuming I work for the office, begins to explain her case. In the middle of her narrative, I say, “I don’t work for the office, it seems they connected us.”

“I must have pressed the wrong number,” she says. I smile to myself and say, “it may just be a glitch, try calling again.” Here, my educational-based privilege starts to sink in and I say, ‘shit,’ if they connected two clients together, what’s it like in the office?

That Friday’s phone call was preceded by conversations on Wednesday, and, on Thursdays, finally learning how to log on to get my pay stubs. Working class income, not wages, nor time limitations as a result of being a community-based researcher. The catch-22, the irony of PhD’s trying to find a way to stay relevant and competitive in an incredibly tight market. Changing is not that easy, by the way, because those other jobs where we could easily transfer our skill sets, see the PhD doesn’t have to stay. Cynical, yes, and a reminder education-based privilege has its limits.

So, that Friday, I am reviewing the list of numbers to call. The one on the mailer, the one I was told to call because that office did not, supposedly, have my paper work. So who else has my paper. The woman at the second office said she would call me back. I cannot get an operator on the third number I call. This is a major deadline day, so I try the office. The crowded waiting room confirms what I expect from a public service office at the last minute of paper work. Research grant funding works in funny ways, which means I cannot afford to wait. My collard shirt, unfaded jeans, and comfortable shoes remind me that my frustration will be temporary. Middle class privilege rings again and yet, my paycheck is the reason I still search for an answer.

Why do I choose to write about this? And, while I am writing, I’m scared about it. Scared about airing dirty laundry like most folks in this circuit are, because, what established PhD’s with full-time jobs, are thinking about the next generation scrambling to make ends meet, produce quality work and stay relevant enough to get a full-time job? For those that are, what can they do about it with strained free speech, confused and disgruntled students, and the working class, undocumented youth who deserve a chance to be more than underfunded educational institutions and the state say they can or could be.

So, I talk about it because my white-collar poverty and my intellectual training gives me the tools to complicate the difficulty. Because, as I am praying to be eligible for public aid to have more income at my disposal, to live more than from paycheck to paycheck, I am reminded of the threats to layoffs and the continued cutting of funds from public offices in my city/state. What else is a city with a debt like Chicago’s, what else can a state unwilling to tax specific populations like Illinois do? So, despite how frustrated I am by being connected to another client, not being able to find an operator to answer the phone and crowded waiting rooms, I know I am not the only one stressed. Each office which I have dealt with this week is struggling because none of their jobs are secure. Their stress, their inability to answer last minute questions coupled with my own stress clearly articulate both the need for Affordable Care Act but also the financial and institutional hoops created to assure the best access to health care possible.

The ‘limits’ of education-based privilege

Dividing my time between doing my job as a researcher and looking for long-term positions, explain why I didn’t immediately address the needed documentation to complete my application for public aid. In other words, because my PhD entitlement thought I did everything I needed to do but didn’t, I am working at the last minute to solve a problem I could have addressed had I paid more attention.

And yet, I still have time and flexibility to solve the problem. I did solve the problem and, what’s more, had the question answered by the first office—the one that said they didn’t have my paperwork. I knew to call them back because, when I finally reached the final office, they gave me all the information I needed to speak to the rep assigned my case. The organizational mess this was speaks volumes to the effects of cut funding, strained/stressed employees and the greater work ACA supporters need to do in order to make sure those in more dire positions than I get their needs met.

At this point, it is important to clearly define how, despite how little I knew about the system, my entitlement informed a lack of action, what are the forms of privilege I exercised that allowed me to solve my problem by the end of the business day.

  • rearrange my schedule at a day’s notice—a day off did not affect pay
  • call each office and speak to someone to whom I can readily explain what courses of actions I took and ask what else needs to be done.
  • Fax required information to multiple numbers
  • drive to offices when phone calls don’t address my questions
  • work, if needed—revise a paper, read a book, review ethnography notes— while I wait in line to address office needs (I didn’t have to but it was a plan B I had lined up)
  • be patient with the person on the other end because I was not losing a day of work
  • document all courses of action and speak with a discourse, dress in attire that may inform how others will take me more seriously
  • prepare to argue with the office because of the institutional limitations regarding meeting deadlines because of documented calls, detailed articulation of systemic issues in calling each office and awareness of the letter

The dance of affordability

The affordable care act is not yet affordable not only because of the hoops of today, but, more specifically, because state, city and federal offices in charge of making sure we are all insured vary in institutional and professional stability. Their instability parallels and conflicts with the uncertainty that those of us applying for public aid or any insurance may have. That’s a research question I hope someone is tackling in economics or political science, or even law.

I know this is just a hiccup along the way to a prolific career that can still promise white collar 9-5 middle class, insured stability. I know I have greater possibility to choose that anytime I want, comparable to others in the room and on the phone that Friday. Knowing that, however, does not change the weighted responsibility of the errors this system still needs to address. How does the education of life translate—and, right now, it’s all about talking about this question of access and productivity.

We all need to be healthy to effectively contribute to the market; we need access to health care stabilized and, in the midst of this, we need to work to make sure that happens. The ‘we’s’ here vary because of where the power lies, because of what choice, opportunity and support inform about that power. As a PhD with options and opportunities that have arisen since that January, praying for public aid, that’s what has me scratching my head. How do we work in specific career paths completely codependent on the government for its existence, completely codependent on society’s imposed value on our work?

Well, that’s the question, isn’t it?


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