When people tell you that your years in college are the best years of your life, you can take comfort in the statistical reality that, in monetary terms at least, they’re lying. Even if your liberal arts degree and your barista skills allow you to only barely squeak past the poverty line after graduation, chances are you’ll never live in anything approaching the squalor of Ann Arbor student housing again.
With the poverty threshold for a single person at $9,250 per year, as of 2004, about 12.5 percent of Americans were living on less than $30 a day for rent, food, utilities and clothes. That may sound like an impossible feat, but in America, the homes of even the poorest of the poor might be more livable than your apartment.
Most poor people – that is, those who bring in less than $9,250 a year – have some amenities many students can only dream of. According to a compilation of government reports released by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, about 65 percent of poor people have an automatic dishwasher, 89 percent own a microwave oven and more than a third own their own washing machine. To many students, especially those in the residence halls, the idea of legally owning a microwave is glamorous, and at least anecdotally, having your own dishwasher is a big deal. And though many students manage to avoid having to trek down to the basement to use the coin laundry, washing machines are just the beginning of the disparities in appliances between students and the poor.
About 80 percent of poor families have air-conditioning. That might not seem like a lot, unless you consider that only about 54 percent of apartments currently listed on the University’s off-campus housing website claim to have AC, and in the dorms it’s usually available only to those savvy enough to get a doctor’s note about allergies.
The living spaces of the poor have more conveniences, but surely they also have less rooms to enjoy it. Dozens of poor people must be huddled in front of each air conditioner, right? Not quite. Impoverished Americans also have more space than many students. In the University residence halls, the average bedroom holds 1.6 people, according to statistics from the University Housing website. To put that into perspective, a building with any more than 1.5 persons in each room meets the census criteria for being “severely crowded,” a rare condition even in poverty, though that figure accounts for total rooms and not just bedrooms. In terms of square footage alone, people living in residence halls have 280 square feet of living space per person, the average poor person 439 and the average American 721. Even off-campus, it’s hard to imagine a student dwelling with more than two rooms for each person, but it’s not hard to find if you look outside of student housing – 66 percent of poor households have two or more rooms per occupant.
While it might seem like students’ frugality confines them to less-than-glamorous apartments, that’s likely not the case. The more you look at the fiscal standing of students, the more tragic it becomes. Student borrowing greatly outpaces that of poor people, traditionally thought of as the most debt-laden class. In 2004, the most recent year which census data was available on the topic, the bottom 20th percentile of American families carried $5,500 in total debt, $1,100 of that on credit cards. College students, on the other hand, typically graduate with $19,202 in debt, according to the InCharge Institute of America, with $2,700 of that on credit cards.
Whether it’s because of rising tuition or predatory student lenders, right out of college, most students are facing more economic hardship than the nation’s poorest people, though we’ll at least be used to living in an ugly apartment
by the time graduation rolls around. But all is not lost. The typical degree holder earns a salary that easily outpaces the poverty threshold, and for most of us, it won’t be long until we have our own dishwashers either.
The dismal student housing conditions on campus don’t mean students should stop caring about alleviating the burden of the poor – living on $30 a day is essentially impossible without a great deal of help. And after all, everyone knows that for those lucky enough to get there, college is just a temporary lack of material wealth which occurs after leaving the comfort of mom and dad’s but before you settle into your own mansion. Still, the next time you find yourself rummaging in your pockets to find change for a local panhandler, you can feel a little more virtuous, considering you might be giving money to someone who lives in a nicer apartment than you do.