With the economic troubles of the past few years, it's no surprise that the number of people using food stamps is soaring. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that an average of 44 million people were on food assistance last year; that's up from 17 million in 2000.
What might be surprising, though, is one subgroup that's taken a particularly hard hit.
The number of people with graduate degrees — master's degrees and doctorates — who have had to apply for food stamps, unemployment or other assistance more than tripled between 2007 and 2010, according to a report in The Chronicle of Higher Education.
In 2010, the report says, 360,000 of the 22 million Americans with graduate degrees received some kind of public assistance.
Chronicle reporter Stacey Patton spoke with Tell Me More host Michel Martin about why so many highly educated Americans have to rely on this type of aid.
One thing that is happening at universities, Patton says, is the overlap between graduate students and adjunct professors — "contingent" faculty who are working on contracts.
In an effort to cut costs, she says, universities increasingly rely on these instructors because unlike tenured faculty, they work part time, they don't have health benefits, and they can be fired or not have their contracts renewed.
"What we continue to do in graduate schools is encourage people to take master's degrees and Ph.D.s [to fill those positions]," Patton says. "But the economy has taken such a hit, and so has higher education, so they do their work and come out and don't have opportunities for jobs."
Many states have had to cut their higher education budgets, and Patton says universities defend their use of contingent faculty instead of hiring full-time faculty as a necessary way to cope.
Tony Yang received his Ph.D. in history from the University of California, Riverside in 2009. Since then, he's worked on and off as a history lecturer, but has had to depend on unemployment and food stamps to get by.
"One of the bravest things to do is to graduate into [the recession]," Yang tells NPR's Martin. "It's an incredibly difficult job market, and you're constantly hustling to try and get another job."
In his best year since getting his Ph.D., Yang says he made about $32,000; in his worst, about $10,000. He says there's a perception that if you have a doctorate, you automatically walk into a high-paying job.
"I have the prestige of holding a Ph.D., but that [isn't] paying the bills," he says.
While reporting her story, Patton says she heard a number of stories similar to Yang's, but many of those folks didn't want to go on the record for fear of shame.
"You go to graduate school, you get a master's degree [or] you get a Ph.D., it's a hard thing to embrace that you're also now on welfare," she says.
Though only a little more than 1 percent of graduate-degree holders are on government assistance, Patton says what worries her is that the number tripled in just three years.
"One has to wonder, is this trend going to continue to increase?" she says.