A collective narrative of trying to make it on $17,000 a year: bargaining testimony from a UCSC student-worker
This is not an exhaustive list, but it’s exhausting.
My name is Erin Ellison, and I’m an academic worker. I’ve been an educator for many years now. I grew up in a working class neighborhood, where I didn’t know many people who went to college. I thought college would be a way out of a precarious life. This was back in the 1990s. I graduated, and went back to working as a server and a bartender, and then I got a job in youth development programming. I continued doing youth empowerment work, educating, and doing research as I went on to get a master’s degree. After many years in the youth empowerment field, I came to UCSC to deepen my commitment and skills in research and teaching.
As academic workers, we teach 20 hours a week, and then we do research for at least 20 to 40 hours a week, in service to the community and the university. We are paid for our teaching work, but the research we do, creating knowledge, is unpaid. We make $17,000 a year. I’m going to say that again. I do this with my students, I say ‘I’m going to say this again, write it down. We make only $17,000 a year.’ We make only $17,000 a year in a town where almost that entire paycheck goes to rent. So today I’m going to talk about how academic workers try to get by on $17,000 a year. These are not just my stories. These are the stories of many. I elicited responses from other graduate student workers, and received this litany of creative, difficult and sometimes illegal ways that we struggle to live; a collective narrative of trying to make it in Santa Cruz on $17,000 a year.
One of the ways that academic workers make it on $17,00 a year is by going into debt – massive and crippling debt. Taking on tons of education debt, until it runs out. This is a tactic I am intimately familiar with. I have taken out education loans, and now I have reached my lifetime limit. Academic workers also get by using multiple credit cards,payday loans, borrowing money from parents (if their parents are in a position to do this), taking out more debt than they’ll ever be able to pay back, going into debt just to handle unplanned or added expenses like car repairs or a new pair of eyeglasses. Taking out summer loans just to go to that required conference. One academic worker wrote: “I used my four credit cards in such a way that I would max one out and then transfer it to another one with a low interest rate offer. I also used the cards to pay utility bills. Eventually, though, the balance transfer offers stopped coming, and just about the time I graduated, I reached the point where all four credit cards are maxed out, leaving me with about $40,000 of credit card debt.”
Stealing is another way that student workers attempt to make ends meet: stealing from supermarkets, Whole Foods, clothing stores, stealing meals from college dining halls.
Service work is another way that we try to live on $17,000. Many of us are taking on second and third jobs. This year, when I reached my limit for financial aid, and I knew my first paycheck wouldn’t arrive until November, I realized I had to take on another job, on top of teaching and doing research. I took a job bartending, and I’m doing that 20 to 30 hours a week right now. Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with being a bartender. My mother is still doing it at 66 years of age. I think though, when it comes to being able to deliver quality education, that it’s not so good for my students that their teacher is spending that much time in a bar. Other jobs that academic workers are taking: being a taxi driver, working at a winery, working at a farm in exchange for food, waitressing/waiting tables, tutoring (private or through UCSC), hosting an illegal café in my home, babysitting, dog-walking, house-cleaning, doing piecemeal sewing outsourced to me through a tailor, working at the local sex toy store, and being a resident assistant to other grads in graduate housing.
We also make ends meet by slinging our research and analytical skills: including statistical consulting, administrative work for friends/family in the real estate business, selling editing skills, copy editing website translations.
This one is probably one of the longer lists. I call it being outrageously thrifty, to the point of risking one’s health and ability to keep up in school:
Academic workers use food stamps, get food by visiting the food bank on campus, couponing, eating food out of the garbage, eating food from restaurant trash dumpsters, walking around town picking fruit in order to have something to eat, going through recycling trash bins to gather recyclable items to exchange for money. Buying only used books, buying no books at all—-only pirated PDFs, buying no books at all—-only using library books. Sharing a costco membership with many others, buying in bulk, eating only ramen and burritos daily. One academic worker wrote: “I’ve literally gone hungry.”
Some academic workers participate in the illegal drug economy to help pay the bills: selling a vast array of drugs, growing marijuana, trimming marijuana,selling pot cookies.
Having a partner also is a way that some academic workers are able to make it, relying on a partner to help pay the bills and rent.
Family wealth, although rare, is another. An unlikely and sad story, one academic worker wrote:“In my final year of grad school, I inherited money after two grandparents passed away, which allowed me to get by on my stipend alone” which facilitated completion within normative time.
Many workers talked about selling books, and other items that have sentimental value, in order to make ends meet: selling things one would have rather have kept, selling family jewelry, selling furniture, flea market sales, selling precious books and other family heirlooms.
Academic workers are also risking life and limb: by foregoing health-related procedures that were highly recommended by a doctor, like getting growths removed, dental work, eye-glass prescriptions. The copay and additional fees were just too far beyond budget. One worker states: “I have a health condition and I cannot afford the copays on my TA stipend.”
Additional work at the university is another tactic to make ends meet. This is often precarious work, and subject to departmental approval to work more than the TAship. One student is the intern for the division’s grant analyst. Another writes about readerships: “I’ve taken on a readership in addition to my ta-ships a couple times. The readerships on top of ta-ing are probably the most draining in this context.” Another academic worker writes: “I kept score of basketball games. Unfortunately, that was also for the university. First they tried to give my job to undergrads, then they stopped paying me altogether. Kinda like being a TA.”
Substandard and illegal housing is especially important to living here in Santa Cruz: Being creative, that is, illegal, with living situations to save money, such as living in a walk-in pantry, garage, campus office, or lab. Sleeping in an office for months or quarters at a time for lack of housing, working a job as a live-in caregiver for folks with disabilities, which provides income and rent, but is a lot of work, renting out my room on airbnb and sleeping on the couch in order to pay rent.Recently, a colleague of mine told me that we don’t even make enough to qualify for low-income housing! You heard that right… we don’t make enough to qualify for low-income housing in Santa Cruz. Go figure. One academic worker talks about their experience: “I lived with up to five undergrads -in partially illegal housing- as well as several other situations that have required my regularly using earplugs to study/write. Earplugs are also often necessary where I live now. And I know illegal housing setups and sketch landlords have been important to my and many other grads’ ability to survive here.”
That is not an exhaustive list, but it’s exhausting. I’m exhausted from working a second job just so I can have a job here at UCSC. It’s hard to be a teacher, do my research, and work behind the bar up to 30 hours a week. As you’ve seen, my story is not uncommon. For these reasons, I’m going to push the UAW bargaining team, and our membership, to take this all the way. I’m willing to take it all the way in order to make sure academic workers can live where we work. I have to leave now. I have to go teach. Thank you.