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“Everyone has an opinion on being poor”

“Everyone has an opinion on being poor”

Darlena Cunha wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post provocatively entitled, “This is what happened when I drove my Mercedes to pick up food stamps”. She shares her family’s quick descent from wealth into poverty, what they did, and what they felt. A few excerpts:

Once, a girl at the register actually stood up for me when an older mother of three saw the (WIC) 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.”

On people’s assumptions in their keeping the “extravagant toy” Mercedes:

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?

And even if we had wanted to do that, here’s what people don’t understand: The reality of poverty can spring quickly while the psychological effects take longer to surface. When you lose a job, your first thought isn’t, “Oh my God, I’m poor. I’d better sell all my nice stuff!” It’s “I need another job. Now.” When you’re scrambling, you hang on to the things that work, that bring you some comfort. That Mercedes was the one reliable, trustworthy thing in our lives.

And some of her concluding thoughts:

But what I learned there will never leave me. 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.

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