Homelessness and CRM Archaeology 2

It's true. There are homeless archaeologists in the United StatesSome cultural resource management archaeologists are homeless. I’ve known this for years. It’s a part of being an archaeologist in the United States we don’t want to talk about.

Cultural resource management archaeology is an unconventional career where practitioners can expect to spend extended periods away from home while working. The “being in the field” part of a CRMer’s career can last for years—sometimes decades. Archaeological field technicians can expect to be away from their domicile for at least half of the work-year (25 of 50 workweeks a year [that is if you work all 50 workweeks]). Sometimes we will spend the entire year in the field.

Being in the field is not necessarily being homeless. You will be living out of a hotel room or camping, but the company is obliged to provide some sort of shelter while you are working on the project. CRMers are not truly homeless on the undesirable projects where the company doesn’t pay for your housing over the weekend either because you can expect to get a shower once the project starts and the company starts covering your lodging again. Paying for your own hotel or camping for 2—4 days until the project starts again isn’t necessarily homelessness.

“Shovelbums” traversing the country, going from project to project, of their own volition are also not necessarily homeless either. Technically, they’re living the “laptop lifestyle” until they find a permanent position. Most of these folks are only temporarily without a home, but fully anticipate on living somewhere as soon as they can.

I’m talking about archaeologists who are working but do not have a forwarding address because they cannot afford it; those among us who have no permanent dwelling in which to lay their head at night because they do not make enough money. Homeless archaeologists are those who are couchsurfing, living out of a truck, “camping” for weeks between projects, or living in a location where your CRM wages are not sufficient enough to pay for an apartment (ahem, coastal California). When I say homelessness among archaeologists, I’m talking about those who do not have the financial resources to pay for housing despite having a job.

In the United States, an increasing number of politicians, government administrators, company owners, and capitalists feel like having a place to live is a privilege rather than a right. Rising housing costs combined with stagnant wages is forcing families and individuals into homelessness across the country. This is striking working and middle class people across the country. While elites make more money than ever, our governments are slow and hamfisted in their approach to the problem. Homeless archaeologists is just one result.

For some Americans, homeless starts with college

You don’t need a college degree to do archaeology but you need one if you plan on getting paid to do it. Unfortunately, college isn’t cheap. I have long advocated that aspiring archaeologists get the most affordable undergraduate degree they can achieve unless the institution provides a full ride scholarship. In the last year, I’ve learned that a full ride scholarship isn’t enough to cover housing in expensive parts of the country like California. Many California college students are homeless.

California has a housing crisis but the true crisis is the regulatory morass, NIMBY-ism, and real estate speculation that prevents affordable housing from being built in areas where all the people live. This makes it nearly impossible for universities to provide enough housing. Homelessness is growing among student bodies at all the campuses in the University of California system.

When universities are unable to help, students are resorting to living in homeless shelters or using other informal networks. These are students who are, sometimes with their families, working hard to make money, find food, maintain hygiene, and complete school assignments. The psychological toll is extraordinary.

Half of Berkeley incoming undergraduates come from community colleges. The ability to conduct world-class research and recruit the best students from California is one of the reasons why this is the best public university in the world. But, this comes at a price. UC Berkeley students aren’t all from elite families like other top university students. They are real Californians coming from a range of backgrounds. It’s hard to think about internships and homework when you don’t have a place to live:


Homeless students are attending a completely different university than their peers. Their troubles include the sorts of things that don’t even enter the radar of traditional students.

It’s easy to think this is a California thing. It’s not.

The homelessness crisis is not only “a thing” in California. Homelessness is widespread across the United States.

You might think it’s only for twentysomethings. It’s not.

How Homelessness among College Students Effects CRM Archaeology

For a homeless or working class college student, there is pressure to pursue a job field with earning potential. Business, medicine, hard sciences, engineering, architecture are all more attractive fields for students with working class backgrounds. Students who have faced difficulties in life are also more interested in helping others who have had similar life experiences even though many of these fields don’t’ pay well. Social work, law, education, counseling and similar fields have the potential to have a more direct impact on a person’s day-to-day experience than archaeology.

So, who ends up following the long path towards archaeology? The demographics speak for themselves. European Americans from middle or upper class backgrounds who had college graduates as parents. Increasing diversity in archaeology is already difficult but the entire endeavor seems to cater to students and early careerists who have something to fall back upon, which is a privilege many first-generation, working class, African American, Hispanic, Asian American, LGBTQ, and members of underrepresented groups do not enjoy. A disproportionate number of homeless students are members of these underrepresented demographics, come from working class households, and are first-generation college students. They are doing this all by themselves and do not have a safety net. This is a main reason why they are homeless. If archaeology can barely even get minority students to seriously consider it as a profession, it is definitely ill equipped to incorporate homeless students into its folds.

Archaeology students in precarious housing situations are also unable to take advantage of the extracurricular educational opportunities that would prepare them to do archaeological fieldwork. Internships, field schools, and unpaid lab “work studies” are out of reach for most homeless students. Perhaps the most important venue for early career growth—attending conferences—is nearly unthinkable for homeless students. If you’re a student in a precarious housing situation, how can you even think about going to #SAA2021 in San Francisco if the students who live there can’t even afford shelter? Getting to #SHA2021 in Lisbon, Portugal is about as easy as getting to the moon for students who can’t even afford housing.

Conferences and field schools are critical elements of an archaeology student’s career. When I was doing CRM full time, I recall being instructed to never hire college graduates without at least a field school under their belt. It was hard for non-field school students to even get an interview at the companies I worked for. We all know how the networking that happens at conferences and in field schools can change an archaeologist’s career. For those of you working in CRM, imagine if you’d never went to those conferences when you were a broke college student. Do you think your career wouldn’t be where it is today without conferencing? I know mine wouldn’t. What if you didn’t take a field school? Would you have gotten hired for your first position?

How Homelessness among America’s Working Class Effects CRM Archaeology

Sarah Smarsh’s 2018 book “Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth” is a heart-wrenching saga of growing up in a working poor household in the Midwest. It is a story millions of Americans can relate to. America’s working poor are living in “The Trap”: Getting the skills the job market values isn’t easy because you’re working all the time, but you have to work in order to stay alive which means you are unlikely to get the skills needed for career advancement. Unskilled means your chances of improving your situation are unlikely to improve even if you move to where there are more jobs because this means moving to a more expensive place with even more job competition. You stay in place taking on whatever low-paying jobs in your immediate area, which does not pay the kind of wages that will help you keep up with the cost of inflation. Prices keep going up. Living paycheck-to-paycheck, you make sacrifices to put food on the table, shelter over your head, and raise your kids. God forbid anything happens to you because you can’t afford to go to the hospital. This is how a huge number of Americans spend their lives (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/11/magazine/americans-jobs-poverty-homeless.html). Barely able to keep your head above water, you have no money for your children to go to college. They have to make due with whatever education the public schools can provide. All you can hope is that they get a scholarship, go to college, and get a better job with more opportunities you were afforded. Along the way, any number of mishaps, injuries, mistakes, or misfortunes can move you from working poor to homeless.

If you raised a kid in these conditions and they had the chance to go to college, would you want them to go into a field like archaeology? How much does it pay? How stable is that industry? What would you even do as an “archaeologist”? Punch Nazis? Most working poor parents would probably cry if their child said they were studying archaeology. I know my parents almost did.

Low wages in archaeology are the cause of much attrition from the industry. But, this reality is also the reason why many students from low-income or working poor families are reluctant to try archaeology. They know the reality of being part of the underclass. In a world where every job requires a college degree, they know how important it is to get a degree in a field where they have the best odds of getting a job that pays livable wages from the get-go.

This means archaeology students and CRMers come from a specific socioeconomic demographic (i.e. the middle and upper classes). The only ones who make it to the management caste in CRM are either good/lucky or have a family that can support them through the frequent fits and starts that come with the first few years of a CRM career. You have to have a sofa to sleep upon when you get laid off from your archaeology job, otherwise you will end up homeless even though you have a college degree. Middle/upper class families can afford for their adult children to come back home again. Poor families cannot.

Drawing from a certain socioeconomic demographic is not good for archaeology. How can we understand the lives of subaltern groups if we don’t have any practitioners from those groups? How can you describe what it was like to be poor in the past (a condition that was much more common in the past than it is today) if you’ve never experienced poverty yourself? How can you relate to poor communities if you have ever even had a friendship with a poor person? How well can a professor relate to poor students if they’ve never known what it’s like to have your back against the wall? How can a professor has never known poverty convince a homeless student to pursue a career in archaeology?

Archaeology of Homeless Archaeologists

Archaeologists have been studying homelessness using archaeological method and theory but we might want to think about the homelessness among archaeology students and archaeologist themselves. We could use what we know about homelessness and the governmental responses to homelessness (or lack thereof) to address it among our own practitioners.

The logics used by homeless people are different than they are for folks who have a home. I’ve talked about the Poverty Mentality before. There is a measurable cognitive shift among folks who are living in poverty that causes them to do activities that seem illogical to middle and upper class people. Perhaps we can use new research of poverty to develop a strategy to make homelessness in CRM archaeology a thing of the past.

The only solution lies in changing the existing system

I do not have an answer for homelessness but I do think archaeologists can do much to reduce it among our practitioners. I also feel like archaeologists should be more cognizant of the problems students and up-and-coming archaeologists face early in their careers:

Educate incoming freshmen about financial realities of going to college: Many students have no idea as to the repercussions of their decision to attend college. We need to be brutally honest about what students can expect from an undergraduate degree, especially one in anthropology (NOTE: Being honest is different than being an Eeyore about getting a degree in the humanities. Corporations and government agencies are scouring the nation for people with the same kind of “soft skills” an anthropology degree instills in its students. There is mounting evidence that humanities graduates have fruitful careers across many industries: http://www.bbc.com/capital/story/20190401-why-worthless-humanities-degrees-may-set-you-up-for-life).

I believe professors and university administrators need to be more honest about the financial realities of attending college. It is not a smart economic move for many students while they are young. I feel like some students are better off working for a few years before they attend college. Also, not all universities are created equal. The costs of attending a for-profit institution are not worth it, especially in archaeology. There are also many state schools that have bad completion rates for undergraduates. High school teachers, university professors, and parents are probably the best individuals to tell convey these truths.

I don’t think any student should be living in their car just to get a college degree. And, if they choose to go the #vanlife route, we need to make sure this is by choice and we need to be doing what we can to help them transition to gainful employment as soon as they graduate.

Be mindful of unspoken reasons why archaeology is not diversifying: Diversification is a mantra at most universities. It’s been a goal of American archaeological institutions for decades; nevertheless, archaeology is not diversifying at an appreciable rate. Socioeconomics is one major reason why we are having trouble cultivating archaeologists of color. It’s time to acknowledge this and start thinking of ways to include students of humble backgrounds into the conversation (HINT: One solution is designing local, community based, public archaeology projects that fulfill university field school requirements is one way we can bring archaeology to our students who can’t afford jet-setting with us to the Caribbean.)

Affordable housing can’t happen without livable wages: Okay, I know it’s not easy to raise wages in CRM and it’s been an issue since the industry’s conception. Increasing worker’s wages is also a national problem that has far-reaching ramifications. But, we will never eliminate homelessness among the working class unless all employees make enough money to afford to live in the communities in which they work.

Forcing State Historic Preservation Offices (SHPOs) to reject work done by companies that do not adhere to General Schedule (GS) wages set by the Federal Government would be a place to start. ([4/5/2019] Update: After some conversations with folks working for SHPO s, I have come to realize this verbiage is not particularly useful and it is misleading. I have been reminded that the SHPO/THPO has legal obligations with regard to the NHPA and does not collect the sort of wage data that would help us address pay in CRM. I should have said CRMers need to craft legislation that raises the minimum wages for archaeologists until they are at a livable wage and empowers employees or other clients to file complaints/law suits against companies that do not pay livable wages. This could be done at the state or local level. Rather than asking the SHPO/THPO to police the industry, we could create laws that would let the Better Business Bureau or other watchdogs do the dirty work. This was brought to my attention in the comments section to this post, which is another reason to add comments to this blog. Apologies to all the hard working SHPO/THPO employees out there.) This would go far towards creating a minimum baseline wage for CRMers and would make it more difficult for companies to vary as widely on prices quoted in proposals. This fix will not work in the most expensive parts of the country, but it could reduce underbidding in places where the GS scale is a livable wage.

The Feds use a combination of factors including experience, education, and geographic region to calculate salaries for their archaeologists (https://dougsarchaeology.wordpress.com/2014/01/10/what-is-a-general-schedule-gs-grade-and-how-does-it-affect-federal-archaeologists/). Wage data is updated annually. For example, according to the GS scale, an entry-level archaeologist working in the San Francisco Bay Area should make about $30,000/year or about $2,500 a month ($15.00/ hour) (http://www.federaljobs.net/locality_pay_tables_4.htm). That is completely unlivable for this part of the country, which is why CRM companies in the Bay Area have to pay around $20—25/hour (≈$3,400/month) to attract anyone who will stay around longer than a single project. Remarkably, I’ve heard of field techs in the Bay Area getting paid less than $20/hour! This wage is barely enough to keep someone from living out of their car in a region where the median price of a studio apartment is $2,400/month, but the GS schedule is actually livable outside the Bay Area.

Creating a baseline expected wage would also do much to eliminate the “wages based on experience” clause that so many companies deploy in their job posts. Applicants could look up the GS wages for comparable positions in that area and decide whether they could afford to work for that wage before applying for the position. I did some completely unscientific research in 2017 and saw that most companies do not state how much they’re willing to pay applicants (http://www.succinctresearch.com/crm-companies-why-not-post-your-starting-salaries/). This might be because so many were offering unlivable wages and couldn’t attract top talent, but it is also because it is in their best interest to hire the cheapest, qualified person they can find. Again, only folks with financial safety nets could afford to take a job offering an unlivable wage. On the other hand, some aspiring archaeologists may be willing to live in their car as long as that fits their lifestyle or the experience gained eventually leads to a position with a livable wage. Either way, it’s a gamble

Archaeologists become homeless from a variety of factors. I feel like we have an obligation to be as transparent as possible with new archaeologists and archaeology students, especially those who are taking a financial risk in hopes that they will become archaeologists. The solutions to the homeless crisis are myriad. It is unlikely we will find a single solution. I do believe there are solutions to ending homelessness among students, however. If universities are going to charge students for their education, they could at least provide housing at a sliding scale or don’t enroll more students than you can house.

To all those archaeologists out there: Do not take a position that does not pay a livable wage.

To all the company owners: Do not low-ball your estimates so low that you can’t afford to pay your employees a livable wage. No archaeologist should be without shelter after putting in a full day’s work.

This blog post is intended to start a dialog about an important issue in cultural resource management archaeology. The reality is, some of us do not make enough money to survive. Homelessness is just one side effect. Let’s keep the discussion going. Write a comment below or send me an email.


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2 thoughts on “Homelessness and CRM Archaeology

  • Lance Wollwage

    Hi Dr. White,

    I’m a long time lurker first time poster, as they say here on the webz. I’ve been roused to comment here for the first time by your statement about SHPOs as the place to start in an effort to raise CRM wages. I’m a SHPO staffer, and I worry what you’ve written here is at best unhelpful and promulgates a severe misconception of what a SHPO is and does.

    Your SHPO works for a government in an office or agency, and has specific responsibilities and authorities granted to them under laws and rules that vary from state to state. The also invariably must abide by laws and rules governing administrative procedures that look to prevent arbitrary and capricious behavior by government authorities.

    SHPOs have no authority to set wages for archaeologists (except those employed in their particular office). SHPOs have no authority to collect wage data of any kind upon which to make decisions about who is paying people “enough,” whatever that is taken to mean. Any SHPO who pops up and just starts rejecting the reports of archaeologists based on some unfounded notion of what they pay people will be promptly destroyed in court for exceeding their authority and acting in a manner inconsistent with their established procedures.

    For this to happen you need to pass laws granting SHPO’s the authority to collect wage information and reject reports on that basis, Good luck with that.

    But beyond this the language you use in the opening sentence is heavily loaded, and I am at a loss to account for it as a reader except that it exposes a common negative bias towards SHPOs. “SHPO’s should be forced…” implies that SHPO’s could do this, but won’t, and applying pressure will change that. It feeds longstanding and unhelpful adversarial and dismissive attitudes many CRMers have towards their SHPO’s, and lets them continue ducking responsibility for problems with predominant CRM business models.

    • SuccinctBill Post author

      First, thank you so much for writing a response. I truly appreciate you sending me a message as so many people do not.

      Thank you for reminding me of the SHPO’s true job. You are absolutely correct about the SHPO’s mandate and the fact that they are not a regulatory agency. I am wrong to have written that it is the SHPO’s responsibility to police the wage activities of CRM companies. This is my mistake and i sincerely did not want to mislead readers. Our SHPOs and THPOs are important agencies in our historic preservation system that is overworked and beholden to legal obligations. You are absolutely right that my wordage can be used to fuel dialectics between clients-agencies-CRMers-and archaeologists. Thank you for reminding me of that. I will make the corrections in the above text.

      I should have stated that archaeologists should craft legislation that can be introduced in their state’s legislature that will help companies increase salaries to livable wages. Many state and local governments are increasing minimum wages above the federal rates. Additionally, for better or worse, most of our laws are actually written by thinktanks and experts. Why couldn’t archaeologists do the same thing when it comes to wages? It will be easier for CRM companies to budget livable wages if it’s the law. It will be harder for clients to balk at what CRM companies are forced to do by law.

      Again, thank you for reading this post and thank you for all the work you do at the SHPO’s office. There are not enough of you all in this world.

      Bill White

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