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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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May 9, 2012

PhDs On Food Stamps?

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Posted by Derek

A number of people have sent me this article about the number of people with Master's and PhD degrees who are receiving food stamps. And while it's undeniable that the numbers have grown, I'd ask for everyone to keep their statistical glasses on. According to the chart at the end of the piece, the percentage of doctorate holders receiving assistance went from 0.05% in 2007 to 0.15% in 2010. (For MS/MA degree holders, it went from 0.5% to 1.3% over that same time).

So it can't be said that this is a widespread phenomenon. One would also want to see the numbers broken down by age cohort, and (especially) by field of study. The examples in the article are all history and English types. Also, if those figures are correct, the headline could have just as easily read "Master's Degree Holders Ten Times More Likely To Be On Food Stamps".

Honestly, the number I find most alarming in that chart is the total number of advanced degree holders. We went from 20 million in 2007 to 22 million in 2010 - two million more in only three years? The population of the country went from 301 million to 313 million during that time, so that's a pretty good crop of degree holders. Given what the economy has been like during that period, I'm surprised the food stamp figures aren't even higher.

Looking at advanced degrees as a percentage of the population, we have 4.3% in 1970, 7.2% in 1980, 8.8% in 1990, 8.6% in 2000 (a decrease I'm at a loss to explain), and 10.6% in 2009. Those figures don't quite add up with the ones in the food stamp article, but the trend certainly is in the same direction. We have figures in the growth in bachelor's degree or higher going back to 1940, and they show the relentless uptrend you'd expect.

So it shouldn't come as a surprise that well-educated people are participating more in some of the downsides that hit the rest of the population. Well-educated people are becoming more and more of the population.

Comments (20) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Business and Markets | General Scientific News | Graduate School


1. Karel Capek on May 9, 2012 7:52 AM writes...

The statistics reveal that more of the population holds an advanced degree. You infer this means they are well-educated people.
A tenuous connection, perhaps.

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2. Dr. Manhattan on May 9, 2012 8:04 AM writes...

"We went from 20 million in 2007 to 22 million in 2010 - two million more in only three years?"

Those were the deepest years of the latest recession. Often, when college graduates have little opportunity when they graduate, they defer eforts to enter the workforce to obtain an advanced degree. The idea, probably not well supported, is that a masters will give you an advantage in job hunting.

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3. davesnyd on May 9, 2012 8:18 AM writes...

How much is cyclical (of a more or less twenty year period)?

I was in grad school in the early 90s and saw people who were completing their first decade of post-docs (or equivalent) position and couldn't find permanent jobs.

When we complained about how bad the job market was, our faculty members did one of the "you kids have it easy" things and talked about how when they graduated in the 70s, twenty-ish years before, PhDs were taking jobs driving taxis.

Here we are, twenty years later... times are tough generally, but it sure does seem like there are crests and troughs, too.

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4. PharmaHeretic on May 9, 2012 8:19 AM writes...

Maybe it is YOU who should look at the statistics a bit more carefully-

First of all, how many people have a PhD in the USA? The best guess for the total number of PhDs in all areas of study is less than a million. So 30k out of less than 1 million is closer to 3 %. Also note that it went up from 0.9 % to 3 % in 3 years.

What age group is more likely to be a PhD on foodstamps- younger or older? My guess is that those who have recently graduated are far more likely to be on food stamps than those who did so years ago. Then there is the question of who qualifies for food stamps. Governments who bail out banks for trillions of dollars are very stingy when it comes to things like food stamp eligibility. Furthermore many PhDs in dire straights might have a spouse or parents who is helping them.

After considering all of the above- the realistic percentage of PhD holders in dire financial circumstances is probably closer to the double digit mark. In my opinion this is the first real sign that the PhD ponzi scheme has hit its iceberg. Not been able to consistently afford food is a something that cannot be wished away.

Hopefully the ticked off recent graduates will now take out their anger on those who put them in that situation.

PS: It has nothing to do with the area of study as those with a PhD in Chemistry don't make that much more as adjuncts than somebody with a PhD in English literature.

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5. RB Woodweird on May 9, 2012 8:25 AM writes...

This does not strike me as a huge surprise. I mean, didn't you look around at your peers in graduate school and notice more than a few who didn't seem like they would be functional in the real world?

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6. WCA on May 9, 2012 8:31 AM writes...

"As a man, I felt like I was a failure. I had devoted myself to the world of cerebral activity. I had learned a practical skill that was elitist," he says. "Perhaps I should have been learning a skill that the economy supports."

This line from that article made me pause a bit. There's been a lot of discussion on various blogs about the overproduction of PhDs since the economy hit the skids. If you are getting a PhD in organic chemistry today, are you simply pursuing an elitist path that probably won't help you get a job? Would you be better off becoming a plumber? As someone who has had plumbing work done, those guys don't exactly charge peanuts...

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7. PharmaHeretic on May 9, 2012 8:32 AM writes...


What real world? Do you seriously believe in that Calvinist bullshit? Have you ever spent time around people employed in well paid and stable jobs in municipalities, state governments and the HR and administrative departments of large companies?

If you think that hacks with such jobs are capable of doing something beyond keeping their seat warm and spouting bullshit, I have a bridge to sell you.

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8. Anchor on May 9, 2012 9:29 AM writes...

Indeed it is tragic. Mindless and wacky politicians in DC (loaded with hefty salary, health care, pension benefits) want to eliminate this program and if that happens several more will slip from a middle class to poor. Wonder how many fellow chemists of mine are on food stamp?

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9. alig on May 9, 2012 9:40 AM writes...

@#4 according to the census bureau in 2004 more than 2.4 million US residents had doctorate degrees. I choose to believe the census bureau over your best guess.

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10. Jim on May 9, 2012 9:55 AM writes...

Both wrong. Blaming the unemployed for their trouble, these days, is amazingly clueless. But local and state governments have been cutting, too, so assuming that those workers are in cushy situations is wrong too.

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11. RB Woodweird on May 9, 2012 9:58 AM writes...


Please spell my fake name correctly, if you please.

I have worked in a mine. I have driven heavy equipment. I have a PhD. There is a real world. Come and visit us sometime.

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12. Andrew Ryan on May 9, 2012 10:04 AM writes...

I am generally sympathetic to the very real humilation and suffering of these individuals. However, the hard-headed pragmatist in me says "Why are these people having children if they can't afford them? If you have an advanced degree you can certainly figure out how to take a pill each day or use a condom."

As for the single mom with twins, there is no mention of the father--contraception, marriage or poverty--pick which one you prefer.

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13. Paul on May 9, 2012 10:16 AM writes...

Since over 4% of the US adult population is classified as having a serious mental illness, I'm a bit surprised the numbers are that low. Maybe most of those don't get PhDs.

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14. Puddnhead Wilson on May 9, 2012 10:45 AM writes...

@ #12: Maybe it would be beneficial for every person to reflect on the responsibilities involved in raising children well when deciding whether to have children. Some think that a family is a blessing only if the couple wants to expand it, and only if they do so when they have enough resources to support a family. From a philosophical viewpoint, this is a dangerous path of thought to follow because the worthiness of people to have families is then based on the subjective criteria of the strong. Poor people could potentially be seen as unfit parents, even if they live their lives virtuously.

There are many people in financial hardship who are very good parents, and there are plenty of middle- and upper-class parents who are not. Children do require resources, I agree, but it takes more than money to give kids what they need to be happy and healthy.

Also, use of artificial contraception is not necessarily an indicator of intelligence.

Have a nice day.

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15. newnickname on May 9, 2012 11:13 AM writes...

Much has been written on the topic, but Wilf Cude's "The PhD Trap" (1987; 2nd Ed 2000) has a particularly apt and foreboding title. And, it's a good and entertaining read!

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16. Tuomas Pylkkö on May 9, 2012 12:08 PM writes...

Without knowing the details about the situation and politics over there in the states, I think that in general looking at the amount of PhD's on wellfare is probably not a good measure of the employment situation "out there". This is because most PhD's are well capable of holding almost any position. Most doctors would be more interested in knowing how many others holding the degree are forced to work in jobs that they are overqualified for, or in areas that they do not consider to be their actual area of expertise. This might be a better measure of whether or not the field is oversaturated or not.

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17. Anon on May 9, 2012 2:08 PM writes...


If you think that hacks with such jobs are capable of doing something beyond keeping their seat warm and spouting bullshit, I have a bridge to sell you.

Well said. Who needs Ayn Rand when the most productive members of society are forcibly marginalized, instead of voluntarily shrugging out of disgust?

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18. William B Swift on May 9, 2012 5:19 PM writes...

>8.8% in 1990, 8.6% in 2000 (a decrease I'm at a loss to explain)

I suspect that the dot-com boom may have sucked a large number of potential students out of academia. The "10.6% in 2009" suggests that at least some may have returned to academia later.

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19. Alex on May 12, 2012 7:54 AM writes...

What's about chemists?

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20. Anonymous on May 14, 2012 5:09 PM writes...

When I was laid off for the first time, the thought of getting food stamps never even entered my mind. Second time I filed an application right away.

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