This week’s column at Counter Narrative picks up on the national discussion about the federal government shutdown. As a highered person I have kept an eye on how the shutdown will affect students. I’m not the only one. But by day two of the media coverage it did seem that I was the only one noticing a disconnect between the coverage of how college students are affected and how men and women who rely on the hardest hit social welfare programs described themselves.
In the former, the focus is on how colleges will fair on research and federal loan processing. College students will be largely unaffected because there are no anticipated interruptions to student loans or PELL grants.
But Chelsea Henriquez, a single mother of a 5-month-old son and a 4-year-old daughter in Salt Lake County is a college student:
WIC provides important nutrition to her family — particularly infant formula.
Even with the benefit, Henriquez, a full-time college student, pays out of pocket for formula to ensure her son has enough to eat. The formula he needs is soy-based and costs about $18 for a small can.
Gelina Jarquin is also a college student:
Gelina Jarquin, 22, has a 2-year-old daughter and works and goes to college at the same time. WIC helps people just like her feed kids, she said.
“Cuts in WIC will make it really hard on mothers who have a lot less than I do,” Jarquin said. “What about them? What politician who would cut WIC is looking out for them?
In story after story about the effect of the shutdown on our most economically vulnerable I ran across references to mothers and workers that are in college. That doesn’t sound like college students will be mostly unaffected. It sounds more like the most vulnerable college students are more vulnerable thanks to our dysfunctional government.
How do we miss honoring this? There is a common issue of flattening identities so we can measure social reality. Once we make a person a “student” in a set of data or take for granted what a “student” is in our common parlance we rarely revisit that the distinction is analytical and not practical. As a result, people’s lives are often loss in the mix.
Many folks on the ground know the reality. A senior Head Start official in Alabama noted:
Twenty of Head Start’s 1,600 U.S. programs did not receive the funding Monday night needed to keep their doors open. Some programs, such as the Cheaha Regional Head Start in Talladega, Ala., had to stop running as early as Tuesday morning.
“Some of these parents are working parents,” Cheaha director Dora Jones told NPR. “Some of these parents are parents that are in school. They have no other choice and no alternatives for child care.”
In a huge nod to the important role of college journalism, one of the few stories that recognizes this complex reality is Northern Michigan University’s “The North Wind“:
Lopota also outlined a few other ways in which NMU students were being impacted by the shutdown, including students who are receiving Women, Infant and Children (WIC) or food stamp benefits as well as those receiving educational benefits from the military.
“I know that we do have students that are receiving educational benefits and GI bill, and that is being affected in a major way,” Lopota said. “We’ve heard from students that are being notified that they will no longer be receiving that as long as (the government is) shut down — they don’t know how they are going to pay for groceries or rent.”
It looks like that angle may have been prompted by a campus-wide communication from administration that recognized students with different needs might need different information on how the shutdown affects them.
It’s a good model for other universities who hopefully know the reality of their students lives as workers, family members, and parents as well as Dora Jones knows that many of her Head Start parents are also college students.