The Washington Post's PostEverything section had a piece today by Darlena Cunha about how, in her words, "Poverty is a circumstance, not a value judgment."
Cunha and her then-boyfriend were successful media professionals back in 2008 when they learned they were expecting twins. They had no worries about their middle-class life and felt secure. Cunha's then-boyfriend proposed and they bought a house together, and things seemed great. Then, the bottom dropped out on them.
In the span of just a few months, their house lost 30% of its value, Cunha's then-boyfriend lost his job and was unemployed for an extended time, and then the twins were born prematurely and needed costly formula to survive. Their savings were soon completely wiped out. Cunha went on Medicaid and SNAP in order to make sure that her family could eat.
It was then that Cunha saw how judgmental people could be towards those in poverty when she went to the grocery store and used the food stamps.
One time, an old, kind-looking man with a bit of a hunch was standing behind me with just a six-pack of soda, waiting to check out. The entire contents of my cart were splayed out on the conveyor belt. When he noticed the flash of large white paper stubs in my hand, he touched me on the shoulder. I was scared that he was going to give me money; instead he gave me a small, rectangular card. He asked me to accept Jesus into my heart so that my troubles would disappear. I think I managed a half-smile before breaking into long, jogging strides out of there, the workers calling after me as to whether I still wanted my receipt.
That was just one of the better times.
Once, a girl at the register actually stood up for me when an older mother of three saw the coupons and started chastising my purchase of root beer. They were "buy two, get one free" at a dollar a pop.
"Surely, you don't need those," she said. "WIC pays for juice for you people."
The girl, who couldn't have been more than 19, flashed her eyes up to my face and saw my grimace as I white-knuckled the counter in front of me, preparing my cold shoulder.
"Who are you, the soda police?" she asked loudly. "Anyone bother you about the pound of candy you're buying?"
The woman huffed off to another register, and I'm sure she complained about that girl. I, meanwhile, thanked her profusely.
"I've got a son," she said, softly. "I know what it's like."
Ultimately, Cunha and her husband were judged most harshly when they opted to keep their 2003 Mercedes that had been paid in full.
Over and over again, people asked why we kept that car, offering to sell it in their yards or on the Internet for us.
"You can't be that bad off," a distant relative said, after inviting himself over for lunch. "You still got that baby in all its glory."
Sometimes, it was more direct. All from a place of love, of course. "Sell the Mercedes," a friend said to me. "He doesn't get to keep his toys now."
But it wasn't a toy — it was paid off. My husband bought that car in full long before we met. Were we supposed to trade it in for a crappier car we'd have to make payments on? Only to have that less reliable car break down on us?
Cunha writes about one particular time when she had to drive the Mercedes to the WIC office since her car wouldn't start and got stared at.
I didn't feel animosity coming from them, more wonderment, maybe a bit of resentment. The most embarrassing part was how I felt about myself. How I had so internalized the message of what poor people should or should not have that I felt ashamed to be there, with that car, getting food. As if I were not allowed the food because of the car. As if I were a bad person.
Ultimately, Cunha and her family were able to crawl out of the hole. They sold the house, her husband found a new job that pays well, and social welfare programs, such as extended unemployment and the tax-free allowance for short-selling a home ultimately were enough to help them.
Cunha writes that what she ultimately learned from the experience was:
We didn't deserve to be poor, any more than we deserved to be rich. Poverty is a circumstance, not a value judgment. I still have to remind myself sometimes that I was my harshest critic. That the judgment of the disadvantaged comes not just from conservative politicians and Internet trolls. It came from me, even as I was living it.
We still have that Mercedes.
ETA: This hit home for me because, when my brother and I were young, my Mom enrolled us in WIC. My Mom had earned a masters degree and was employed full-time. My Dad was working on his masters degree.
My folks were hard-working, well-educated, intelligent adults, but that didn't guarantee that there'd be food on the table. We're well-off now (I work in IT, brother graduated from Yale Law, and both of my folks are doing well financially and career-wise), but without WIC, this story could've had a much less happy ending.
ETA 2: I agree with the comments below that Cunham's story does have a bit of an odd "it happened to me!" tone. I think, however, that the story is still important in that it serves to counter the narrative that a lot of people have that people in poverty are only those who make "bad decisions" or are "lazy". For many folks, all that separates financial comfort and poverty is just one bad roll of the dice such as a medical emergency or job loss.