February 14, 2005

semi-voluntary poverty

I'm an outdoor educator. This means I have a really awesome job, that I spend most of my time playing in the woods, that I get to be part of someone's life-changing experience pretty much every week, that I go to professional development trainings on whitewater canoeing. It also means I'm poor.

I make less than minimum wage. I also get no benefits of any kind, including unemployment, because I am a per diem employee and my wages are regulated under the same laws that regulate camp counselors. I get a sort of grim amusement out of reading articles about labor laws and people who are underpaid. Sometime last year, the New York Times ran an article about hot dog cart companies that don't follow labor laws. One of the enforcement agents said, "No one should have to work from sun-up to sun-down for $65 a day." Guess what? That was my per diem rate last year,1 except that I work round the clock. There was an article about grad student unions in the US News I was looking through today, and a UPenn student organizer said you can't live on $15,000/year in Philadelphia. That's about half again as much as I make, and I live in Philadelphia. Last year I think I cleared the poverty line, but by maybe two thousand dollars at the absolute most. My job expects me to spend two or three months every year going to unpaid training. This year, things have improved: we'll get a stipend between $100 and $300, depending on which trainings they decide to offer, for nearly a month of more or less mandatory training. There's a bumper sticker I like, somewhat bitterly, that says, "I work 40 hours a week to be poor." More, actually, in my case.

Of course, I'm not selling hot dogs. I'm doing something I love. It's also not like I don't have other options: I could probably make more temping half-time in California than I do at my outdoor ed job. I could do something like the New York Teaching Fellows Program.2 I could go back to school. My whining is the whining of a college-educated kid with plenty of other opportunities, and I know that. It's also not like the organization I work for is making a huge profit off my work.3 They're kind of broke too. And outdoor ed norms are to pay poorly and expect people to be more or less homeless: live in a staff house that makes me miserable, live in a truck, whatever. That's how their budget is laid out, and the courses are still way too expensive for any of my students to even consider if they had to pay full fee. The extra from my work, the value I'm not getting paid for, goes to my students.

I've heard a lot of arguments about gentrification, which is rampant in Philadelphia, and I've heard a lot of people say vaguely nasty things about white lefties who kind of slum it for a couple years after college by working for non-profits and saying that they're poor. It's true that some people seem to take the fact that they work for a non-profit for less than they could get at a corporate enterprise as evidence that they're saints, and it's also true that some of those people are actually making a reasonable living and are complaining because they come from wealthier backgrounds. But I've worked for a lot of non-profits, and let me tell you, most of those white college-educated lefties are not getting paid much. They're usually getting paid more than I am, but the organizations they work for would be in trouble without people to run the office, write the grants, teach the after-school classes, and recruit the volunteers for substantially less than their skills are worth on an open market. Non-profit funding gets stretched and stretched and stretched, and much as it's true that my organization would do better with more staff stability, it would cost them money they don't have.

But I keep coming back to the fact that I'm living in Philadelphia, not Colorado or California. I'm giving up a lot of the options for natural beauty and playing in the mountains so that I can have some kind of normal life and be near my friends. And I'm busting my ass for my job: when I'm working, I'm working. I am doing nothing else. It's really important to me to eat well, but if my students have a crisis one morning, I deal with that. I don't have breakfast. I sleep six hours a night so I can keep track of them while they're awake and make plans for the next day with my co-instructor. I spend more than half and sometimes all of any given month away from home, I give up the opportunity to take martial arts classes or Spanish or pottery or just have a weekly discussion group, because I cannot say that I'll be somewhere once a week. I haven't tried to have a love life with this job, but there's a reason for that. I have some kind of a normal life, but not really.

So I'm putting a lot in, and even if the organization is broke, they could make it a priority for us to get paid a reasonable amount. The outdoor ed programs in other cities pay more, and frankly, one of the reasons I came back this year was that my Philadelphia Boss promised me they'd be paying us what people get for this work in Boston and New York. They're not. We're also not getting paid enough for training to cover my rent, which Philadelphia Boss also promised.4 Tomorrow I'm going to talk to the Director about training, the stipend, and whether I'm willing to work a month straight with one or two days off, and I have to think about how I want to frame it. I want her to pay me more, and I think one place where I have leverage is in being willing to stick around if I get paid more.

But I'm not convinced I do want to stick around, because I'm going to have to have this conversation every three months forever; I've been thinking that I want more stability in my life anyway, and thinking that this coming year might therefore be the end of it. I might leave Philadelphia next September and spend the fall working with adjudicated youth and the winter skiing, and apply for grad school or a teacher cert program for fall 2006. My job is kind of not going anywhere: I can stay and be a lead instructor for a few years, but I suspect that two years of doing this particular job full-time will be more than enough, and I'll stop learning from it and therefore stop wanting to do it. Then I can either look for instructing gigs that will teach me more - either technical skills in some other part of the country, or teaching skills working with a different kind of program - or start thinking about transferring to administrative work, which, maybe. But at some point, no matter what, I'd have to go work for other programs and see other models. I don't want to tell the Director I'll stick around for a long time, and then not do it. On the other hand, I might come back next spring if they take care of me, or stay for the fall, but I sure won't do either of those things if they don't.

The truth is I hate being poor. I hate it in a lot of ways, from being dependent on my parents for health insurance to not being able to buy new clothes when I put holes in my jeans, and what I hate most is that it makes me think and talk about money all the time, and that makes me feel like I'm greedy and materialistic. It makes me resent my organization. I need to leave before I start really resenting them, because busting your ass for something you resent is no good at all, and it will mess up my teaching.

1. Small raise this year. Woohoo.
2. Except please, not in New York. I am apparently one of two people in the entire world who never ever wants to live there. It feels like too many rats in too small a cage, and I worry that I would have babies and chew their heads off. Or perhaps not have babies and just chew my own fingers off.
3. When my boss told me that he came in $20,000 under budget last year, I wanted to scream. But I also know that our national organization is broke and the local isn't that flush.
4. Philadelphia Boss apparently desperately wants these things to happen, and promises them because he thinks they're important. He's great. But he also needs to stop promising me things that he wants to be true and are nevertheless not certain, because it makes me not believe him.

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