The Boise Convention and Visitors’ Bureau recently commissioned a video about Boise:
When I first saw it posted by a friend on Facebook, I commented, “This has not been my experience of Boise.” The response was basically, “You should get out more.”
Ah, I would. . . if only I could afford skiing, snowboarding, horseback riding, whitewater rafting, a nice road bike, hanging out in wine bars. . .or even tickets to cultural or athletic events. (A bit of good news: the Boise Art Museum is excellent and affordable, and BSU faculty have been admitted free for the past couple of years.)
But the truth is, even as a professor, I can’t. (Spoiler alert: My neighborhood and its environs aren’t featured anywhere in that video.)
I joined the professoriate not just because I love ideas and teaching, but because I had seen the comfortable lives my undergraduate professors led, and the relatively comfortable socioeconomics of my grad school profs. My parents were high school teachers, and I figured I could take a step up from there.
I know it’s gauche to talk specifics about income, but it’s important here, and my salary is public information anyway, so I’m laying it all out on the table.
My salary is $50,000 a year, plus usually a stipend of $3,000 in recognition of overload work I’ve undertaken (managing the department’s internships), which sounds comfortable, especially in Idaho, where the median household income is $45,500. In fact, my income is close to the average per capita income in Idaho’s wealthiest enclave, Sun Valley. And in fact, when you look at the median income numbers on that Wikipedia page, things don’t seem that bad in terms of income inequality.
After taxes and various deductions from my paycheck, I bring home about $31,000. The basic cost of living for a family of four in Boise is $56,491 per year. (Note: I used that site’s number-cruncher and discovered it calculates the cost of living for a family of two parents and one child to be $49,000, but it doesn’t include student loan payments.) When we moved here, Fang had to become a contractor and freelancer instead of an employee for the primary company he works for; the company cut back his hours, and now, of course, he has to pay self-employment taxes on that lowered income. He ended up working as the front-desk person in the History department for a couple of months, but he was working almost full-time and bringing home around $600 a month; he decided to find additional freelance work instead.
Fang’s experience with low-wage work in Idaho is not unusual. Idaho’s wages are the worst in the nation; the Spokesman-Review reports that “The Famous Potatoes state ranks 50th for average annual wage, per-capita income, and for wage increases since 2007. It also has the greatest percentage of minimum-wage workers in America.” Amen to the wage increases; this is my fourth year here, and my salary has increased a whopping 2 percent.
So yes, when I see the video “Boise is Waiting,” I’m thinking it’s waiting for people with far more disposable income than what I have, even though I’m clearly the demographic the video targets: a white, 30-something, culturally literate person, with kids, who has some leisure time. All those lists that suggest Boise is a great place to live typically only discuss the amenities in a part of Boise that constitutes less than 20 percent of the city’s area. Worse, urban planners here don’t talk about the rest of the city when they write articles about the city’s future; the vast majority of us, those who live in unfashionable neighborhoods, are largely invisible in city boosterism.
I shared my concerns with another junior faculty member at Boise State, and ze confessed ze had to go into forbearance because ze couldn’t pay hir student loans. Worse, ze has a serious, costly medical condition that isn’t adequately covered by the state employee insurance plan. Last year, Fang and I spent more than $10,000 on healthcare costs—only a small part of that total constitutes pre-tax employer-subsidized premiums—and we’re pretty healthy.
It’s not just junior faculty thusly challenged: I have a full professor colleague who can’t afford any internet but dial-up because hir partner can’t find a job—and hir partner doesn’t qualify for benefits at the university because theirs is not a “traditional” marriage. To use the iPad the university gave hir, my colleague has to go to McDonald’s to use the wifi.
I had to explain to a classified employee on campus today, someone new to higher ed, that while faculty spend our summers undertaking research and writing, which is required for our jobs, we don’t actually get paid for those three months. She looked at me as if I was crazy. Maybe I am.
It’s not as if the state and university don’t have the funds to compensate faculty appropriately. Like every other university, we have a recent proliferation of pricey vice presidents. Plus, look at these NCAA stats from USA Today: In 2012, Boise State spent $11 million in state appropriations and student tuition on athletics. Bonus: even with all this money, athletics doesn’t break even at Boise State, with a shortfall in 2012 of $1 million.
As you can imagine, it’s pretty demoralizing, especially considering we faculty are always hearing about how important it is for academic programs to be self-supporting.
It’s not just hurting Fang and me, of course; we send our kid to school in a state that ranks 50th in per-pupil spending. We’re definitely seeing the effects of that—and not just academically. Today, when I dropped the boy off at school, because it was 20°F or above (it was 21°), the kids had to stay outside. That’s school district policy, and our school has decided not to institute a more compassionate policy, even though children don’t thermoregulate well, and after a few minutes on the playground, the children become wan kidsicles. I’m guessing this decision to keep the kids outside stems partly from the school’s and district’s insufficient funds to hire child-minders for densely populated indoor play.
And yes, I understand these are all First World problems, and I’m luckier than most. (After all, I won the tenure-track lottery after only five years on the job market. And no, I’m not being sarcastic when I say that.) Still, within the U.S. and academic context, these remain problems that need to be addressed. We’re not just hurting faculty and students; we’re causing long-term damage to the state’s culture and economy.
But I’m confounded at the particular perfect storm of politics and culture that has engendered the situation here in Idaho. Lots of people are hurting, in the academy and beyond. Today I’m depressed because it’s the first day of the state’s legislative session, and I don’t expect anything to change this year.
I know some of my readers are going to have anecdotes of being outside at colder temperatures (as do I), and stories of working for lower wages (as have I), and tales of their partners struggling to find meaningful or reasonably remunerated work (waves hand). I, too, have adjuncted, and I, too, have worked with my hands and body, and I know first-hand the financial struggles of contingent academic labor and minimum-wage work. I sympathize—nay, empathize—with all these experiences. I read the higher-ed horror stories on blogs and in IHE and the Chronicle.
Some who read this will undoubtedly call me a complainer, but I offer up this information in the spirit of critique and hope that people will realize the myths they cling to—that there’s a low cost of living in Idaho, and that the BSU football team generates revenue, for example—are in need of some serious reappraisal. We must reconsider where we’re putting our resources.
If you leave a comment, then, I’d like to hear not just how well I have it relative to others—I already know that, and I’m grateful for what I do have, though I also know things could be much, much better for me and for others. Rather, I’d like to hear your experiences, particularly similar ones, and ideas for better investing our resources in Idaho and elsewhere.