Picture this: you’re a TA at UC Santa Barbara, and in the middle of a class, you get a minor pain in your back tooth. You make a mental note to have it checked out and you continue about your busy week. 

You eventually get an appointment at the Student Health dentist after about three weeks of waiting. The pain has lingered and you’re noticing the tooth is sensitive to temperature. You’ve got a couple hundred dollars stashed in your savings account, so you figure this is an emergency you can handle. 

The dentist tells you it’s time to do a root canal and crown on that back tooth. You’ve got major dental anxiety, but you know you can’t go to an office that offers sedation because that’s not covered by insurance. So you make the appointment for the root canal and they give you the statement: Delta Dental, the Academic Student Employee dental insurance provider, only covers crowns up to eighty percent, because they’re “cosmetic procedures.”

While this information is not transparent in our explanation of benefits sheet, it is what all students seeking dental care are told by the Dental Clinic in Student Health. Now you’re faced with a $1200 out-of-pocket bill. This is more than half of your monthly salary. 

If you’re lucky, you have family or a reasonable interest rate on your credit card, and you can just slide into a bit more debt that you already had to handle this medical emergency. But if you don’t have those things — where do you go?

Some grad students seek out care from their communities to pay for these emergencies. Both the Asian and Pacific Islander Graduate Student Association (APIGSA) and the Queer and Trans Graduate Student Union (QTGSU) offer mini-grants — small payments of $100, $150, or $200 to help their members pay for all the things they can’t afford on our current TA salary. Sometimes these grants are requested for conference fees or research support; sometimes they’re for food, housing or childcare; occasionally they are for transportation or costs associated with emotional support animals. But time and time again, APIGSA and QTGSU members have requested these grants to help pay for medical expenses, and the most represented category of medical expenses is — you guessed it — dental. 

In fact, the APIGSA microgrant program was founded in December 2020, when the organization’s executive board realized that most of the operational budget would go un-spent so long as the COVID-19 pandemic prevented in-person community events. The board founded the micro-grant program with the idea that it would go towards the purchase of masks, childcare expenses or emergency travel expenses so that people could self-isolate with their families. And while grants have been distributed that address all of those needs, a total of $2,250 have been disbursed for medical needs, and $1,050 of that has been for dental care alone, as per organizational internal record-keeping. That is 47% of all applications based on medical need, and 27% of all applications overall (these figures may be higher, as some applications do not specify as to the nature of their financial need, which is not required for the application). 

But, numbers aside, it should go without saying that a student group should not be in the position of having to fund members’ medical or dental care in the first place.

QTGSU’s mini-grant program was founded during Winter Quarter 2021 for many of the same reasons, and during the entire year of 2021, 33 grants amounting to $3600 have been distributed to queer and trans graduate students in need (again based on internal record-keeping). Eleven of these applicants marked the “medical” application category, and several of these anecdotally disclosed dental challenges as their reason for application. These numbers illustrate the serious financial challenges that graduate students face – challenges that are disproportionately affecting the marginalized graduate students that constitute the APIGSA and QTGSU membership. 

But, numbers aside, it should go without saying that a student group should not be in the position of having to fund members’ medical or dental care in the first place.

How far can a couple hundred dollars from your already-chronically-under-supported community really go? It’s not going to get you that root canal. Take a look at this anecdote from a grant recipient, shared with their permission, for a better idea of the scope of this challenge: 

“I have had to get two emergency crowns this year and the current co-pay [sic] is at $3000 (and mounting). Many of my other teeth are cracked and I will likely need to get replacement/new fillings to address those in [the] next year. My monthly TA stipend does not even begin to cover the medical cost, and any help would be great.” status: granted $200

Maybe you seek out other campus resources — like the Student Medical Emergency Relief Fund (SMERF) grant, the financial crisis response team, the GSA emergency grant or the COVID-19 relief grant — to help you pay for this procedure. Each of these programs have clear limitations, though, like asking you to take out at least half of the student loans offered to you via FAFSA (this is a requirement for assistance from the Financial Crisis Response Team, although applicants are only informed via email from the Financial Crisis Response Team after they apply). This means that many graduate students who work to receive tuition remission may not have access to that fund if they have not taken out student loans that quarter.

Access to funds through any of these avenues is not guaranteed and may not completely pay for your procedure. And, if you’re in pain, you may not have time to wait weeks while the admin wade through red tape to approve or deny your request. Of course, dental pain can seem minor, until it’s suddenly not. Not only will the pain increase exponentially, but the infection can and will spread throughout the gum line, endangering other teeth. And from there, the infection can damage the central nervous system.

So you are left in a bind, with an aching tooth, wondering how you are a doctoral student at an R1 university and still can’t afford basic dental care. 

Administrative responses to this criticism might remind graduate students that our dental care through Delta Dental is on par with coverage in other industries. This is true. But, as UCOP has demonstrated through the COLA movement, the UC system is intent on keeping graduate student ASEs below the poverty line, as evidenced by the fact that TAs continue to earn $21,000 a year in a state with one of the highest costs of living in the U.S. We cannot cover these out-of-pocket costs like folks in other industries might be able to. We do not have rainy-day funds. TAs carry the bulk of the teaching load at UC, but we are struggling to pay our rent, let alone out-of-pocket dental costs amounting to hundreds or thousands of dollars. 

What all comments about the complexity of health insurance and HMO’s and medical bureaucracy obfuscate is a very simple fact: Someone is failing us. UAW 2865, the union representing UC ASEs, has recently entered bargaining. We hope to see demonstrable gains in our contracts: We hope to be pulled out of poverty, to enhance worker protections for marginalized groups and to improve our healthcare. But this cannot happen unless UCOP and the administration at each UC start to care about the suffering of graduate student laborers on their campuses. We don’t see Chancellor Henry T. Yang donating his 23% raise to a dental fund for impoverished graduate students anytime soon. As ever, all we have is each other. The first step is naming the problem and from there we can begin to imagine solutions in a more just and humane world. We call upon UC administrators to work with us to solve this problem, and keep our bones in our heads.

Janna Haider and Jaimee Cook believe that the University of California has a moral obligation to provide more robust dental care for its graduate student employees so that student organizations representing graduate students holding marginalized identities don’t have to use their operating budgets to help members pay for emergency dental care.