Poverty doesn’t come cheap

In the mental_floss morning cup o’ links: The Washington Post has an interesting piece about the cost of poverty. Not “cost of poverty” as in “tax dollars spent on the indigent,” but as in the poor often pay more for basic necessities.

Some of it is familiar if infuriating, like the insane, evil fees for payday loans (an effective annual interest rate of 806 percent!) and check cashing services that are the only option for people without bank accounts. Some of it is not surprising if you’ve lived in a not-quite-yet-gentrified urban neighborhood, like the increased prices at urban supermarkets and smaller shops. And a lot of it just makes sad sense when you think about it — when public transportation is your only option, traveling in search of better prices on milk and bologna isn’t really possible.

If middle-class folks, who are used to getting a response when they complain, had to put up with unreasonable markups on breakfast cereal and effectively useless public transit, something would get done. Maybe more intentionally mixed-income neighborhoods would help.

Graduate degrees underwater

Emily Bazelon discusses how freshly-minted PhDs, Masters, and JDs say they’re coping in the Great Downturn.

The studies that show [the economic benefit of an advanced degree] typically crunch broad swaths of data. They look at the census, or other large population samples, and show a positive correlation between income and years of education. This means that college and graduate school are generally a good bet. But it doesn’t tell you that every single degree pays off financially at every single point in time.

And so there are lots of just-graduated grad students, many with debt from student loans, unable to do the work they’re highly qualified to do.

I’m fortunate in multiple regards, here; I’ve probably got another two years to go, thanks to a just-received DDIG, so I’m not hitting the job market until the worst has (hopefully) passed. Because I’ve been lucky enough to be funded as either a teaching assistant or a research assistant (and can expect continued funding as one or the other), I don’t have new debt related to grad school, even if I’m not exactly getting rich doing it. Being in a mostly NSF-funded field has been harrowing in recent years, but under the new administration things are looking better for funding in pure science – NSF did pretty well under the stimulus package, and should see better treatment in the regular budget, too. My only major worry is that when I graduate, I’ll be competing for post-doctoral spots with an extra-large cohort of other folks who waited out the downturn as students.

Hello to all of that

With 2008 nearly over, Mennonite institutions are looking forward to the challenges of the new year. Mennonite Weekly Review has not one but two minor prophecies in their Editorial section. Editor Paul Schrag calls out President-Elect Barack Obama on his promise to escalate the war in Afghanistan:

To keep Afghanistan from becoming another Iraq, the United States must recognize that “we can’t kill our way to victory,” said Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaking to Congress in September. … When a top-ranking military official urges using more “soft power,” those who reject the “war on terror” can join that call.

And Harvey Yoder reminds readers that an economic recovery based on consumption isn’t exactly Biblical:

… to pray for the recovery of a consumer-driven old order is to counter Jesus’ brand of good news. In his upside-down kingdom, where his words about wealth are both law and gospel, it is the world’s hungry who are to be filled with good things, and it is the too-well-to-do who are to be left empty-handed.

Democrats are better for the economy than Republicans

Slate has a new infographic that compares U.S. economic performance metrics under Democratic and Republican presidents from 1957 to 2007. On almost every measure, Democrats are ahead. This follows up on a New York Times piece from a few weeks ago that came to similar conclusions, including that income inequality tends to decrease under Democratic presidents:

It is well known that income inequality in the United States has been on the rise for about 30 years now … Over the entire 60-year period [from 1948 to 2007], income inequality trended substantially upward under Republican presidents but slightly downward under Democrats, thus accounting for the widening income gaps over all.

Berea College: Wait, there’s more!

And but so after posting about Berea College’s incredible commitment to no-tuition higher education, I actually got around to looking over their website. And I found this:

The Preamble to Berea’s Great Commitments begins, “Berea College, founded by ardent abolitionists and radical reformers, continues today as an educational institution still firmly rooted in its historic purpose ‘to promote the cause of Christ.’ ” The question arises, “Does one have to be a Christian to promote the cause of Christ?” Berea’s historical record says no. [Emphasis added]

So Berea is a Christian school, and its tuition-free model arises directly from what looks to be a highly progressive and inclusive faith statement. If Berea weren’t primarily a teaching school, I might be strongly inclined to look there when it came time for my first faculty position.

College, tuition-free

Photo by blueathena7.

At Berea College in the Kentucky Appalachians, students don’t pay tuition. At all. They’re supported, instead, by working on campus or at the College-owned hotel, and by Berea’s $1.1 billion endowment. The New York Times says that the model is attracting interest from other schools in the era of exploding tuition costs:

… the proportion of low-income undergraduates at the nation’s wealthiest colleges has been declining, as measured by the percentage receiving federal Pell Grants, for families with income under about $40,000. At most top colleges, only 8 to 15 percent of students receive Pell grants.

At Berea, more than three-quarters of the students receive Pell grants.

According to the Times article, Berea’s model comes at the cost of high selectivity (only 22 percent of applicants were accepted this year), and faculty salaries. Nevertheless, Berea is an effective reminder to other American universities that the point of higher education should be to help students improve their lives. And it’s hard to do that if you don’t make a real effort to provide access to lower-income students.

Human populations grow faster near protected areas

New in Science: Protected areas like national parks and forests seem to stimulate economic development [abstract only]. The study’s authors examine more than 300 protected areas in 45 African and Latin American countries, and find that human populations near the preserves are growing nearly twice as rapidly as those in rural areas farther away from preserves.

On the one hand, this is good news – it might be evidence that, rather than depressing economic development, natural reserves actually provide benefits to locals in the form of jobs as park staff or ecotourism guides, or development projects coupled with conservation efforts. On the other hand, though, it could be that development associated with tourism actually puts more pressure on the land just outside protected areas, making the preserves more isolated and less ecologically functional. The paper also shows that deforestation of the areas around preserves increases as the human population growth rate increases.


Wittemeyer G, P Elsen, WT Bean, A Coleman, O Burton, and JS Brashares. Accelerated human population growth at protected area edges. Science 321:123-6.