Erasure of the poor student

The “Starving Student” is an extremely common cultural trope. Pretty much everyone who’s gone to college has stories about “slumming” it, and these stories are accepted as a matter of course; even Michele Obama and Ann Romney pulled out stories from their college years as experiences of “poverty” (using as examples of this experience a car with a rusted-through floor, and the inability to entertain guests, respectively).

The reason the trope is so widespread is that people who attended college really often perceive those years as the time they were poorest; generally, that’s because they have significantly reduced access to their parents’ assets, and have not yet been able to accumulate any themselves. This perception that being a student is a form of very temporary and relative poverty is in fact so widespread, it has managed to become the dominant narrative about students and poverty, eclipsing other possibilities; such as that sometimes it’s not that the students are poor, but that the poor are students.

What this means is that the trope that poverty is inherent to the student-status and is therefore not “real poverty” erases those people who are “really poor”, but who also attend college. This means for example that people will dismiss your financial situation if they also find out that you’re a student. Certainly this has happened to me: I’ve had people completely dismiss my claims of being poor despite the fact that in my entire adult life, I’ve only had a couple years with income above the poverty line, and certainly haven’t gotten any more wealthy since I went back to school a couple years back. This erasure of poor people who are college students has other, more tangible effects as well. Student-status can fuck with one’s eligibility for assorted programs for the poor, though I don’t know the extent of this policy. To use myself as an example again, when I was living in Seattle, a lot of the affordable housing specifically stated that students and prospective students weren’t eligible; regardless of their income, regardless of their family’s income, regardless of whether they counted as dependent or independent students for purposes of financial aid for college. Consequently, managing being both poor and trying to get an education is made more difficult, both formally and informally, by denying the possibility that a student’s low income might not have anything to do with their student status, and might not go away by itself or with a phone-call home. It’s one more way in which doing things while poor ends up with added hurdles, in addition to what simply being poor and trying to do something would accomplish by itself.

5 comments on “Erasure of the poor student

  1. DouglasLM says:

    I didn’t start University until I was 30 years old (actually older than 2 of my professors). So I didn’t experience the poor student phenomenon. I did however work full time and carry 10 to 15 credit hours a semester so I was always short on sleep. Paid for most of the classes with student loans that I am still paying off. People did look at me funny when I said I was I going to school, as if someone my age didn’t belong there. The University even has a term for it, the “non traditional student”. I was even mistaken for a professor a couple of times.

  2. Jadehawk says:

    I’m a non-traditional student, too. Will get my B.S. just before my 32nd birthday. And I’m poor, but not student-poor; just poor. But because I’m also a student, people are insisting that I’m not really poor. It’s ridiculous.

  3. Jadehawk says:

    oh, and I keep on having to remind people on campus to give me student discounts, too. Because no one will just deduct from the backpack and on-campus presence that I’m a student (maybe they confuse me for professors, too)

  4. Walton says:

    To use myself as an example again, when I was living in Seattle, a lot of the affordable housing specifically stated that students and prospective students weren’t eligible; regardless of their income, regardless of their family’s income, regardless of whether they counted as dependent or independent students for purposes of financial aid for college.

    It’s similar in England. Full-time students aren’t eligible for most state benefits, unless they have children or are disabled. They’re ineligible for Housing Benefit, so they can’t get their rent paid by the state, regardless of their income. The only state support normally available to full-time students is government loans and grants from the Student Loan Company (which are available to undergraduates only, so graduate students are on their own). Full-time students are, however, exempt from Council Tax (our version of local property taxes).

  5. David Marjanović says:

    maybe they confuse me for professors, too

    More likely for a postdoc.

    It’s similar in England. Full-time students aren’t eligible for most state benefits, unless they have children or are disabled. They’re ineligible for Housing Benefit, so they can’t get their rent paid by the state, regardless of their income.

    RAEG

    I mean, I sort of expected that kind of thing from the US… but…

    which are available to undergraduates only, so graduate students are on their own

    What I just said.

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