OP/ED - There are countless safety net programs available for older adults, but very few are available to students. As a student, you are ineligible for CalFresh unless you meet one of the special exceptions. In order to be eligible, you have to either have a child under 12, not be re-enrolled for the next term, receive a Pell Grant, work-study, or work a minimum of 20 hours a week. So, if you don’t have children, you’re still in school, you’re a grad student (grad students do not qualify for Pell grants), and you’re unable to work 20 hours a week because you’re a full-time student whose time is split between homework and internship, you’re out of luck.
A recent study by UCLA found that one in 5 community college students, one in 10 California State University students, and one in 20 University of California students are homeless. My own experiences give an example of what housing insecurity looks like. As a 22- year-old graduate student in Los Angeles working long hours at an unpaid internship, I needed to find an affordable apartment. I look on rental websites and was excited to see that there are affordable units being offered, but there’s one catch- it's senior housing. It's time to go back to the drawing board, so I went to the Los Angeles County Development Authority (LACDA) and try to apply for Section 8. I hit another roadblock; the wait list is closed and has been for years. Next, I tried the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA) and see that the waitlist last opened in October of 2022, and over 100,000 applications were received on the first day alone. Now not only am I not receiving food assistance, but I can’t find housing either.
It's clear that California does not have systems in place to support future teachers, doctors, nurses, social workers, etc., of America, but why not? There are many ways that California could support its students, including altering existing programs and creating additional safety nets. At the bare minimum, existing programs like Calfresh should expand eligibility requirements to include students who are working less than 20 hours per week and allow unpaid internships to be considered as work. Similarly, minimum wage legislation should be expanded to include mandatory but unpaid internships (like mine). Lastly, universities should be mandated to guarantee housing to graduate students for a minimum of half of the duration of their program.
The University of Southern California (USC) currently has 28,000 graduate students enrolled and allocates only 1,500 beds for its graduate population. Even accounting for those enrolled in online degree programs, that discrepancy means that thousands of students are forced to find housing in the Los Angeles area amidst a county-wide housing crisis. The median rent in Los Angeles is $2395, which is more than most, even those working full-time, can afford. How can students be expected to focus on their studies when their priority is trying to keep themselves alive? California can and should do better. We need to take care of the next generation of workers so they can learn to take care of us.
(Victoria Brown, Master of Social Work Student, USC Suzanne-Dworak Peck School of Social Work.)