Monday, February 10, 2014

The Working Poor Aren’t Who You Think They Are


Take a few minutes right now and ask yourself one simple question: Who are the working poor in the United States? Okay, so who do you think they are? Are they the single mothers, the unemployed over 50 or 60, persons in ethnic minority groups, or those who work in fast food restaurants?

Obviously, some of these people certainly are in that category we call "the working poor" even though they may be ready, willing and able to work but they either cannot find work, don't have the skills for the jobs, don't have the ability to move to where the jobs are or they are discriminated against. Take your pick, the working poor have a lot of things working against them.

Do you have kids who are attending college right now or are you going to school yourself? Okay, who are the people who are teaching your little Einsteins their math, science or whatever? You probably either heard of them because your child has mentioned them to you and, when you have, you are undoubtedly impressed by their being called "Prof. Whatever," or "Dr. So and So.” Yes, they surely do have impressive academic credentials and they spent many long hours in libraries and laboratories earning those degrees and now they probably have quite a bundle in the way of student loans to pay off. By the way, they can't get out of those student loans even if they file for bankruptcy because student loans aren't eligible to be in a bankruptcy filing.

But let's get back to that person who stands in front of the classroom in that college (and I don't care if it is an Ivy league school or not) and consider a few things about them. How many jobs do you suppose they hold at any one time? You are probably thinking that that impressive job at the college or university pays them handsomely and they while away their hours after class in a beautifully appointed personal study in their lovely little Tudor home. If that's what you think, you couldn't be more wrong.

Colleges and universities long ago, probably even before the advent of Burger King, Wal-Mart and McDonald's, discovered that there was an abundance of cheap labor available to them in the form of graduate students. True, professors were hired and provided with very nice accommodations, pension plans and a limited teaching load (oh, and let's not forget those great sabbaticals) and they had a pretty cushy life because they were guaranteed, by tenure, a lifetime job. While tenure is fast eroding and disappearing from academia, those hard-working graduate students are still there in droves and they pick up all the slack. Not only do they teach many of the courses, but they also run the labs and mark all of the test papers, essays, etc. Yes, they are a wonderful and poorly paid group.

But the graduate students aren't the only ones who are poorly paid because that person standing in front of that classroom or in that lecture hall may well also be one of the working poor. Although they may have a doctorate in their discipline and they may have years of experience and, in fact, be extremely competent in their craft, their lot is a sad one. First of all, they may be considered part-time employees who only get a contract for the term. Then, in addition to that insecurity, they work for low pay, no health insurance, no sick days, no vacations, no benefits of any kind, no tenure and they are called "adjunct professors" and probably work at more than one college or university. It's not unusual for one of these adjuncts to be teaching at three colleges in order to make ends meet.

How much will they be paid? The average per course is somewhere around $2000 to maybe $3000 percourse a term and that's before taxes.  One professor was teaching six courses a term and making $24,000 a year. Many of them are expected to have office hours and yet they are not provided with an office but, perhaps, a desk somewhere. They are usually given the least favored courses, meeting at the worst possible times (usually at night and ending around 10 PM) and they can be fired at will.

One article I saw in one of the academic publications indicated that at a major community college with 2,000 faculty members about three-quarters of them were taught by adjuncts. Another article that I saw indicated that somewhere between 60 to 70% of all classes in colleges and universities are taught by adjuncts. They are, in fact, the working poor but they are also the “hidden working poor” because most people would find that too shocking to even consider.

Next time you see that expression "the working poor," give a thought to the “hidden working poor” in all of those colleges and universities and their plight. Teaching on the college or graduate school level is surely no cushy job. Oh, BTW, if you’re an adjunct and you’d like to keep up on what’s being done for adjuncts, here’s a link for you: http://adjunct.chronicle.com. Check it out.