My name is Tim Burnette, and I’m a second year Biology and Sociology major at Grinnell. I’m a low-income and first-generation student, and you have recently offended me on a HIGHLY personal level.
It all started with the Town Hall on Policy Changes on August, 30th. It was a fairly calm discussion—until the end. A student brought up the rumor that these policy changes were to attract more rich students, as the student claimed that rich parents care more about health. You responded by a denial of this accusation, and that ALL families care about health. You claimed to act on the behalf of all students.
I have to wonder if you have ever actually talked with a low-income student or family. I’m going to break it down for you very simply: you are wrong. Low-income students do not often have families where health is a major concern; they lack the luxury to do so. It’s a matter of privilege. When you are poor, you think about other issues first: did I pay my rent? Do I have money for food? How am I going to pay the electric bill? Health goes on the backburner. It is not a priority. From a low-income perspective, health is something to worry about another time.
A prime example was that of my mother. This summer, my mother experienced a devastating car accident. The cause of the accident is still unknown; all I know is that my mother crossed into the other lane. What I do know is this: my mother was eternally tired. My mother had recently been promoted to a full-time maintenance job. She accepted this position because she wanted to make a better life for herself and our family. However, once she began making more money, there was an immediate reduction in SNAP benefits, and her goal of building a cash savings would not be met due to the extra cash being spent on food. To achieve her goal, she accepted overtime hours to build cash savings. And then more SNAP benefits were cut.
Think about that last chunk of information. Each time my mom got closer to her goal, she was set back. She worked herself to an eternal exhaustion, and yet she kept on chugging. She slept less and less, worried more and more, and her condition only worsened. She put her health on the backburner.
My mom passed this summer. She passed because she had a terrible car accident that was likely caused by her utter exhaustion. She passed because she was not able to heal. She passed because she put her health on the backburner. She passed because her health was not a priority.
So for you to claim that ALL families care about health is not only vexing but also triggering. The next time you have a talk with students, do NOT make a claim that you cannot support. Do NOT claim to understand a group of students without first consulting them. You crossed a line.
To make this offense worse, you and the administration failed low-income students this week on a different occasion. On Thursday, September 1st, Valentine (a student who wishes to remain anonymous) went to a pharmacy to purchase their medication. A low-income student, Valentine purchased insurance through the college as it was the cheaper option. When they began checkout, they were promptly told that their insurance card had expired; of course, this was the insurance card from the past year. Valentine then spoke with the Office of Financial Aid to find out that the names of students purchasing insurance were only recently sent out. This then prompted a 30-minute phone call with the health insurance company, which ended in Valentine purchasing the medicine out of pocket: an unexpected expense of $23.
This is NOT acceptable. No information of any sort was supplied from ANYONE at Grinnell College about a gap in coverage. I was under the impression that insurance purchased through the college began when classes did, as was Valentine, and no information otherwise was communicated. What if I was hospitalized in this period? What would happen? Would I be forced to use my meager savings to cover health costs that insurance I purchased through the college would have covered? I do not know, but I should not need to wonder.
Grinnell as an institution claims to support diversity, and you claim that Grinnell cares about all students’ health. Yet in this case, low-income students who purchase insurance through the college were left with a gap in coverage. A low-income student faced additional stress as they were forced to pay out of pocket due to a failure on YOUR part, and this will cause financial strain for the next few weeks. You failed them AND their health, that you claimed to care so much about at the Town Hall. As Valentine already stressed over financial matters, this expense means Valentine will have less money for food, hygiene items, etc.
You and the administration created this situation when you marginalize low-income students on campus. You often claim us when discussing statistics in Admissions, but are we really supported, or are we falling through the cracks?
Therefore, consider the following: if you continue to ignore the insurance gap, do not claim to support low-income students; if you continue to speak unknowledgeably like at the Town Hall, do not claim to support us; if you cannot make us feel supported, do not claim to support us.
I challenge you and Grinnell Administration to talk with low-income students. Be open-minded to our perspectives. Understand where we come from. Work with us to foster support. But until then, do not claim to support us.
With Change in Mind,
Editor’s Note: This letter was sent to President Kington on Friday, September 2nd. Since this time, the insurance gap has ended.