Where’s the compassion? Why the “Starving Student” idea is problematic

Photo Credit: TheStreet

Photo Credit: TheStreet

Something you might have heard, especially if you’ve ever asked your parents for money during the semester, is that you’re a “starving student”. This is a fairly popular, commonly-used phrase when talking about college and university students and frankly, it’s accurate.

Given the ever-increasing tuition rates, the cost of food, transportation, sky-high rent and all the other unexpected costs we face as students, it’s no surprise that “starving student” has caught on. But why do we accept that this is okay? Why do we think that it’s right for students to suffer? So often we’re told just to suck it up or cut down on unnecessary expenses, but at the end of the day the math doesn’t add up.

According to the Niagara Poverty Reduction Network, the living wage in Niagara is over $18.00 an hour. But in Ontario, the minimum wage is $14.00, with no signs of it increasing under Doug Ford’s government. Even those of us that have jobs that pay above minimum wage, they often don’t pay anywhere near $18.00 an hour. On top of that, this doesn’t factor in the cost of going to school, which was also recently made even more expensive thanks again to the Ford government’s massive cuts and other changes to OSAP. Given all of this, why do we insist that it’s okay for students to be broke and barely scraping by? Why are we always told that if only we would spend less money on iced coffees and avocado toast we’d be able to afford to live a dignified life?

The “starving student” mentality is largely the result of our culture. Our culture, that glorifies being wealthy and demonizes those who are poor or struggling, has really turned our priorities on their head. It’s made us less compassionate, because if you think that as long as you work hard you will be able to get ahead, then what does that say about the poor and working people? If I work a full time minimum wage job at $14.00 living in Niagara, then it doesn’t matter how hard I work, I’m still only “earning” a poverty wage. But if you’re a full time student, which means you have roughly 30 hours of class and additional course work to do each and every week, then you can forget about working a full time job and so you’re worse off.

The situation is even more dire when we look at the wealthiest in our society. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is worth over $100 billion. At minimum wage, if you worked full time for a year you would make just over $30,000 before taxes. Ultimately that means one of two things; either Jeff Bezos works 3 million times harder than you, or we need to fix the ludicrous income inequality in our society yesterday. One major way to help tackle income inequality is by investing in working people.

People are a long term investment in any society. Investing in people today, so that they can succeed and have access to opportunities in the future, means that your society will be better off. This type of long term, compassionate thinking has been largely replaced by a winner-take-all mentality, wherein life is a lottery where only a few people win and the rest of us suckers should’ve just bought a few more tickets. We see this mentality replicated all over in society, in the politics of people like Doug Ford, in our music and movies that idolize “self made” millionaires and even in the way we talk to our family and friends. It’s everywhere.

Understanding that all people have dignity and should all be able to guarantee a certain standard of living is a really radical opinion to hold today, but I don’t think it has to be that way. Why should students have to live on Kraft Dinner and ramen noodles because they can’t afford to buy groceries? Why should thousands of students across Ontario have to drop out of school because their OSAP loans and grants fell through two months before the new school year? This isn’t a matter of people being lazy or not working hard enough, this is about compassion, about basic human decency.

When we think about all people as deserving of a certain quality of life, where people can afford to have a well balanced diet and live above the poverty line (a radical idea, I know) then you can see just how insane this idea of the “starving student” really is. We shouldn’t judge everything on the basis of whether somebody “earned it” or not, but what we think all people deserve. That doesn’t mean that hard work isn’t important, but we’ve forgotten how to be compassionate and the “starving student” reflects that perfectly.

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