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.

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