September 29, 2017

US academics face poverty and homelessness

US academics face poverty and homelessness

Extensive funding cuts for public universities in the US has led to an increased number of part-time faculty staff, many of whom live in poor conditions with precarious financial situations.

Traditionally, part-time adjunct academics were professionals who worked or were retired from jobs outside of academia, and teaching was supplementary to their main source of income. Adjuncts made up 20% of all faculty staff in 1970, but more recently that number has soared to over 50%.

The motivations for using adjunct staff are clear for universities on increasingly tight budgets. As adjuncts are paid on a course by course basis, their salaries are lower than full-time staff and they often do not qualify for benefits and health insurance. However, despite their part-time status, many adjuncts now report working over 40 hours per week on an average salary of just $20,508, which is below the federal poverty threshold for a family of four. In comparison, full-time ranked faculty members earn an average salary of $80,095.

A 2015 survey revealed that 31% of part-time academics live near or below the poverty line, and a quarter are enrolled in public assistance programs such as Medicaid. Some adjuncts have also reported using food banks, living in tents or cars, and taking on second jobs to make ends meet. In one extreme example, an anonymous adjunct lecturer said she turned to sex work after facing eviction when her course load was cut.

In an article for IZA World of Labor, Andrea Garnero describes how “the combination of part-time, low pay, and temporary contracts, often in the context of ill-conceived tax and benefit systems, leads to (in-work) poverty and less desirable careers over time.” He suggests that “the interaction between part-time work and tax and benefit systems, both during working age and in retirement, has to be carefully considered in order to avoid poverty traps and help sustain incomes.”

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