Poverty is dehumanizing. It has the power to reduce people’s outward identities to messages written on cardboard signs — messages that don’t seek justice, or a return to dignity, but instead ask for only a dollar from your pocket. For the cardboard-communicating poor, autonomy is a pipe-dream. Even eating is no longer choice, but becomes more a matter of ‘if’ than ‘when’ or ‘where.’
It is curious then, to hear students — some of whom are very well fed — identify with poverty by referring to themselves as ‘starving students,’ or otherwise affect a lack of affluence.
As students, we choose to give up a large amount of our time to pursuits that do not yield wages, let alone profit; furthermore, we pay for the privilege. Granted, we may be borrowing the money — effectively off-setting the costs, and relegating them to a time when we will choose to work and earn money.
But even the ability to borrow money is itself an indication of a certain kind of financial stability. Money-lenders, by definition, are not charities because they expect a return. The assumptions accompanying these loans are that those who receive them will soon be in a position to pay back what has been borrowed. Providing students with tens of thousands of dollars, while knowing that this transaction is only temporary, must carry only a minimal risk to the money-lender. Otherwise, the system would be unprofitable and it would not be in their interest to do it.
In contrast, the non-working poor are not extended credit of any kind. When applying for credit, or for a loan, any applicant is required to indicate their income, and their place of residence. The answers to these questions — panhandling change, and a sleeping bag on the corner of Bedford and Bloor — would certainly disqualify the applicant. Money-lenders refrain from dealing with those who may not be able to pay them back.
There is a very real division between the student conception of poverty and its reality. It is unquestionable to compare the banal image of ‘broke’ students — who can still somehow afford five dollar lattes — with the far more visceral image of a child sleeping on a subway vent in a torn, stained sleeping bag in sub-zero temperatures, because we as a society have let them down. This is why it is ignorant and disrespectful of U of T students to falsely associate themselves with what could be seen as one of societies’ greatest failings. Those who are in a position of privilege, at least in terms of becoming educated, and with perhaps an alleged interest in improving society, should not seek to identify with a problem they purport to find appalling.
In the most generous of terms, this association with poverty could, perhaps, be rooted in the way we speak. It may derive from a negligent use of colloquial language, in which phrases that once possessed a particular meaning are consistently and thoughtlessly misused due to of mindless repetition. These phrases have now come to mean something very different. It could just be that for those aware of the way language has evolved on our university campus, this linguistic association with poverty merely refers to the very tight budgeting that is required of students, especially those students who are financing their education without familial support.
I fear, however, that these pretensions of poverty reflect something more insidious than just lazy linguistics. There are layers of significance to the prevalent use of the phrase ‘starving students,’ one of which is undoubtedly that students occasionally go hungry. On a more general level, it seems to indicate a certain outrage at the idea that being a student is not always comfortable, and that temporary, unpleasant sacrifices ought not to be a part of the student experience. Unfortunately, sacrifices and discomfort are essential elements of learning, for example, an individual must sacrifice what they think they know as well as face uncomfortable intellectual challenges from their peers.
Going to university is a choice, and although it often entails degrees of austerity, the truth is that one could have chosen to do otherwise. Individuals who face real problems of poverty have no such choice. Thus, in no uncertain terms should we conflate our choice to attend university, our elected austerity, with enduring real poverty.
Sean Smith is at Woodsworth College studying philosophy and English. He is The Varsity’s senior copy editor.