Darlena Cunha: This is what happened when I drove my Mercedes to pick up food stamps
(A) I grew up in a white, affluent suburb, where failure seemed harder than success. In college, I studied biology and journalism. I climbed the ladder quickly, always achieving a better title, a better salary. And my boyfriend was making good money, too.
(B) When I found out I was pregnant in February 2008, it was a shock, but nothing we couldn’t handle. Two
weeks later, when I discovered “it” was actually “they” (twins, as a matter of fact), I panicked a little. But not because I worried for our future. My middle-class life still seemed perfectly secure. I just wasn’t sure I wanted to do that much work.
(C) The weeks flew by. My boyfriend proposed, and we bought a house. Then, just three weeks after we closed, the market crashed. The house we’d paid $ \$240,000 $ for was suddenly worth $ \$150,000 $. It was
okay, though — we were still making enough money to cover the exorbitant mortgage payments. Then we weren’t.
Two weeks before my children were born, my future husband found himself staring at a pink slip. The days of unemployment turned into weeks, months, and, eventually, years. In just two months, we'd gone from making a combined $ \$120,000 $ a year to making just $ \$25,000 $. Our savings dwindled, then disappeared.
(D) So I did what I had to do. I signed up for Medicaid and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children.
It’s not easy. To qualify, you must be pregnant or up to six months postpartum. I had to fill out at least six forms and furnish my Social Security card, birth certificate and marriage license. I sat through exams, meetings and screenings. They had a lot of questions about the house: Wasn’t it an asset? Hadn’t we just bought it? They questioned every last cent we’d ever made. Did
we have stock options or pensions? Did we have savings? I had to send them my three most recent check stubs to prove I was making as little as I said I was.
On top of this, I had to get my vitals checked and blood work taken to determine whether I was at risk of improper nourishment without the program. It’s very bourgeois. Not. But I did it.
(E) To this day, it is the single most embarrassing thing I’ve ever done. No one spoke to me, but they did
stare. Mouths agape, the poverty-stricken mothers struggling with infant car seats, paperwork and their toddlers never took their eyes off me, the tall blond girl, walking with purpose on heels from her Mercedes to their grungy den.
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.
(F) Using the coupons was even worse. The stares, the faux concern, the pity, the outrage — I hated it. 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.”
(G) That’s the funny thing about being poor. Everyone has an opinion on it, and everyone feels entitled to share. That was especially true about my husband’s Mercedes. Over and over again, people asked why we
kept that car, offering to sell it in their yards or on the Internet for us. But 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?
And even if we had wanted to do that, here’s what people don’t understand: when you're struggling, you hang on to the things that work, that bring you some comfort. That Mercedes was the one reliable, trustworthy thing in our lives.
(H) We’ve now sold that house. My husband found a job that pays well, and we have enough left over for me to go to grad school. President Obama’s programs allowed us to crawl our way out of the hole. But what I learned there will never leave me. We didn’t deserve to be poor, any more than we deserved to be rich. 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.
Adaptiert Aus: Darlena Cunha: This is what happened when I drove my Mercedes to pick up food stamps, The Washington Post, 08.07.2014