Letter to the editor
Lately, the Faculty Senate Executive Committee has found itself in quite a muddle. They’ve failed to pass a resolution to address the non-living stipends of graduate student employees on this campus. Though, I’ve read in The Spectrum that they had time to discuss my last letter to the editor, which was deemed a “pretty gross mischaracterization” of their voting down a resolution for a living wage. It’s always gratifying to hear one is being read, and this creates a nice opportunity for me to explore what’s really gross about this mire: that rather than approve a proposal that would substantially affect the lives of thousands of graduate students the FSEC is quibbling over tone.
In that same meeting, Cemal Basaran was splitting hairs between being “poor” and having a “non-living” stipend. But rather than focus on abstract semantics, let’s do the math on what a non-living stipend looks like. Momentarily setting aside my merit-based fellowship, my bi-weekly take home after taxes, union dues and medical insurance is $660 which means that for ten months of the year I make $1320 a month from my stipend. From this $13,200, $7800 goes to my rent (at $650 a month), $1020 to my utilities and $2139 to my mandatory fees. So if I lived solely off my stipend, I would be left with $2,241 a year for food, fuel, clothes, books and other incidental expenses that come along with just simply living. If Basaran believes graduate students are not poor, then I challenge him to cover his expenses with that amount.
And what’s even more disgusting is that I am relatively privileged. My base stipend is $15,500 annually. The lowest stipend on this campus is $9,959. So there are graduate employees who are living on less than two thirds of my stipend. Furthermore, because I’m a domestic student I can (and do) work additional jobs. As of next week, I’ll have four altogether. And while these undeniably detract from my research, if I was an international student I wouldn’t even be able to work them. And what’s really revolting is that those numbers do not take into account the excess fees international students are forced to pay; for some it’s nearly double what domestic students are charged.
Less I be charged with mischaracterizing my financial situation, I should be clear that I am a Presidential Fellow, but even with three extra jobs and a fellowship, I still don’t bring home the $24,000 the MIT Living Wage Calculator estimates as a living wage for Erie County. And I’m from the department that the university likes to brag about and look to as a solution to their non-living stipend problem.
Perhaps to some, “non-living” stipend sounds a little nicer than a “poor” one. But the reality is that my low socioeconomic status is negatively affecting my life and health. For example, last year I needed to get the HPV vaccine. My state-subsidized insurance didn’t cover the shot and at $200 for each dose in a series of three, I couldn’t afford it. Even with a second job and a fellowship, I didn’t have the money for this vaccine. Now I’m too old for it to be effective. My non-living wage has literally increased my risk of cervical cancer.
I’m not alone in this. In the UB Financial Hardship Survey, the GSEU found that one of the most common expenses graduate students could not afford was dental work. Our dental insurance is preventative only, which means that any dental work outside of basic cleanings and an annual x-ray must be covered out of very shallow pockets. When the FSEC debates whether or not to include health care costs in their whittling of a living wage, they need to remember that while our healthcare is provided at a lower cost than most employers, it’s not free and for most it’s not sufficient.
Various university officials have insisted that the “total package” for graduate student employees is $38,000. This number certainly strikes the proper tone, but the reality is actually pretty gross. Graduate student employees do not need an aspirational resolution. We need a living stipend.
UB Graduate Teaching Assistant