Public Comment from Caitrin Connolly-Olszewski

My name is Caitrin Connolly-Olszewski.  I am the wife of a UC Berkeley graduate student and a resident of UC Berkeley’s family housing at UC Village.  I am a trained Social Worker and currently serve on the board of the UC Village Residents Association and am also co-chair to the affordability committee.  
 
 
I am here today to talk about the high levels of financial need being experienced by Village residents and how this is directly related to UC policies of low wages and high rents. I have lived in the village for almost one year and continue to be shocked and appalled by very high levels of  poverty and food insecurity among student families.  Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined that I would leave my job as a social worker in Chicago only to find similar levels of need, hidden behind the picturesque facades of our family housing units here at beautiful UC Berkeley.
 
This summer our rent will be raised 1.5%, making the cost of a one bedroom apartment over $1,300 and two bedroom options well over $1,500.  Conservative estimates put this at a $300,000 revenue increase for the UC.   This is completely unsustainable considering the low salaries our residents receive.  We have initiated talks with housing administrators, where we attempted to explain the hardship factor of rent increases; however, it quickly became clear that the only party that would be financially benefiting from family housing would be the UC.
 
The purpose of family housing facilities at universities is to provide affordable housing as a benefit to counteract low wages and inspire students to attain higher education regardless of family situation. Here at UC Berkeley, however, the administration has taken the exact opposite approach and sees family housing as a revenue source and a means to balance their own budget.  Coincidentally, while residential services is meant to be a self-contained, self-funded program, 8% of all revenue gained from student housing campus-wide is being returned to the university for unspecified uses.  
 
In response to housing’s dismissive attitude regarding the hardship that high rents place on village families the affordability committee has developed a survey in an attempt to gather data on resident finances. The survey is currently ongoing; however, preliminary results have been shocking.  At this point our survey shows that 62% of our families subsist off of less than $30,000 a year, with almost 40% of that group reporting incomes of less than $20,000 per annum. For a little perspective, it is important to note that the website for the Finance and Administrative Services Department for the city of Albany where UC Village is located specifies that the Income qualifying level for “Very Low-Income” is $30,000 for a one person household. Furthermore, the MIT living wage calculator, which is a highly accurate tool that is widely used in many fields to estimate the cost living for low wage families states that a the living wage for a 2 person household in Alameda county is $48,000. It is important to note that this reflects a living wage, NOT a middle class standard of living. According to those calculations, 73% of village families make less than the living wage.
 
 
Not surprisingly, a direct result of student families low wages is high levels of food insecurity. According to our survey approximately 50%  of family housing residents rely on food assistance programs such as;  WIC, CalFresh (food stamps), food banks and the free and reduced school lunch program. Furthermore, I suspect that this number is not a true indicator of our communities need because of the fact that many international families are bared from accessing certain programs due to immigration status.
 
When I talk about student family poverty to people who are not currently experiencing it I often get the response that “its just a stage in your life” or “its just a stepping stone on your way to success” but the lasting impact that poverty has on young families is very real and should not be discredited. Every expert agrees that growing up poor has a negative effect on children. Things like family stress and lack of nutrition can have lasting effects children.  It doesn’t take a study to tell you that a child won’t succeed in school if he shows up hungry. It doesn’t take an expert to tell you that financial strain is one of the largest contributers to the divorce rate. It doesn’t take an expert to conclude that high rates of domestic violence among student families is a symptom that something is very, very wrong.
 
We have a systemic problem on our hands where young families are disproportionately affected and destabilized as an institution seeks to balance its budget on their backs. This isn’t a passing moment in the lives of these families. Debt, is the legacy of poverty and it will accompany them for years as they struggle under the weight of oppressive student loan and credit card debt.  56% of our families report that must supplement their income with student loans. 45% report that they are going into credit card debt in order to provide for their families basic needs. Only 10% report that they are able to put money in a savings account each month. This is not something that is going to go away.  This is something that is going to linger in the lives of these families and affect them for years to come. This is a cycle that is going to repeat itself as our children grow up and seek higher education for themselves. How can a family save for their child’s education when they themselves are still mired in student loan debt 20 years after graduation?
 
In recent years its been clear that the policy of the UC is to balance it’s budget on the backs of its students, but in the case of student families, it is impossible to deny that the UC is also balancing its budget on the backs of children. Students workers have the right to a living wages that allows them and their families to live with dignity. The family members of student workers deserve to have a voice.
 
Recently, I was informed that per UC definition, I as the spouse of a student am not considered a member of the public, but rather a member of the UC community, and therefore would be ineligible to testify at this event.  I find this rather ironic because the last time I checked, my membership in the UC community didn’t get me access to the libraries or the gym or even a bus pass…  I guess the only perks I get from membership in this community  are  sharing my husbands low salary, expensive housing and the option to pay hundreds of dollars a month for substandard health insurance! If the UC honestly considers the spouses and children of its students to be part of it’s community, then they should take some time to reevaluate their priorities and end the predatory policies that are destabilizing our families.

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