Financial Aid Needs and Rights

I got some bad financial news last week, and it’s made me think a bit harder about my commitment to need-based aid, and, more generally, government programs, and, even more meta-y, wealth redistribution and equality.  This will probably be all over the place, but as Marty McFly once said to Marvin Berry and the Starlighters, “watch me for the changes, and try to keep up, okay?”

The story: last month, I was told (pardon the passive voice) I would be landing a fellowship that would allow me to spend an entire year writing my dissertation.  No teaching or other work necessary: just write the damned dissertation.  I was pleased.  Last week I learned that I wasn’t getting the fellowship, because the federal government deemed that I did not have enough financial need, based our income as reported on my FAFSA.  I was not pleased.  In fact, I was mad and indignant as hell.  “But, but, but…I need that money!”  I tried to figure out a way to tweak the FAFSA to make myself eligible, but we weren’t even close.   The fellowship, my fellowship, was gone.  It had been taken from me.

I had a temper tantrum.  I was robbed.  It wasn’t fair. But then I learned who would be getting the fellowship instead of me: a divorcee (and dear friend of mine!) who is raising a child on her own, with only teaching assistant gigs to pay the bills.  In short: someone who actually, truly, needs the money.

Now, I have always supported need-based financial aid.  And so do a lot of other people, I think; it’s one of the few methods of wealth-redistribution that most Americans support, based on our long-standing (and misguided) belief that education is the sole appropriate and allegedly-fully-adequate means by which anyone can rise to the top, pulling their boot- and backpack-straps all the way.  I have benefited from need-based aid.  It got me into college and sustained me while I was hunting down merit-based cash.  And to some extent, I feel like I still need aid.  After all, I don’t come from a wealthy family.  I don’t have stocks or bonds or whatever it is that rich people use to magically turn money into more money without actually working.

But I do have a $pou$e with a proper job.  And we “own” a home, a car, and a dog.  We go on vacations–sometimes even to Europe.  We eat out pretty much whenever we want.  We don’t have kids.   And so on.  In short: compared to a lot–most?–people, we’re pretty damned comfortable.  And that’s just dealing with class.  When you add language, gender, and race to the mix, I’m an outright privileged brat.

So why did I get so worked up when I lost that fellowship?  If, by most objective measures, I don’t actually need that fellowship, why did it feel so unfair? I’m still  figuring this out, but here are some of my observations/thoughts at this point:

1) When it’s all said and done, I still think that, given the current configuration of our higher education and economic systems, and wealth mal-distribution, need-based financial aid is just.  My single-mother friend needs this fellowship more than I do, so this all worked out the way it should.

2) More liberals (like me?) should have to go through this experience, where we actually have to feel the effects of the policies we support.  And I’m not talking about having to pay more taxes; I’m talking about some experience where one acutely feels a loss due to government policies that redistribute wealth.  Having done so and come to a conclusion that it was still the right thing to do, liberals might make better defenders of these programs.  “Look, I know that it doesn’t feel fair, but when you sit down and think about it, it is the right thing to do.”

3) This might be a symptom/example of a bigger problem:  liberal redistributive polices (at least as they are practiced in the United States) are based on needs (which are relative) instead of rights (which could be universal).  What if everyone in my cohort of students had a right to that year of funding?  It would have avoided the whole mess of me trying to compare my situation to that of other people and deciding that, in fact, my needs are less than others.  Go bigger with it: if everyone had a right to good, inexpensive public transportation, fewer people would get pissed that poor people use buses.  Or if everyone had a right to free child-care, families in Head Start wouldn’t have the stigma of taking handouts or whatever.  Hmmm.

I obviously haven’t fully digested this experience.  There’s history that I should be looking into here, too: the evolution of the American social safety net; the welfare-rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s; and, of course, socialism.  But I’ll leave it here.  After all, I have a dissertation to write.  No money to write it with, but whatever.

P.S. As I was writing this, I received an e-mail from the graduate school saying that my now-revised financial aid package (including only unsubsidized loans) is available to view.  What a co-ink-i-dink.

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