Some choose poverty. Others have poverty thrust upon them.
At least that’s one way of interpreting the statistical findings from Major Dwight Jones’s Anti-Poverty Commission.
Of the 48,000 impoverished Richmonders, around 17.5 percent, or 8,500, are college students. Of the entire city’s population, impoverished college students only make up about 2 percent.
While that’s a significant number and we shouldn’t assume all students have support systems able to provide financial help or receive enough financial aid to comfortably live, it’s important to be cognizant of the struggles of others.
The commission defined poverty last month as “an economic condition involving inadequate resources…poverty also can be considered as involving multiple, overlapping disadvantages that inhibit human development and freedom.”
There may be students who struggle to feed themselves or find housing, but inherently, by being a student, they have access to basic human needs. If a student can’t afford off-campus housing, VCU provides comparably-priced residence halls, as well as mandatory and optional dining plans, depending on your classification and where you live. We also have student health services, effectively covering our medical needs.
The university even offers payment plans to help students pay piecemeal, rather than fronting the entire price.
In stating that, “the basic material needs of college students are adequately met, and we can assume that most undergraduates who complete their degrees successfully will be in position to earn incomes taking them above the poverty level,” the city relays their confidence in both student success and the university’s ability to care for students.
They’re right to not worry about students, especially since not all VCU students are Richmond residents and not all students will stay in Richmond after they graduate. They should instead focus on a larger agenda of rejuvenating the city.
Good or bad, we made the choice to attend college; whether and however forcefully that decision was, it was our decision. The larger percentage of Richmond residents who weren’t able to make a similar decision shouldn’t take the proverbial back seat just so we have our needs suited.
Student poverty is temporary. We don’t build the next decade of our lives around whatever part-time or full-time job we currently have. Unlike the other 47,500 impoverished Richmonders, this isn’t our ‘real life.’
A good portion of us can afford to live on a little over $11,000 a year, which is the federal poverty line for a household of one. The actual impoversihed residents of Richmond can’t live that life, year after year.
And yet they do.
Even without immediately becoming employed after college, those with a bachelor’s degree have a steep advantage over their competition. Virginia’s own government website points to educational attainment as one of the largest factors affecting and correlating with poverty levels. The other, economic opportunity, is significantly boosted by degree recipients. The Bureau of Labor Statistics also found that an adult with a bachelor’s degree earned 60 percent more than their high school diploma counterparts. They also are half as likely to become unemployed.
As students, we’re part of a privileged minority. Whatever hardships we now face pale in comparison to the everyday lives of the truly impoverished and working poor.
The best thing the university could do to help students in this respect would be to develop new programs or use existing ones, such as the ASPiRE program, to get students engaged in being the orchestrators of change within the city.
The commission’s recommendations will require critical citizen and legislative engagement, support from local business owners and banks, individuals to lead vocational training and outreach programs and community organizers. As an extension of the state and centered within the city, VCU and its students, has a unique chance to be an active, consistent force for change.
But the university alone should not be responsible for taking charge. Students, through organizations and individual movements, must take advantage of what’s available to them. Rarely are college students gifted with the chance to help reform a community.
Richmond is a breeding ground of opportunity for students. Let’s make the best of this opportunity and tap into it.