Meet the new generation of welfare queens: master's and doctorate degree holders who can't find work.

Writing for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Stacey Patton explores the stories of highly educated people who are jobless, broke, and on food stamps. In 2010, there were 22 million Americans with master's degrees or higher, and about 360,000 of them on public assistance, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.


In 2010, a total of 44 million people nationally received food stamps or some other form of public aid, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. People who don't finish college are more likely to receive food stamps than are those who go to graduate school. The rolls of people on public assistance are dominated by people with less education. Nevertheless, the percentage of graduate-degree holders who receive food stamps or some other aid more than doubled between 2007 and 2010.

During that three-year period, the number of people with master's degrees who received food stamps and other aid climbed from 101,682 to 293,029, and the number of people with Ph.D.'s who received assistance rose from 9,776 to 33,655, according to tabulations of microdata done by Austin Nichols, a senior researcher with the Urban Institute. He drew on figures from the 2008 and 2011 Current Population Surveys done by the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Bureau of Labor.

Read the full story: From Graduate School to Welfare - Graduate Students - The Chronicle of Higher Education. (Via Alex Leo)


    1. Thanks smug STEM majors, but I have a STEM BS and MS and can’t find a job. I’m not on the government dole, but I do live at home with my parents.

      (I’m sure that it is actually mostly humanities students who are the ones getting welfare, but STEM does not guarantee success despite the rhetoric – and I’m not alone)

      I think a key point here is this: good luck getting a temporary retail job (or whatever) to tide you over while you look for work in your field if you have even an undergrad degree. They won’t even look at your resume. I’ve considered omitting my education from my resume to try to get a retail job.

  1. Sickening. I made more money working the cash at a pizzeria than she’s making as a professor at a college. Though I only have a bachelor science degree; with another degree I probably wouldn’t have gotten the pizza job in the first place.

  2. My sister’s family is in this situation. She has a BS. He is finishing his PhD. They both work low paying jobs, are on aid, and have really poor health care.

    I have no degree, wife can stay at home as she wishes, and I have a good paying job in health care IT. My training was 12 years in the military.

    A lot of people I know are not working in the field they went to college for. From my perspective, college is beneficial only if you were fortunate enough to have picked the correct major.

    1. Isn’t this a case against going to college just for a degree and an argument for, let’s say, technical degrees? In some countries it’s just an accepted fact that you’ll have a hard time getting a job with a Liberal Arts degree, no matter which level (I’ll add though that many European countries only introduced Bachelor’s degrees a couple of years ago; before that it was Master’s or nothing). If you are in Engineering or CS on the other hand…

      Maybe the US is slowly heading down the same road?

      1. Isn’t this a case against going to college just for a degree and an argument for, let’s say, technical degrees?

        It is.  It’s not new however.  We’ve had a chronic shortage of people in certain fields for decades, and people still won’t go into those fields despite the exceptional pay and relative scarcity of people in the fields.  
        We’ve also mostly dismantled and neglected our previously quite good system of trade/vocational schools decades ago, starting with shop classes.

  3. I have a BS in science and am currently working temporary part time with no health insurance. I have 7 years of experience post college in my field and I still haven’t landed a good job. No one wants to hire permanent anymore. I’ve learned that luck plays more a part in this whole process than I ever imagined.

    I don’t know how I’m going to take care of my folks when they get old since I can barely afford to take care of myself. I’ve given up the idea that I will ever retire or have social security.

    1. I don’t mean to make light of your situation but what’s your degree in? Maybe relocating would be an option? Not that you should have to but better than having such a gloomy outlook on life…

    2. It’s great of you, and unusual these days (at least in the U.S.) to be worried about how your going to take care of your folks when they get old. Best of luck to you.

  4. While I’m not in the US, I was only just commenting to one of my fellow-PhD students that “In a few months, we’ll be standing outside Biology Depts with a signs saying ‘will do labwork for food’.” And I wasn’t entirely joking.  Yay recession and slashed science budgets!  

  5. I’m about to finish a master’s, and my wife is about to start one. Fortunately, the economy was crappy when we finished our undergraduate degrees a few years back, so neither of us ever had to get used to high paying jobs. It’s a bit easier to adjust when you never gave up living like a poor college student in many aspects of your life.

    Now, off to make some microwave noodles.

  6. It’d be way easier for me to summon up some pity for her if the article hadn’t started off with her condescending bullshit about how she wasn’t a welfare queen.  

    No, no,  no you see, she’s just a hardworking, white single mother with a shitty halftime job who needs welfare payments to feed her kids.  She’s definitely not like those people.You’d think this experience might teach her some humility, maybe a bit of compassion, but apparently not.

    1. it’s not obvious to me that her intro paragraph says that.  she may very well be confronting the stereotype of “welfare queens,” by pointing out that she receives welfare but has none of those cliched negative traits… that welfare and poverty are more complex, take her case as example.  maybe, right?

      1. It’s common – almost to the point of a trope – to find people in tough economic circumstances become even less sympathetic towards other people in the same situation.

        I’ll have homeless people consistently tell me stories of all the terrible things that befell them to put them on the streets…but the moral is not that our society is fundamentally broken and lacking a safety net.  It’s just to show that they personally are good and decent, unlike all the other worthless lazy scumbags they have to stay at the shelter with.

        It’s crazy – each person with their own totally sympathetic explanation for how they got where they are, but still no sympathy for anyone else.

        I think we’re all like this, and while you might think falling on hard times yourself should inspire some solidarity, most of the time it doesn’t seem to.

        1. I don’t know if “we’re” all like this, I think Americans are generally like that. “I am the deserving poor, they are undeserving welfare queens”, “I worked hard for everything I have, why should I share with people whose reduced circumstances by definition mean they have never worked as hard as me”, “my medical catastrophe was totally unpreventable, those other people should have gotten off their lazy ass and exercised more”: these are not the sentiments of socialised societies with decent social safety nets, they’re the sentiments of people who really, genuinely believe that any success they accrue is attributable solely to their own hard work and exemplary moral character. Everyone who doesn’t have that success has never worked hard and has no moral character, BUT if I the individual fall on hard times it is an unpreventable, unforeseeable catastrophe and doesn’t affect my own personal moral worth. 

          I believe, as an external observer and sometimes resident of the US, that this is a cultural narrative specific to the United States, and one that forms a treasured part of US national identity. I don’t think that the homeless and destitute of countries where success is less tightly equated to moral worth spend quite as much time and energy trying to distinguish themselves, the noble and unfortunate poor, from all of those other by-definition lazy, unworthy poor. I mean a bit, sure (often with racism++), but not nearly as much.

        2. The mental image I’m getting is a pool full of people trying to avoid drowning by using each other as rafts.  :(

    2. Not to mention she majored in “medieval history”. 

      I love history as much as anyone, but even in the best of times expecting to live a cozy life on that kind of degree would be setting oneself up for a bunch of disappointment. It doesn’t mean the problem is any less real, it just seems like really poor selection on the part of the person who wrote the article. It makes it hard for me to conjure any real sympathy.

      Go to school for a skill that’s actually in demand and I would guess the hit rate improves.

      1. Do you think someone who is stuck in poverty with a history degree will be able to finance and complete a degree in engineering or computer science?

        1. News flash…just cause you have an engineering degree doesn’t mean there is a job waiting for you….I know.

          1. I seem to recall something like this making the rounds this year: >80% of CS graduates in the US have a job lined up before they graduate that pays an average of more than $60,000. And that’s a Bachelor’s degree which really boggles my mind. In today’s economy.

            Is this totally made up or is there something to it?

          2.  @twianto:disqus
            When I started college in 97 it was presented to us as; graduate and you’ll have your pick of jobs starting at $50k.  I even remember a simple show of hands question one of my professors asked, how many people where in engineering because of the money…it was more than 75% of the class.

            Fast forward to 2002 (I took extra classes)…and there weren’t any $50k a year jobs.  And not to be negative, but the only people with firm offers were the top students and the handful of females.  The rest of us floated off into the wind, and all those people that told us about our bright future 5 years ago just looked at us and shrugged.

          3. So what do you make of stories like this one:

            (Engineering graduates of 2011 had the highest starting salary, an _average_ of >$61,000 right out of school.)

            Pure fiction?

          4. @twianto:disqus Those numbers probably are pure fiction,  especially if they’re run anything like how law schools run their employment/salary numbers.

      2. Universities aren’t meant to be vocational training, and degrees aren’t destiny. How many people do you know that are working in the field they majored in? I know two.

        The implicit promise of higher education wasn’t “study history, get a history job” – it was “get a degree, find a job, build a career.” Because universities aren’t vocational schools. You expected to learn your job at the job, and to bring to it a certain basic skill set (as signified by the degree).

        1. Universities aren’t meant to be vocational training, and degrees aren’t destiny.

          Okay, but shouldn’t they be “destiny” to some extent (I won’t go as far as “vocational training”)? Isn’t going to college for something you don’t use in your job later on a waste of time? (Yes, I’m being dense/naive on purpose, but that’s an attitude I often encounter but don’t necessarily agree with.)

          How many people do you know that are working in the field they majored in?

          The answer would be “everybody” in my case; but then again I didn’t grow up in the US.

          1. The point of higher education is to learn how to think: how to analyze, evaluate, deconstruct, recognize bias and fallacies, etc. Career-specific skills that come with your major are the frosting on that cake.

            Once students can think clearly, express themselves concisely, and adapt to changing circumstances, they can teach themselves the rest.

            I know many people who are working in their major field, but I also know many highly successful people who aren’t. For example, the president of a research hospital who was a literature major in college and got her master’s in educational leadership. Her career took many turns, but she credits her background in literature with giving her the tools she needed for each new challenge. Or the former vice president of a small country who says what she learned studying secretarial studies made her a leader. Or an education major who now edits a tech magazine … I could go on.

            The point is, a good education isn’t one that prepares you for a specific career, but rather prepares you for change. No matter what you major in, that’s not a waste of time.

    3.  It’s clear that the distinction she’s drawing is not between herself and “those people,” but between real people and stereotypes.

      Perhaps you got everything you needed from the first paragraph, though.

  7. Well, why should this be a surprise?  Higher education trains you to specialize at a particular role.  Now that jobs are being cut, there are fewer of those specialized positions available.

    I think the thing that really comes as a surprise is the betrayal of the implicit promise of higher eduction:  People with degrees are a higher class.  Become educated, and you too can join the upper class.

    Turns out that ain’t exactly true.  Because when it comes down to it, people with degrees are just as vulnerable to the whims of the market as anyone else is.  The degree itself is no longer a class signifier, because it no longer guarantees decent income.  So you bet your future on corporate America needing your business management or graphic design skills, and then you’re effectively in the underclass when it turns out they don’t.  And let’s face it, grad students aren’t any better at minimum-wage jobs.  In fact, in lots of cases they’re probably below average.

    Class mobility in America is the exception rather than the rule.  While I’m sorry so many young people are suffering, the sooner we all realize this, the better.  Because then we can take a long hard look at what our place in society truly is, who all is in the same boat as us, and what we can all do to change it.

    1. I think you have a good point.  However, I think it applies more to the notion that first degrees (BAs or BScs) confer class.  PhDs, at least in the humanities, rarely pursue their degree because they imagine that it will get them a great position in society. The implicit assumption of graduate education in the humanities is not just that education in the humanities confers class, but that there is an inherent value in the study — and that that inherent value means that our society will want to continue teaching it.  As the article notes:

      Marc Bousquet, an associate professor of English at Santa Clara University and the founding editor of Workplace: A Journal for Academic Labor, says that ego, identity status, and prestige may explain why so many people refuse to abandon their aspirations of becoming full-time professors.

      “A big part of what we do in graduate education is foster this sense of vocation and teaching for love and passion for what you do,” says Mr. Bousquet… “We socialize people into accepting the coin of reputation as status capital. Some people are so deeply socialized into the regime of payment by way of status that they are essentially trapped in it for life.”

      The problem that many PhD graduates in the humanities find now is that the jobs they were promised no longer exist.  While the number of PhD graduates has grown, the number of tenure-track jobs has dwindled.

  8. I worked in a welfare office from 2001-2006, good years economy wise, and I often worked with people with advanced degrees. Having a good degree (or a good job or a good spouse or a rich uncle) doesn’t mean you are not going to find yourself in a place where you need assistance. Most of the people I worked with 10 years ago who had advanced degrees had very similar circumstances to those I worked with who didn’t have degrees, they either had chemical, mental or physical health problems, or were recent refugees or abused women. I imagine we now just add “economy” to the list of reasons why people are on assistance, regardless of education level.

    1. And these days there are people people with  advanced degrees who are unemployed for the sin of NOT having “chemical, mental or physical health problems,” unlike their exboss who now stalks them.

  9. I can vouch for this. I happened to get out of the Air Force at the worst possible time – September of ’07. I had a BS in Comp Sci and a Masters in MIS, plus over 10 years of experience. I didn’t even get my first interview for over 6 months, and that went nowhere. I got a job working as grunt labor in a tech firm for $10/hr; that lasted about 8 months before they laid us all off. I spent the next 2.5 years working temp jobs and using my GI Bill to take classes at the local university. I finally got a job back in my field a little over a year ago, and the only reason I got in here was that a) a friend worked here & vouched for my skillset and b) the guy before me literally died – an unexpectedly young heart attack. I’m thrilled to be where I am, but the economy still sucks, and I see no major reasons for celebration for the foreseeable future…

    1.  By crikey, you’ve cracked the case! Lucky you were here to be the first one with that insight.

      Problem solved.

  10. Those people making comments about how she should have expected a medieval history degree would lead to nothing should remember that, at the time she (and I) would have started an undergrad (and perhaps even an MA) degree, we were still being told that we were on the cusp of experiencing a mass retirement of academics, and that there would be a boom in university hiring by the time we finished. What no one foresaw is that few professors of the Boomer generation would actually retire and, even more importantly, that universities would fill most of the spots vacated by retiring faculty with low-paid adjuncts without job security. She had every reason to expect, when starting her studies, that it would indeed likely lead to a full-time, tenure-track professor gig.

    1. Another trend in academic hiring is that the new hires are frequently people who slept with their advisers and married them, and then got fast tracked into a faculty slot in the same department where they did their dissertation.

      I guess that’s one way to fill an opening.  

        1. A friend and I thought of at least 4 examples off the top of our heads. FWIW, these people are all assholes to begin with and are now crowing about how both of them have great jobs (and often tenure.)

        2. Carl Jung wrote quite a bit about the sex habits of  boarding school students, college students, and academics.   He said that affairs between graduate students and advisers were quite common, including same sex relationships (I think that also includes some famous Greek philosophers).  Jung himself was know for launching the careers of several female grad students he was banging. 

      1.  I could never sleep my way to the top,

        ‘Cause my alarm clock always wakes me right up.

      2.  I could never sleep my way to the top,

        ‘Cause my alarm clock always wakes me right up.

  11. I saw high tech jobs last year that said “no degrees above Masters” which seemed to be saying they were tired of throwing out the PhD applicants.

    Also, go to a career site and look at the profiles of recruiters – you will see a lot of 25 year old sorority girls in their first real jobs who look like their last big accomplishment was being a runner-up for Miss South Carolina.   These are the gatekeepers, and  if you don’t have a cool motorcycle and tribal tattoos, your degree won’t help you.

  12. A natural side effect of a society that has placed so much importance on getting post-secondary education that the universities pump out far more grads than there’s need for in almost every field.

    The “get a good degree, get a good job” model was developed back when finishing highschool was considered fairly optional, and post-secondary schooling was rather rare.

    A BA is now treated pretty much like they used to treat a high school graduation.

  13. Luckily my  BFA in Sculpture is a completely recession proof degree.   There are just tons of sculpture jobs available out there.    But then again the ability to spend 3 hours critiquing a white box with hot glue dripped on it is an invaluable skill.  I also have the ability to sit in a room and watch a video projected on the floor of someone taking a bath for 20 minutes.  When employers see that skill listed on my resume you better believe they call me first for an interview.  and they know when I show up for the interview in a rainbow colored knitted body suit  with an integrated programmable led display that they better higher me right then before I get a better job offer from one of the many sculpture offices in the sculpture district.   I almost feel like I have gotten too much work from my degree which is why I’m looking in to getting an MFA in Sculpture so I can give back to the community by gaining the qualifications to teach other young future Sculpturers so we can get more people out in to the Sculpture job field that surely needs them.   Any one here who is thinking about getting a different degree then they already have let me just say that a BFA in Sculpture is the degree for you.  Just ask yourself, do you have no artistic ability whatsoever?  Can you poorly recite philosophical theory?  If you answered yes to both of those questions then you pretty much are a sculpture artist and it is time you went out and proved it to the world by getting a BFA in Sculpture.

  14. I have an MA, work for a large public university and am woefully underemployed.  Many of my coworkers are in the same boat.  However, the up side is my wife has an MBA and has a very nice job, and I have other coworkers that are appropriately employed with their advanced degrees.  So yeah, kinda depends what kind of advanced degree you have and what you do with it.  

    That all said, 360,000 people of 22 million comes to about 1.6%.  Frankly, I’m surprised only 1.6% of advanced degree holders get public assistance, considering that 14% of the general population is on public assistance.  Even more interesting is that only 0.8% of folks on public assistance hold advanced degrees, whereas 7% of the general population holds an advanced degree.  Overall, life ain’t so bad for your average advanced degree holder.

  15. “In 2010, there were 22 million Americans with master’s degrees or higher, and about 360,000 of them on public assistance, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.”

    so…  360,000 / 22,000,000 = 1.6% unemployment.  Uhm, boo hoo?

    I’m not sure that public assistance == unemployment, but the general populace’s rate of public assitance is 16%, 10 times as high.

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