The Invisible Poor
by Gino Fanelli | published Nov. 7th, 2014
Beyond the surface of how an organization presents itself, beyond the cries of innovation, beyond the strides towards diversity, social awareness and superficial renderings of what that organization stands for, secrets are always dwelling in the shadows. Sometimes they are benign, like the hidden corner of the college campus where kids roll up mid-grade weed inside of Top papers within walking distance from the main buildings, but far enough that the smoke doesn't waft into the noses of authority, or the hot spot for underage drinking inside a crowded campus apartment.
Some other secrets, however, are dirty, like the students to which the administration chooses to turn a blind eye. In this case, these are the students living in silent poverty, ostracized by their own unavoidable situation, trapped at a junction between the poverty line and the degree that could offer freedom, all the while stared down by judgmental eyes waiting for a chance to pick their perils apart.
Nicole, a third year Psychology major, finds herself stalled at this junction. She asked to keep her last name anonymous.
"I'm technically homeless right now," she said in a matter-of-fact manner as if describing the weather.
"I'm living in an apartment with my significant other and four other roommates. Of course, the administration doesn't know that. I try to keep that a secret. In this situation, you eventually find yourself living in a constant state of paranoia. You hide your stuff so others don't find it. You put fake addresses on paperwork. You send mail home because you don't have an address to give the administration, and if they found out that I was homeless, they'd require me to get an address on campus, which I can't afford. I'm stuck, basically."
Nicole described her family in Philadelphia as "working-poor," which essentially means that though her parents do work, they are still below the poverty line, which is a baseline of $23,850 per year in a four-family household. Despite this, Nicole is dressed in a manner akin to any college student, with a clean denim jacket draped around her shoulders; she is not by any means the expected image of poverty.
"People seem to think that because I try to dress nice, or because I have an iPhone, that I'm not living in poverty," she said, gesturing toward her phone, "but poverty doesn't mean I can't afford things. It means that I can afford an iPhone, but I have no way of saving in a meaningful manner, and things like having an apartment or owning a house are absolutely impossible. And I have no support net; if I don't pay my phone bill, it's not like my family back home can help me. My phone goes off."
As college students, there is an expectation to meet some social standards in order to be able to, in the most basic sense, fit in with rest of campus. Though these standards are often implemented by peers, they are widespread, coming equally from professors and administration. These expectations to have access to technology or to "dress for success" often conflict directly with the students who are stuck below the poverty line.
"Clothes were a big problem," said 2014 RIT ASL-English Interpretation alumnus Tristan Wright while explaining the trials he faced as an adult student living below the poverty line. "I was able to afford one nice suit, and collected an assortment of hand-me downs. But, to call it what it is, the whole idea of 'dressing professionally' is classist. Suits are expensive, and if I can't afford them, I can miss out on career opportunities solely because of how I dressed."
Alongside this expectation to be professionally clothed, the expectations that students have access to technology is a massive hurdle for low-income students, especially at a university with as big an emphasis on these resources as RIT has. Nicole shared an example: "I remember sitting in and listening to a Student Government proposal to have a full conversion to e-textbooks at RIT, and there were kids in there whining about rebuttals to that proposal because there are students like me, who don't have access to laptops or tablets 24/7."
Wright explained the social ramifications of not having access to technology while he was a student at RIT.
"For my first two years on campus, I didn't have an iPhone," Wright said. "And it got to the point where I didn't even understand what people were talking about a lot of the time when they talked about things relating to apps and smart phones."
This sentiment of there being a stark disconnect between students of means and students going without is perhaps the most evident portion of the trials that poor college students face. The biggest barrier is the fundamental lack of understanding of what poverty is among college students.
"My biggest pet peeve is to hear about 'the broke college student,'" Wright said. "What that means is, that's the kind of person who has no disposable income to, say, go out to the bar on a Saturday night. That term doesn't bring to mind the image of me, when you see me eating a slice of pizza and that's the only meal I'm going to have for the day. It doesn't bring to mind me living off of $12,000 a year, and at parts of the year having to survive off of the kindness of others."
While the expected burden of books is surely a weight that dwells heavy on the hearts of the low-income college student, the situation in which they find themselves is sadly identical to the typical image of poverty. That is, lack of food, lack of health care and often judgment and condemnation from their peers.
"There seems to be this understanding among people that food stamps and free health care just fall magically from the sky," Nicole said.
"What they don't realize is that [I], as a college student, don't even qualify for food stamps just because I am a college student. I can't afford food on campus, and I don't have a car, so am I supposed to get to the public market, where I can actually afford food, and back? RIT seems to have no problem with giving us a drunk bus on Saturday nights to say 'Hey, go out there and be reckless, we've got your back!' but can't even provide shuttles to Wegmans and back."
As for health care, the pressure to avoid injury and illness incessantly dwells on the shoulders of these low-income students.
"I honestly have no idea how I even made it through my first two years of school without health insurance," Wrightsaid. "I remember that I got pneumonia in my second year and needed a steroid inhaler. At that point, the RIT Health Center was my primary health care. I ended up needing a steroid inhaler, which cost $200. I couldn't afford that, and what happened was the Health Center ended up giving me a bunch of Wal-Mart gift cards to help pay for some of it, which was great—but for other things, like physical evaluations or HIV-testing, I needed to pay out of pocket."
Nicole's experience as a homeless student in search of health care exposed an astounding piece of convoluted legislature in the NY health care system.
"I qualify for health insurance in Pennsylvania, but not in New York," Nicolesaid. "However, I was able to qualify once I made note that I am technically homeless. Which is just amazing, that the government turns a blind eye on you until you've reached this point."
To remark that the government turns a blind eye to the issue of college poverty is by no means inaccurate. In fact, the U.S. census reports that calculate the poverty index in differing counties often exclude off-campus college students, lowering the total rate of poverty in that county. Since students have a rate of poverty over three times the national average, their exclusion from these statistics removes a significant portion of the population from the total poverty index in the county. In Monroe County, the redaction of off-campus college students resulted in a one percent drop in total poverty. Meaning, quite literally, these students are made invisible on the census scale, creating the illusion that there is less poverty.
For students like Nicole and Wright, one of the few places to turn for aid on campus is TRiO, a Department of Education-funded program that provides tutoring and guidance to first-generation students as well as students living at 150 percent of the poverty line. The Director of TRiO at RIT, Bernadette Lynch, offered some insight to the program.
"The services we provide are incomparable," Lynch said. "We provide one-on-one mentoring, tutoring, help navigate financial aid and help with grad school. We deal with a lot of students who are first-generation who don't have a support network."
However, TRiO faces the problem of simply not being able to provide enough. With 3,500 freshman and transfer students moving into RIT, the workload to provide adequate assistance is staggering and, sadly, TRiO's current funding alone cannot meet the requirements.
"We're allowed to have 225 students in our program at any time," said Lynch. "A third of our freshman class is first-generation. The dream is to provide scholarships, to help everyone, but we'd need a donor—and at this point, we just can't help everyone."
Coupled with this, Lynch notes a pervasive reluctancy of students in TRiO to seek help; they often feel ashamed of their situation and hide the issue.
"We've had some students who've come here with just clothes. No bedding, no jackets, nothing. And they're embarrassed."
"I was one of those students, and I know I didn't walk around saying, 'Hey look! I'm poor!'" Lynch said. "What's funny is, we held an event earlier this year where all of our students came down and got together, and so many came up to me and said things like, 'Oh my god, I didn't know so and so was in here!'"
This is, perhaps, the most universal and self-perpetuating symptom of poverty. That is, to pretend it does not exist, to hide it out of fear of ridicule and to live in constant worry that one day that mask will be removed.
"People think it's laziness," Nicolesaid. "They think I'm less intelligent because I'm poor. They have this horribly harmful understanding of the world as you get out what you put in. That if you work hard enough, everything will turn out okay. But I'm working the maximum I can on campus while taking 19 credit hours. What else am I supposed to do? It makes me furious to hear that I just need to work harder, especially when it comes so often from people I know don't even work."
Wright noticed a similar attitude among students during his time at RIT.
"There's this, just, fundamental lack of understanding," Wright said. "I remember in my senior year I had to make a poster, and the size I needed to print cost $100. I remember students asking me why I couldn't just save up $100, as if the entire concept of poverty just went right over their heads."
Much of the student population will never get the chance to walk the mile in the other man's shoes. It is an unfortunate reality that the treatment of students experiencing poverty can be equally attributed to lack of aid available and ignorance, arrogance and avoidance. We walk down the Quarter Mile, glancing at all of the expressionless faces, never for a moment considering whether the kid in the white T-shirt puffing away at a hand-rolled cigarette is able to afford a meal that night, that the girl in the flower-print blouse may not be able to afford to get home to see her grandmother before she passes, that the man with the unkempt beard and leather jacket doesn't know where he's going to sleep tonight.
This is poverty in its essence. An issue of the blind eye, sometimes illuminated by a vocal few like rays of sunshine that place a brief spotlight on the issue. Yet, the inevitability of being overlooked always seems to come from the dreary clouds overhead, slowly creeping once again, blotting out the bits of light and leaving that shroud of shadows to be cast again over the bricks.