Tuesday, October 08, 2013


Follow the Bouncing Schedule

Sometimes I think that everyone who makes policy for a living should have to work for at least a few months in a minimum wage job at some point in their lives.  

Yes, they’d discover just how low the minimum wage actually is relative to the cost of living.  But they would also discover just how unstable the hours often are, and how damaging that instability is to people trying to move up in the world.  I was reminded of that yet again recently upon hearing Tyler Cowen declare on a podcast that worsening inequality is both inevitable and not really a big deal.  It is, and I see it on campus every day.

Among their other indignities, minimum wage jobs often come with hours that fluctuate from week to week.  That wreaks havoc with budgeting, for obvious reasons, but it also wreaks havoc with just about every other part of life.  If you don’t have a car, you rely on the local bus schedule to get around.  If your hours change every week, you may find your commuting time abruptly doubling because suddenly you’re out there when the buses only run once an hour.  (Alternately, if you have an unreliable car, a suddenly urgent repair can throw your budget into chaos at any moment.) If you’re juggling college with work, you have immovable class hours bumping into constantly-moving work hours; an arrangement you cobbled together this week may be completely upended next week, only to be upended again the following week.  That’s a level of daily stress that many of your fellow students aren’t carrying.

And that’s before considering childcare.  Children love routine, and care providers often require it.  Finding safe and affordable childcare is hard enough without the hours changing every week.  Daycare centers often aren’t open at night.  And even the ones that are often require a relatively stable set of hours each week.  

On the home front, constantly-shifting hours do a number of such basics as meal planning and shopping, let alone such “extras” as kids’ sports.  I’m constantly amazed that TB’s fall baseball team assumes that every kid can be at practice by 5:00 on weeknights.  And it’s not unusual in that.  Yes, people can find work-arounds sometimes, but every work-around requires more effort.  The sheer amount of work that goes into compensating for being non-standard amounts to a massive tax, or, if you prefer, insult added to injury.  

In this world, the argument for community colleges to offer online classes becomes pretty compelling.  If work and childcare and transportation arrangements are constantly shifting, it may be difficult or impossible to commit to being in room 125 every Tuesday at 11:00 for four months.  An online class is still a commitment -- and it presumes predictable internet access, which is a real cost -- but at least it takes some of the logistics out of the equation.  If that online class includes open educational resources in place of textbooks, then the cost to the student is reduced significantly, which helps, too.

I’m a fan of community colleges being reasonably responsive to student needs this way.  But at a certain point, the colleges can go only so far.  At some point, the issue is that what students really need is stable home lives with predictable work hours and safe childcare.  Some of that is beyond the reach of policy, obviously -- romantic breakups are a part of life -- but the level of risk that we offload onto the people with the fewest resources to handle it is just beyond reasonable.  

Yes, it’s about money, but it’s not just about money.  It’s about having enough predictability in life that you can devote time and energy to studying, rather than to figuring out where to put your kid next week or how to get to work when the engine is dead and the buses aren’t reliable.  Colleges can take positive steps, but if so many students are constantly exhausted just from navigating the vagaries of precarious lives, the effort will have to go far beyond colleges.  It would be helpful if the folks making educational policy choices had some sense of that.

They wouldn't get it. There's a big difference between having to have a minimum wage job and being low SES from a discriminated against group, and doing a minimum wage job as a lark as a high SES white male. Fox News recently had one of their commentators talk about his wonderful experience working a minimum wage job in high school and being promoted to manager right away at the tender age of 16. And now he's a Fox News commentator. So anybody can do it, starting with a minimum wage job. So we don't need to raise the minimum wage or do anything to help poor people. According to him. Because they should all be Fox News commentators by now if they'd just worked harder at their minimum wage jobs. (Which, of course, is total BS.)
There's also the negative effect poverty (and associated stress) has on IQ, which will also affect academic success.

Original study (if you have a Science subscription):


As reported in the Guardian (http://www.theguardian.com/science/2013/aug/29/poverty-mental-capacity-complex-tasks):

Poor people spend so much mental energy on the immediate problems of paying bills and cutting costs that they are left with less capacity to deal with other complex but important tasks, including education, training or managing their time, suggests research published on Thursday.

The cognitive deficit of being preoccupied with money problems was equivalent to a loss of 13 IQ points, losing an entire night's sleep or being a chronic alcoholic, according to the study. The authors say this could explain why poorer people are more likely to make mistakes or bad decisions that exacerbate their financial difficulties.

Anandi Mani, a research fellow at the Centre for Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy at the University of Warwick, one of the four authors of the study, said the findings also suggest how small interventions or "nudges" at appropriate moments to help poor people access services and resources could help them break out of the poverty trap. Writing in the journal Science, Mani said previous research has found that poor people use less preventive health care, do not stick to drug regimens, are tardier and less likely to keep appointments, are less productive workers, less attentive parents, and worse managers of their finances. "The question we therefore wanted to address is, is that a cause of poverty or a consequence of poverty?"

She said the team of researchers, which included economists and psychologists in the UK and the US, wanted to test a hypothesis: "The state of worrying where your next meal is going to come from – you have uncertain income or you have more expenses than you can manage and you have to juggle all these things and constantly being pre-occupied about putting out these fires – takes up so much of your mental bandwidth, that you have less in terms of cognitive capacity to deal with things which may not be as urgent as your immediate emergency, but which are, nevertheless, important for your benefit in the medium or longer term."


And on the BBC:

Juggling hours almost certainly has a negative effect. I wonder if anyone has done a study to quantify it?
"... minimum wage jobs often come with hours that fluctuate from week to week..."

Day-to-day is more like it. Many of my students (back when I was working) had part-time jobs, and which hours of the day they worked were rarely the same, even when scheduled in advance, and often varied with little advance notice ("Oh, by the way, we need you from 9 AM to 3 PM tomorrow, not 3 PM to 9 PM...", as you are leaving for the day...).

This is true, incidentally, of a large number of non-minimum wage jobs as well.
I preached about this at my church. Faith communities feel the effects of volatile scheduling (that's the technical term for it) in many ways -- people with unpredictable work schedules may show up at services most of the time, but they can't commit to singing in the choir, serving on committees, teaching Sunday School, or other activities where you have to know well ahead of time that you'll be available (or not).

My kids have worked in big box stores with volatile scheduling. They find the hours a much bigger burden than the pay, although the pay is not great even when it's not minimum wage.

UPS warehouse facilities, on the other hand, promise set hours and even advertises for college students who can manage the 5-hour shifts. This may be because the warehouse facilities are union, at least in our area.
It's a real dilemma, especially for child care. Due to (appropriate) limits on the number of children in a facility at a time, it is theoretically difficult to even offer flexible hours child. And if you do find it, it is unlikely to be priced for the minimum wage worker market.
There are some big things colleges can do to help that they often don't consider. These include:

Adopt the same holidays and breaks as the local K-12 schools. Your students, staff, and faculty will all thank you for that. It does mean that Monday classes get the shaft but there's nothing worse than having a mandatory lab on President’s Day when your daycare and kid’s school are closed. My college lumped all the Monday holidays into the winter break and never had 3-day weekends during the semester to make the schedule more coherent. It sucked for anyone with kids.

Have a “student friendly” job fair for local employers who offer jobs with good pay and regular work hours.

Have food carts or food trucks visit the campus at night. One of the hardest things about taking night classes is getting dinner. At my college, walking around downtown at night was pretty dangerous. A food truck or coffee cart would have made a killing from 6:30-7:30 when busy people were rushing from work to their night class.

Have one night a week two weeks before and after the semester start when student services are open. This would suck for scheduling and staff but for students who work during the day it would be a godsend.

Convert as much of the student services functions as you can to on-line. Add live chat with a service agent for those who can’t get the help they need from the website alone. This might actually help with throughput in your physical student services areas.
Ivory, those are all excellent ideas!

This isn't just about students. As an adjunct who never knows if I'll be teaching from term to term, or where, or when, scheduling plays havoc with my life (and my child's life) too.
Dear Anonymous 12:33 PM,

Thank you for the comment that it isn't just about the students. I always find it interesting that administration sometimes forgets that even faculty can have small children with daycare/school schedules which need to be met.

Ivory--I teach science at a CC and we pretty much avoid Monday labs. It's interesting when we're scheduling, but we manage to make it work.
My community college classes have been hybrid, with attendance on most days being optional or replaceable with an online participation instead. It's pretty awesome for exactly these scheduling reasons.

I do better actually going to class (and I suspect that's true for lots of students) but this week I had to miss class, so I posted in the online discussion instead. Syllabuses, materials presented in class, assignments (and assignment submissions) are all online, as are tests.

I would bet the teachers enjoy not having to listen to students reasons for not making it to class, too.
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