Our country is suspicious of — no, scratch that, our country hates — poor people.
This is a hard lesson to internalize unless you’re poor and you hear it first hand. The myth of hard work and talent taking you places in this country is so ingrained that we can barely believe that poverty is a circumstance, not a choice, and many of us still seem to think that poverty is a punishment for some moral failure. It’s a lesson the affluent and middle class/ultra wealthy don’t seem to understand until they’re put in that position.
The story of Darlene Cunha is just such a story; it begins as all stories do in a time of prosperity, before things go sour, and they fell from affluent petite bourgeois to WIC-levels of poverty:
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.
Then my kids were born, six weeks early. They were just three pounds each at birth, barely the length of my shoe. We fed them through a little tube we attached to our pinky fingers because their mouths weren’t strong enough to suckle. We spent 10 days in the hospital waiting for them to increase in size. They never did. Try as I might, I couldn’t get my babies to put on weight. With their lives at risk, I switched from breast milk to formula, at about $15 a can. We went through dozens a week.
In just two months, we’d gone from making a combined $120,000 a year to making just $25,000 and leeching out funds to a mortgage we couldn’t afford. Our savings dwindled, then disappeared.
So I did what I had to do. I signed up for Medicaid and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children.
I imagine every “Pro-Life” Agency in her state was running to help her. The lives of children are at risk, and we can’t just let these babies die, right? Right? What happened to the “right to life?”
One of the strongest parts of her story concerns Mercedes that she and her husband own. This part in particular is powerful because it hammers home how you cannot judge someone until you’ve been in their shoes, while dismissing the conservative refrain of, “you can’t be poor if you have nice (things that I want):”
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?
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 here’s what happened when she drove the Mercedes to the WIC office, because the Honda that she usually drove wouldn’t start:
I parked gingerly over one of the many potholes, shut off the purring engine and locked it, then walked briskly to the door — head held high and not looking in either direction.
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. As if I were not allowed the food because of the car. As if I were a bad person.
This has got to change. If we’re not going to fix income inequality, we at least better get used to the growing and seething underclass of the global favela. Because they’ll be here to stay, and no amount of hate, resentment, and envy will make it go away.
You should go read the rest of the story over at the Washington Post, here. It’ll be worth your time.
source: Washington Post