"I am not a welfare queen," says Melissa Bruninga-Matteau.
That's how she feels compelled to start a conversation about how she, a white woman with a Ph.D. in medieval history and an adjunct professor, came to rely on food stamps and Medicaid. Ms. Bruninga-Matteau, a 43-year-old single mother who teaches two humanities courses at Yavapai College, in Prescott, Ariz., says the stereotype of the people receiving such aid does not reflect reality. Recipients include growing numbers of people like her, the highly educated, whose advanced degrees have not insulated them from financial hardship.
"I find it horrifying that someone who stands in front of college classes and teaches is on welfare," she says.
Ms. Bruninga-Matteau grew up in an upper-middle class family in Montana that valued hard work and saw educational achievement as the pathway to a successful career and a prosperous life. She entered graduate school at the University of California at Irvine in 2002, idealistic about landing a tenure-track job in her field. She never imagined that she'd end up trying to eke out a living, teaching college for poverty wages, with no benefits or job security.
Ms. Bruninga-Matteau always wanted to teach. She started working as an adjunct in graduate school. This semester she is working 20 hours each week, prepping, teaching, advising, and grading papers for two courses at Yavapai, a community college with campuses in Chino Valley, Clarkdale, Prescott, Prescott Valley, and Sedona. Her take-home pay is $900 a month, of which $750 goes to rent. Each week, she spends $40 on gas to get her to the campus; she lives 43 miles away, where housing is cheaper.
Ms. Bruninga-Matteau does not blame Yavapai College for her situation but rather the "systematic defunding of higher education." In Arizona last year, Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, signed a budget that cut the state's allocation to Yavapai's operating budget from $4.3-million to $900,000, which represented a 7.6 percent reduction in the college's operating budget. The cut led to an 18,000-hour reduction in the use of part-time faculty like Ms. Bruninga-Matteau.
"The media gives us this image that people who are on public assistance are dropouts, on drugs or alcohol, and are irresponsible," she says. "I'm not irresponsible. I'm highly educated. I have a whole lot of skills besides knowing about medieval history, and I've had other jobs. I've never made a lot of money, but I've been able to make enough to live on. Until now."