Wealth and Poverty in a University Town

The cashier told the woman in front of me that she couldn't buy the sack of potatoes. WIC, the government food program for mothers and children, would not pay for starches, and so the potatoes she had chosen -- "mistaking" them for a vegetable -- had to go back to the supermarket's shelves. This was the third or fourth time she had sent her teenage son and daughter to make a switch: the cashier could not find that brand of juice on the approved list; the white bread had to be replaced with whole wheat -- but no, not that brand of whole wheat. The family struggled to remain calm, hiding their loss of dignity under a frustrated exchange with the cashier about the unreasonable nature of the government rules.

Before the situation at hand became clear to me, I had been standing behind them on line, silently complaining that the imported Castelveltrano olives I had chosen did not look quite as meaty as the ones I'd recently eaten in Italy.

It was 9:00 p.m. on December 31, a few hours till the New Years ball would drop. My husband and I had gone to the supermarket for a few things, which -- as we later found out -- had turned into a $120 worth. Late at night, the store only had one aisle open, and so there we stood, waiting behind our unfortunate fellow shoppers for the cashier to assess each of their carefully chosen items for its WIC appropriateness.

Growing up in sheltered, suburban New Jersey, poverty was an unknown quantity, except for the homeless people we quickly passed by on trips into New York City. My parents gave charity, to be sure, but those people were faceless and far away. We were not wealthy people -- I certainly wore hand-me-downs from my older sisters, and my mother cut coupons religiously. I remember one time in the late '90s I bought a pair of $50 jeans, and my parents insisted I return them because we couldn't afford it; we were a $20 jeans family. But there was never a fear of hunger or homelessness. My schooling was excellent, and my family support constant. Today, struggling to find my own footing in my chosen career, academia, I find myself worrying often about prospects. I fret over money, decide not to buy yet another pair of winter boots, fear the upcoming job market. Our concerns are real: we downsized to an apartment from a house, we have school debt to pay off. The future and its financial stability are unclear.

But I can still buy the Castelveltrano olives.

Standing behind this family paying with their WIC debit card left me paralyzed. My husband, a generous man from a more austere economic background than I, wanted to offer to pay for their "extras" -- as if potatoes and juice could be extras. I was more concerned for their dignity. I was petrified to shame them, since (it seemed to me) their honor was the only thing they had left. He managed to find a quiet way to ask one of the family members if he could help. She said no. I felt torn; it was New Year's Eve, after all. Should we have helped them with the bill, despite our own need to be frugal (more theoretical than realized, I quickly discovered)? Was it better to pretend nothing was happening, and keep chatting away? I still feel unsure, ambivalent about the right tack.

Now that we live in the Midwest, in a small university town surrounded by rural enclaves, poverty -- real and pressing poverty -- sticks its face in yours and will not let you ignore it. If you leave the town limits in any direction, you find yourself driving by trailer parks, cash advance stores, and Dollar General. Inhabitants from the surrounding towns come to shop at our large supermarket, which has WIC signs on approved food displays -- alongside a Mediterranean bar and an organic foods section. Here is a meeting point for rich and poor, an old university town where wealthy administrators and cafeteria cooks living at the poverty-line share sidewalks and supermarket aisles.

The irony of the poverty I see in this particular municipality is not lost on me. This college town houses a center of publically funded learning, a state university, where education is supposed to help you pull yourself up by your bootstraps. But the divide is not simply between town and gown. I find it even within the college itself. The wealthier students, whose parents pay tuition and involve themselves in their children's decision making, have nothing (save frats and friends) to distract them from their classes, plus the time and cash to participate in the extra-curriculars and networking activities which will put them on-track for top jobs after graduation. The poor students, accruing debt to get through school, spend tens of hours a week working minimum wage jobs, and often -- as a recent article by Jason DeParle in The New York Times emphasized -- do not have the familial support which offers wealthier students an essential morale boost as they navigate the inevitable challenges of college.

A few days earlier during winter break, as my husband and I ate omelets at the local diner, our waiter -- a student at the university -- told us that he works two restaurant jobs to pay for his degree in criminology. We asked him what he would do once the new semester started. His response: "I just won't sleep much." That does not sound like a recipe for academic success. But what is he to do? Take out more loans, and hope he'll be able to pay it all off before he turns 65?

Thousands of American college students were brought up believing that if they could just work hard enough, gut it out long enough, take out enough loans and work enough hours in a side job, they could live upwardly mobile lives, competing with those born into money. In the current socio-economic reality, however, poorer students like our waiter are more likely to have attended lower quality grade schools than their more affluent peers, and the former often enter college without the learned analytical abilities of the latter -- not to mention their assertive confidence and networking skills. As these poorer students enter public university systems, they have less time to absorb what they had not previously been taught, but which their professors will undoubtedly still expect from them. Instead, they will focus on making nine bucks an hour to pay for their ever-rising tuition and expensive campus housing, and remain behind now. Meanwhile their burgeoning student loan debt will guarantee that they will remain behind tomorrow.

And those like our waiter are the lucky ones in this town, the ones attached to the great mother -- the well-regarded public university.

We have been taught that the American wealth gap could be narrowed by the power of education, a middle-class ideal realized by many in former days. It was the great equalizer, like the army but without the PTSD. But the emotional whiplash felt by today's "matriculating poor" (for how else should we refer to this growing class of young Americans?) -- squeaking by with a mediocre GPA under the duress of a full work-week, a full class-load, and thousands of dollars of student loan debt -- is not equal to the growing pains of their wealthier peers, nor are these poorer students left untraumatized.

In those last hours of 2012, as I stood behind the family paying for their groceries with their WIC allowance, I found myself wondering how different these people's lives would have been had they been privy to good education, as I had been. Thinking about it now, though, I doubt that our current model of higher education can solve these problems. I fear for the matriculating poor who, against all odds, still manage to attend college right now. The good education for which they have mortgaged their futures may not be enough. I just pray that in the next generation, we will not see those same students with a bachelor's degree in one hand, paying with a WIC card in the other.