Breeders beware: Medicaid part of Ph.D. aid package

Graduate students know money is going to be tight and that they’ll probably have to work several jobs to make ends meet while they’re earning their Ph.D.’s. Here’s a lesser known grad school given: if you have kids, you’ve probably got them on Medicaid, even at prestigious, well-funded universities like UVA.
Religious studies grad student Creston Davis’ health insurance is covered by the university. However, he has a wife and two children who need coverage, which comes to nearly $4,000 a year-– “an awful lot if you’re making less than $10,000 a year,” says his wife, Molly.
When their son needed a $12,000 operation, they had to apply for Medicaid. “Everybody’s on Medicaid in family housing,” says Molly Davis.
Even M.D.s end up with their kids on Medicaid. One resident’s wife with four kids, who asked that her name not be used, says they applied for Medicaid because she wanted to stay home with her children and the $330 monthly family health insurance premium was more than they could afford.
Liberal arts grad students with children claim they have it worse than medical or law students because they’re not going to be making $200,000 a year when they get out of school.
“For the majority in the humanities, it’s going to take them the rest of their lives to liquidate this debt,” says the wife of a graduate student in the English department.
She complains that her husband’s stipend has not kept pace with rising rents in the university’s spartan family housing. And the rent increases bring about no improvements to apartments with no carpet, no air conditioning, and no dishwashers. “They’re putting [rising costs] on the backs of those who can afford it the least,” she says.
How about food stamps?
“We could certainly qualify,” says Creston Davis, who was on food stamps while getting his master’s degree at Duke. “The primary reason we’re not is the humiliation of applying.”
Ruth Ann Lacy, who handles food stamp eligibility for Albemarle County, is vague about whether grad students qualify for food stamps. She mentions that working 20 hours a week is a requirement-– unless there's a child under two in the house. Lacy does encourage grad students to apply for food stamps, “and a full determination will be made as to their eligibility.”
Of course, applying for Medicaid is degrading enough for future academics. Some say they're not used to answering such questions as “Why isn’t the mother working full time?”
Creston Davis’ stipend has stayed the same during his two years at UVA; he says the response to a plea for a raise is, “You signed a contract.”
Ben Lee at the Graduate Labor Alliance calls grad students “exploited and disenfranchised.” Will the Alliance’s recent alliance with the Communication Workers of America improve the plight of graduate students in a right-to-work, strike-at-your-own-risk state?
“Unionizing itself makes a point that grad students feel mistreated,” says Lee. But rather than collective bargaining, the CWA lends its media expertise to put pressure on the university.
Working extra jobs to supplement the $4,000 they’re paid for each class they teach makes it harder for graduate students to complete their degrees. Lee sees this as part of the university’s strategy to provide more cheap labor. It also allegedly adds an element of elitism to graduate degrees.
“Graduate school is so poorly funded that only those with outside resources can afford to get a PhD,” says Lee. Eighty-five percent of grad students who take the GRE come from homes with incomes over $100,000, Davis adds.
“I have to take on massive debt to make it up the social ladder,” Creston Davis says. “My father didn’t graduate from high school.”
Other graduate students see the poor pay as a betrayal. “A lot feel the university wooed them here and then let them down with no underpinning,” says one. “Students come to the university in good faith.  The reality is they can’t live on the stipend.”
Especially students with children. “Some argue that being a graduate student with children is unfeasible,” says Davis. He’s leaving his three-bedroom apartment in family housing after the rent climbed from $617 to $650 a month– to rent a house for $900 with an apartment he can rent out for $400. Even with the expense of utilities, which they don’t have to pay for in university housing, the Davises believe they’ll come out ahead.
Can the grad student ghetto, as some call the predicament, ultimately hurt the university? Lee thinks so.
“The top candidates for graduate school go elsewhere, meaning that the grad students, who teach most of the classes, are not the best.”
The university is not unaware of this problem. In a report to the Board of Visitors, UVA President John Casteen called the situation a “central university concern” that needs to be addressed.
Bristling at the notion that they got themselves into this mess, the complainers agree that the university does have its priorities. Unfortunately for them, it’s that UVA will have a helluva new basketball arena.

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