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I Have a Ph.D. and I am on Welfare

Financial Wellness Socioeconomic and Class Issues in Higher Education
August 29, 2017 Irene Sanchez

I thought the real challenge would be finishing the Ph.D. as a single mother who overcome so many obstacles to be where I was walking across a stage with my son in my arms to have a doctoral hood placed over my head was one of my proudest moments. I thought I had overcome the most difficult challenges, but I was wrong.

I had began my higher education as a community college student ill-prepared for college coursework, along with supporting myself and working multiple jobs, I was placed on academic probation and dismissal my first year. In other words, I was kicked out of community college. I returned a year later and later transferred to UC Santa Cruz where I finished my Bachelors. I then moved to Seattle to pursue my graduate degrees at the University of Washington. Almost as soon as I could after defending my dissertation, I made the decision to return to my hometown with no stable housing to return to and about a week before was given the option of housesitting for a family friend.

Months after returning to CA, I found myself in the local social services office having to explain myself to a caseworker about how I had applied for over 100 jobs and I kept turning up short. It was hard in this situations not to blame myself even though I know I did all I could do. I recently went on job interviews where I was asked why I had worked inconsistently and I wish I could’ve told them exactly why, how after I had my son all I could find was adjunct teaching jobs which are low paying, temporary positions that are becoming the norm at many educational institutions, but I didn’t tell them that. As a woman in academia you never talk about your family especially not in an interview. I opted for the more “appropriate” response of it was never my intention to and I told them if they would look closer they can see most of those jobs are adjunct positions that are usually always temporary positions. I also couldn’t tell them that because my last job didn’t work out, I found myself again in 2017 on public assistance and how much I really needed this job I was interviewing for.

In this most recent situation, my first caseworker at the welfare office was confused, she called me on the phone one day to ask about why in a supplemental document she had requested I had referred to myself as a “Dr. Sanchez” and asked if I was a doctor why wasn’t I practicing. I explained I wasn’t that kind of doctor, nor did I pretend to be, I had a Ph.D. She didn’t understand. I then tried to explain that there are a lot of Ph.D.’s who teach and many are in similar situations because they work as adjuncts and she then asked if I was teaching. I responded that if was that if I was teaching why would I be coming to the office for help. She then requested I write a letter to her supervisor explaining why I was a “Doctor” before they would approve anything. I completed the request immediately as troubling as the situation felt because I needed help. I found it ironic that the same week this event happened, I read an article in the LA Times that Los Angeles County wanted to increase the numbers of those signing up for food stamps and why it isn’t easy. I agree. It isn’t easy.

I was recently assigned a new caseworker for welfare to work also known as GAIN, which I had never participated in before and he commented how I was the first person with a Ph.D. he had seen in that office. I asked him about his caseload and he said each of us has about 140 people. He’s now working with me to develop a plan to find work and satisfy program requirements so I can find work recognizing that most of what their offices offer is geared to people without degrees or those on the path to an Associates of Bachelors degree. Many of the people who are in GAIN are also on a pathway to find a job and there are stringent requirements to meet. If a person fails to meet them, they are counseled and can be removed from the program. Some of the requirements include going to their job center to log in hours (20 per week) to look for a job, working a job that is very minimally paid from opportunities the GAIN office has (these wages are not typically enough to get off welfare) and there is an internship option where a person volunteers 20 hours per week in a field related to a three-hour career assessment they must take first before being approved for the internship/volunteer opportunity.

While I may be off of assistance as soon as I find a job, I must complete the program requirements in order to stay in good standing because if I end up working as an adjunct instructor, I may still be on some type of assistance. To stay in good standing I must do the unpaid internship that relates to the work I want to do which was the best option my case worker and I decided on. I’ve been applying for jobs and am constantly submitting for adjunct ones. I know if I don’t get more than three classes this fall though, I will likely still be on welfare. According to a report by UC Berkley’s labor center, 25% of part time college instructors are on some type of public assistance.

I knew post Ph.D. life wouldn’t be easy, but I didn’t expect it to be filled with endless amount of paperwork and waiting rooms at different social service offices explaining my situation multiple times. Another challenge for me is the support of mentors from graduate school not realizing how important their support is post-graduate. While I may be struggling, I am also aware that this is not an issue that I face alone, as I sit in numerous waiting rooms it is easy to see it is a larger structural and societal issue, one in a country that still does not guarantee maternity leave to mothers, one that does not have universal healthcare, and one where countless hardworking people everyday turn to public assistance to meet basic needs and it isn’t for failure of “individual effort” or desire, it is a failure of jobs not paying living wages and if anything needs to change, that is what needs to. Instead, the poor are criminalized, when the only thing criminal is when people go hungry, homeless, and without access to healthcare and resources that we all need to live with dignity and respect.

Irene Sanchez is a Xicana, mama, educator and writer based out of Southern California. She began her higher education journey at a community college, which served as inspiration and motivation for completing a Ph.D. in education (www.irenesanchezphd.com). This essay was originally published on her blog, www.XicanaPhD.com.