OSU Anthropology Grad Students on GOP Tax Bill

November 28th, 2017

As a group, we are mostly students pursuing Master’s degrees in Applied Anthropology at Oregon State University. In the past few weeks, we have read many articles decrying the proposed changes in the House and Senate versions of the GOP tax bills, as well as several opinion pieces from PhD students from MIT and Princeton, and analyses of what student budgets would look like if legislators repeal the tax-exempt status of tuition waivers under Section 117(d). Many students receive a position as a GTA or GRA (Graduate Teaching or Research Assistant) that includes a modest stipend and a tuition waiver that allows us to take on the workload associated with graduate school without having to rely too heavily on student loans. Many of the prominent analyses have emphasized the damage that this bill could do to STEM-related fields, and particularly PhD students. We have written this letter to draw attention to the negative impacts that repealing Section 117(d) will have for liberal arts students who are just beginning their graduate studies.

We are very fortunate in our department as almost every student has the opportunity to take on these teaching duties, and this term we had over 500 undergraduate students in our classes. How modest is a teaching stipend? The average stipend for an Anthropology graduate student at OSU is $10,487 annually, or just shy of $900 monthly. We only earn this income during nine months of year, as GTA positions are not available during the Summer term. Most of us work .3 FTE, which amounts to 12 hours of lecturing, writing exams, grading assignments, and meeting with students each week. In order to qualify for these teaching positions, we must enroll in 12 credits – which entails a minimum of 36 hours of coursework per week. In total, we have a 48-hour work-week on paper; though in reality this figure often becomes closer to 60 hours as we work to maintain a minimum 3.5 GPA and to contribute through internships in our community.

In addition to this stipend that falls below the Federal Poverty Level, we receive a waiver that covers our annual tuition of $14,390. The changes included in the House bill would add this sum to our total taxable income, essentially diminishing the average student’s usable income by 14.5% or $1,522, which is close to two months of post-deduction paychecks. Many of us fail to see the GOP’s commitment to ensuring that “people get to keep more of their own money in their own pocket,” as Paul Ryan explained, in taxing graduate students on artificial income, and driving us further below the FPL.

As social scientists, we acknowledge that people live complex lives and that there is great value in illustrating how systemic forces play out on the scale of the individual. Towards this end, we believe that it will be useful to disentwine our voices and speak from our own perspectives on how this proposed change would affect our lives and capacities to study.

Micknai: The tax bill will disproportionately affect marginalized populations in the United States and abroad who rely heavily on tuition remission to realize our dreams of attending higher education. I am a womxn of color from the African diaspora. I am the daughter of generous, caring, ambitious, dreamers who happen to be refugees from Ethiopia. I am a first generation college student and the first in my family to pursue a graduate degree. I do not see myself reflected in the material I read in pursuit of my degree in Applied Anthropology. I do not see myself reflected in the faculty, staff, classroom makeup, school administration, or government. I was taught that in our America, hard work, dedication, intelligence, and good deeds meant that anything was possible. Somehow this seems impossible when I do not see myself reflected in the people who make decisions for me. This tax bill punishes those of us who would not be here without tuition remission. It punishes those of us who have to reassert our right to be in higher education everyday and have defied odds in order to find a place within the academy. This tax bill reminds us that education is not accessible to all. It is a privilege that is birthed from existing privileged and that no amount of hard work, dedication, or passion will ever make up for wealth. I work 20 hours per week, take 16 credit hours of class, and work an additional 10-15 hours a week on my research. This does not include the hours a week I dedicate to social justice and community organizing. The cost of living in Corvallis for the average graduate student is much higher than our stipend covers and many of us are far away from our families and support systems so we must rely on our once a month check to cover unforeseen expenses. We often have to cover research expenses, travel to conferences, additional reading materials, school supplies, and of course, self care. I firmly believe that we should not have to scrape, sacrifice, or go into debt so that we can eat, study, and live.

Rachel: I am the first person in my family to enter into a graduate program. Before starting this program at OSU, I completed my undergraduate degree at Georgia State University where I had the opportunity to study the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland. I became interested in counter-culture resistant groups and now study the causes, effects, and consequences in the rising white nationalist movement in the United States by working with a Neo-Nazi group here in Oregon. Not only do I take a full time class schedule and teach, I also have a part-time job in the Corvallis community to supplement my income. For me, the repeal of Section 117(d) would result in my take home pay (minus rent) from $353 to $245 per month. As I am already working two jobs and balancing my graduate studies, I do not think I would have the time for an additional job to supplement my lost income. I would seriously re-evaluate my continuing in any graduate level program.

Nick: I am a first-generation college student and the first person in my family to obtain a degree. Before starting this Master’s program, I passed a decade working in the food industry as a cook and on a small organic vegetable farm. Fascinated with food production systems, I was drawn to OSU’s graduate program because it has a reputation for Applied Anthropology -- using social science methods to address real-world problems -- and for its proximity to agriculture in the Willamette Valley. I now study the relationships between food policy, grassroots organizations, and family practices through fieldwork in Ecuador, an internship at an educational farm where we donate all of our produce to social services such as the South Corvallis Food Bank, and work with local action teams concerned with food security in Linn and Benton Counties. Personally, the repeal of Section 117(d) would result in my monthly take-home pay (minus rent) dropping from about $395 to $289. Given the amount of time that my studies and internship require, it is not feasible for me to take on part-time work in order to supplement this income, and I do not think that further graduate studies will be possible under these circumstances.

Darin: As an undergraduate I was able to work while I was taking classes to provide enough income to live comfortably. I worked as a Line Cook, Server, Host, and pretty much everything else you can think of in a restaurant. Prior to that I worked with my family on construction jobs as a subcontractor. I tell you this because these are no longer options for me. Simply put, it is not feasible for me to simultaneously be an effective teacher, good student, and valuable employee at a local contractor’s office or restaurant. By pursuing my interest in Environmental Anthropology I hope to find myself in the position to work with governmental agencies to help shape comprehensive and effective environmental policy, but this comes at the cost of being able to find non-university employment. As a Graduate Teaching Assistant (GTA) I am provided a modest stipend (well below the poverty line) and Tuition Reimbursement. This obligation consumes 8-14 hours of my week which ontop of my personal studies results in what essentially looks like a 48 hour work week while living in poverty. To be clear, I knew this when I signed up. What brought me to OSU was the promise of a GTA, and faculty that had experience doing almost exactly what I would like to do after receiving my graduate training. With the GTA secured, I figured that I could survive a few years of poverty to essentially have my graduate degree paid for. What I am looking at should this bill be passed is a situation where I will owe the government almost a third of what I was hoping to save myself, but without the option to pay it off over the course of several years. I went from a winning situation characterized by a short time of hardship to a functionally losing situation. Why should I be taxed on money that was never even paid to me? Who does this help?

We do not mean to speak for all students at OSU, nor for all Anthropology students in the US. We do want to encourage other students to speak out and contextualize the effects of repealing Section 117(d) to make sure that legislators understand that by taxing tuition waivers, they are making graduate studies inaccessible for many students.

In solidarity,

Oregon State University Anthropology Graduate Students