As of the past few months, I have lost a job, and the health insurance that went with it; gotten divorced and become a single mom; and so suddenly found myself the proud possessor of a mortgage I can no longer afford.
The full catastrophe.
I take some small measure of comfort from the knowledge that it is not just me. Women have been hit harder in this recession than men, and single women, especially single moms, worst of all.
As a matter of fact, the job I lost was in the public education sector. I taught for nine years at SUNY Albany as a Lecturer in Humanities (ie, a salaried professor on a three-year renewable contract), and I was a member of the union, United University Professionals (UUP). Because it is very difficult for the university to fire individual union members who have been performing well in their jobs, the administration decided, in the interests of saving money, to terminate my entire program, an innovative first year “living & learning” community that had just been shown by external reviewers to have positively impacted students’ success rate at the university.
The administrators I talked with about the program termination made no bones about the fact that it made better financial sense for them to fire a salaried worker like me and hire a few adjunct professors instead. Why would you pay someone a living wage and benefits when you can get away with paying someone else a pittance with no benefits?
Sadly this is the state of our higher education system these days. At least 50% of college and university teachers are now adjunct; at many places, including Harvard and my alma mater, New York University, some 70% of the professors are employed on an adjunct basis.
And we’re not talking about graduate students; we’re talking about people with doctorates, who have worked very hard and spent a lot of time and money to attain the highest degree in their discipline, now reduced to working on a semester-to-semester contract, generally for about $4,000 a course (much less at community colleges), with no benefits. And no end in sight.
There is no doubt that I am one of the lucky ones. Coming even this close to the edge makes me empathize all the more with the millions of Americans, especially women, who are having to roll with the punches of unemployment and economic contraction.
The stresses on the family are huge. How many men and women are turning up at the doctors’ office begging for anti-depressants to help them get through the day, or drinking too much, or simply zoning out in front of the TV set in order to escape a crushing reality? Domestic violence is on the rise; so is suicide.
Listening to the political debate over jobs infuriates me because the whole discussion is so superficial. We need more than a “stimulus” in our society. We need more than “shovel-ready” jobs. We need more than an extension of unemployment benefits, or even a restructuring of our tax system.
What we need is to put the soul back into our social relations. We need to think deeply, as a society, about our priorities and goals. Do we really want to become a society where the elite managers live in luxury and ease behind heavily guarded gates, while the masses toil miserably on the edge of ruin, and the prison populations grow ever larger, serving the function of Scrooge’s infamous “workhouses”?
We live in a country, and a world, that is rich in natural resources and talented people. With proper stewardship, there could be enough for everyone to enjoy a decent existence on this planet, a life lived in dignity, with meaning and reward found in service to the common good.
Where is the social movement that will mobilize people like me to stand up and insist on a better future? Who will throw the spark that ignites the fire for change?