Nationwide, the number of poor who have attended college has almost doubled in the past 15 years on record, to more than 5.7 million. In Broward and Palm Beach counties, more than one out of every 10 adults living in poverty has a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to recent census estimates.
She keeps the stack of past due bills on a bookshelf, near her community college graduation photograph — the one where she is beaming in a shiny blue cap and gown.
After a long day at work, she feeds her two children a dinner of fish fingers and ketchup, filling their glasses half with orange juice and half with water to make the carton last.
Michelle Donaldson-McIntyre, 35, is a teaching assistant who spends her days telling students how important an education is but, so far, hers isn’t making much of a difference. Her pay is so low — about $15,000 a year — she can’t afford a baby sitter so she can attend night classes and turn her more than two years of college coursework into a bachelor’s degree.
She is part of a growing legion of South Florida residents who are classified as poor despite having attended a university or junior college.
Nationwide, the number of poor who have attended college has almost doubled in the past 15 years on record, to more than 5.7 million. In Broward and Palm Beach counties, more than one out of every 10 adults living in poverty has a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to recent census estimates. More than one out of every three of the area’s poor adults, ages 25 and older, have earned an associate’s degree or taken community college classes.
"It’s rough. It’s actually embarrassing," says Donaldson-McIntyre, a divorced Tamarac resident, of her low salary. "I struggled to get a higher education. I did it with my kids; I did it working two jobs. I have higher expectations of myself — I want more."
Poverty researchers say some of the increase in college-educated poor is, in an odd way, the byproduct of a good thing — a more educated populace. But, as degrees have become more plentiful, they have become less a guarantee of success.
In Palm Beach County, a group of unemployed professionals meet weekly to swap job-hunting tips, leads and encouragement.
At the meeting, anxiety simmers alongside the complimentary coffee. Although many of the networkers live in nice homes and wear suits, some have gone months with no income, putting them statistically in the ranks of the poor. The emotional wear is showing.
Karen Kuchta, 46, an out-of-work retail design manager from Jupiter, has been living off her savings since December.
"There is a whole side to this that is really, really lonely and really shakes you," she said. "You get really depressed. You say, `How do I even look for a job?’ I’m not getting interviews. I’m not getting calls back.’"
Others have had to downsize their ambitions, and settle for jobs that pay less.
"What I’m finding is more and more people who are under-employed. Someone might have a master’s degree but they’re working as a retail salesperson," says Mike McLaren, a career consultant for Workforce Alliance in West Palm Beach, which runs the group.
Economists and poverty researchers say multiple factors may account for the increase in needy college graduates: Not only a rise in college attendance, but also a shortage of high-end jobs, stagnant wages and eroding health benefits, downsizing and outsourcing — as well as the growing number of immigrants and single mothers. Single mothers tend to have lower household income and, especially in South Florida, officials report a rise in well-off, educated immigrants seeking a new home here.
The educated poor come from all backgrounds but, according to the latest census analysis, most are white and single women. Florida has a slightly greater percentage of poor college graduates than the country as a whole, and Palm Beach and Broward counties have slightly more than the state, the data show. In fact, in Palm Beach and Broward counties, there are more poor adults 25 and older with some college education than there are poor adult high school dropouts — a seemingly paradoxical statistic resulting from rising rates of college education and falling numbers of dropouts.
The silver lining: Some are poor only for a time. Having a degree means unemployment often is short-lived.
For others, however, the problem is not the absence of a job, but low wages and benefits. Most low-income parents work full time, according to the National Center for Children in Poverty.
"It’s not just the lack of income. It’s the lack of health care, it’s the lack of paid sick days," said Nancy Cauthen, deputy director of the center, which is part of Columbia University.
Laura Hansen, CEO of the Coalition to End Homelessness in Fort Lauderdale, has seen an increase in the proportion of the local homeless who have attended college, from 18 percent in 2000 to 27 percent in 2005, based on surveys her agency conducts. She blames low wages and unaffordable housing, pointing to her own industry:
"With nonprofits, we require college degrees for jobs that pay $25,000. Unless you are living with mom or married, you can’t pay rent."
Dave Denslow, a University of Florida economist, says the state does not have enough high-quality jobs, relying on tourism and retirees to fuel its economic engine. The result is a large demand for positions such as hotel maids and cooks.
To make matters worse, the housing slowdown has hurt construction and real estate, once a boon for South Florida’s economy. Companies are shedding jobs, as Susan Wayman, 55, of Palm Beach Gardens learned. She says she went from closing $40 million in homes sales in a year and a half as a real estate administrator to being laid off.
Despite her 30 years of experience, a bachelor’s degree in human resources and a real estate license, it took Wayman eight months to find a new job. Wayman now works for a company that redesigns golf courses. Her pay is about half what she made at the height of her career.
"Little did I have any suspicion that corporate downsizing would come out of nowhere," she recalled.
Jhanique Frederick, 23, who has a bachelor’s degree in public relations, worries she may one day have to move to Atlanta to pursue a career in her field. Until recently, she worked at a cellular phone store, making about $10 an hour. She will earn her MBA in June, a fact that helped get her a new job as an administrative assistant. The pay is better, $30,000 a year, but it still isn’t what she went to graduate school for.
"Every [public relations] job I find requires experience. Even internships I apply for, I get no response," said the Lauderdale Lakes resident.
Jared Bernstein, a senior economist with the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C. think tank, estimates that 16 percent of the U.S. workforce is like Frederick — college-educated, but working in jobs that don’t require a degree.
"That’s squandering a resource," he said. Between 2000 and 2004, he added, the average annual earnings of college-educated employees fell 5 percent, according to a 2006 report written by the president’s economic advisors.
One upside of being college-educated: low-income professionals can use their education to cope in creative ways. Sam Perry, a 51-year-old West Palm Beach artist whose income dips as low as about $20,000 a year despite his master’s degree in art, drives a 1998 Ford Ranger he swapped a painting for. Having no medical insurance, he has also traded for dental work and cortisone shots.
"Now," he jokes, "I just need to find a grocer who likes my art."
Donaldson-McIntyre was smart enough to buy a two-bedroom home in Tamarac years ago. Its $70,000 price tag makes her mortgage manageable.
Still, she worries that she might never finish her bachelor’s degree in education and will be forever stuck in poverty. For that reason, Donaldson-McIntyre has decided to sell her house and move to North Carolina, where her relatives can help take care of her children while she returns to college. It will be hard to leave South Florida and the teaching work she loves, but she feels she has no choice.
"If it comes down to staying in the job I love or supporting my family," she declares, "I’m going to support my family."