In the winter of 2006, I was an adjunct English professor at a university in Fairbanks, Alaska with a baby due at the beginning of the spring semester. If I needed to take maternity leave, it would be unpaid. But the choice that I faced -- either care for my newborn or go broke -- was never really a choice. At 27, I was a college professor on food stamps.
In 2003, my husband Alex and I built our own house on land we'd bought for cheap. Three years later, the house was still unfinished but it was dry and warm, and we had nowhere else to live. Alex was working full-time as a craftsman and trying to finish the house. I was teaching classes and taking care of two kids under three.
Piles of drywall and lumber lined the walls next to the kids' toys. We used furniture to hide the exposed electrical wires. Sawdust was everywhere, even though I swept every day. With an infant and a toddler in the house, and buckets of nails and screws in the corners, I could never relax. Elliott might find the hammer. Adelaide liked to play with the construction staples.
Nestled in a corner near the front door is our only source of heat -- an energy-efficient wood stove. We burn trees that Alex cuts down and chops into logs that I make into piles. While the kids play outside, I carry logs up to the house. In the summer, I grow a vegetable garden as big as the house that keeps us in fresh food. We are not lazy.
But being an adjunct professor means that I'm only ever hired a few months at a time -- or the length of one college semester, and I'm paid $4,000 per course I teach. My potential for promotion is nonexistent. So are my benefits. I work days, nights, and weekends, and Alex and I trade off watching the kids. Some semesters, I grade more than 800 pages of my students' work.
After Adelaide was born and I couldn't work, we quickly ran out of cash for gas and groceries. Then came the credit cards, but that didn't last long either. When we finally decided to apply for food stamps, we could still see the yellow fiberglass insulation in our walls, visible through plastic sheeting. Alex screwed up his back and his knees carrying drywall into the house.
In July of 2006, I set up an interview with the food stamp office the same week that Adelaide learned the power of her voice. At six months old, she could hit octaves only the dogs could hear. However, she still couldn't feed herself, so I brought her with me to the food stamps office. My caseworker looked a lot like Ron Swanson from Parks and Recreation, and as he questioned me about our assets, Adelaide shrieked her head off.
I listed off the house, our tools, and our car, but the caseworker had other ideas. He wanted to know about our furniture. We had a thrift shop table and a futon with a bent frame, worn out cushion. Next, he asked about our '84 Volkswagen Golf, but we junked it, too many repairs. To my surprise, the one thing he didn't seem to care about was our student loan debt, or our credit card bills -- some at nearly 30 percent APR.
Next up, he needed to know if I had any skills. I told him about my Master's of Fine Arts in Writing and my teaching experience, but neither of these were on his list of job qualifications. He also needed to know about Alex, who at the time was managing a small jewelry studio. The job came with a big title and a lot of responsibility, but at $13 an hour, we were living on Wal-Mart wages.
My caseworker gathered up my paperwork, stood up, and said he'd be back. Adelaide and I sat there on a plastic chair, her still shrieking on my lap, while I wondered if I'd passed the test. Were we poor enough?
The question I most wanted to ask my caseworker was how two educated, hard working people ended up at his desk. What could I have done differently to avoid sitting here in this plastic chair telling a stranger that I needed money for food? Is it because Alex and I got married and had a family before we had careers or a nest egg? Are babies only for the well-off?
After 10 or 15 minutes, I was handed a glossy folder, and it felt like a victory. "We're really poor!" The folder contained an EBT debit card from Chase Bank, loaded with $240 a month.
That $240 was ours to spend on any food we wanted -- organic, non-organic -- even Papa Murphy's pizza. I tried to save it for emergencies, because there were always at least a few days each month when the refrigerator was empty before the paycheck came.
Even with the free food, we got behind for a while on the student loan payments we couldn't defer. We put the others into deferment, then income-based repayment with payments of zero dollars. We paid minimum balances on our credit cards, which we tried not to use and are still paying off. Alex's 13 dollar an hour wage, even with our public assistance, did not support my stay-at-home-ness in Alaska. We relied on food stamps for part of 2006, but as soon as I could, I went back to teaching night and weekend classes.
Growing up, I always thought teaching at a university was a "good" job, with security and respect. But in my experience, the bulk of adjunct professors are underpaid, receive no benefits, have no job security, and get very little respect. The majority of college classes nationwide are taught by adjuncts.
Today, I'm still an adjunct professor, but I don't feel as helpless as I did a few years ago. As for Alex, he received a grant from the Rasmuson Foundation for emerging artists, which enabled him to establish his own design studio, AlexMetalArts. In November, his work was included in an exhibition at a local gallery. For the moment, we can pay our bills. Maybe one day we'll even get to take a vacation.
Kate's story is part of a Huffington Post series profiling Americans who work hard and yet still struggle to make ends meet. Learn more about other individuals' experiences here.
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