Darlena Cunha had it so good in 2008 for a white woman from an affluent suburb with a college degree: She and her husband earned $120k, twins on the way, a house worth $250k. Then the market crashed, husband lost his (journalism) job, and the preemies needed costly formula. Their solid middle class income now clocked in at $25k, so they turned to WIC.
However, they did not immediately sell one thing that everyone on the Internet seems to think they should have: A 2003 Mercedes.
To be clear, Cunha's story is not an uncommon one from the past several years, as we watched as more and more middle class folks lean on government assistance to buoy them through the bleak economy. Those high numbers eventually were said to have led to a decrease in the stigma surrounding government assistance.
But in 2008, that was still not the case, and Cunha's story is one person's account of being a middle class person suddenly navigating the world as something she never imagined she could be: poor. She hated "the stares, the faux concern, the pity" and, especially, being told what she should and shouldn't buy.
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."
But it was nothing compared to the grief she took for still owning a 2003 Mercedes, a car that, even old and paid off and showing the signs of wear and tear, still telegraphs affluence to most people, and that cannot coexist with government assistance.
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 the thing was, Cunha insists, the Mercedes was paid off. It belonged to her husband, and we are not told why or how he purchased in the first place (He was a copy editor at a newspaper), and I for one am glad she didn't explain it. Because fuck the haters. Cunha gets one essential aspect of poverty right, even if she learned it in reverse. You keep what little nice shit you had or can get your hands on, because it is a buffer against the deprivation. Most people never get the nice stuff in the first place.
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.
So it's no surprise that commenters (now nearing 5,000 on her piece) are having a field day with calling bullshit on her choices:
This story bothers me on multiple levels. For one, it is obivious that the mercedes should have been sold and a cheaper more reliable car should have been bought. If this was done there would be more money to spend elsewhere (where its actually needed). Lets be honest though, we all know why she didnt sell the Benz, its because she was trying to hide behind it, its clear she has always tried to put up some sort of facade for her life. She clearly likens to the status symbols and not pure logic. God forbid she be seen in a 98 Honda.
Let's use math.
Your car retailed for about 30k, 4 years later, when you needed the money you could have sold the mercedes, bought a reliable "non-luxary" car for 5k or less and had at least 15k left... or 6-10 months of your income...
LOL, at least you kept your "pride" ... I mean... Mercedes....
Says Fred Smith:
Your justification for the Mercedes still does not hold water. You would not be making payments on a crappier car. You would be driving a paid for crappier car that is better on gas. The Mercedes would pay for it with extra. The left over you put into the mortgage payment or other essentials.
If you cannot get enough on a trade in then maybe you are going to the wrong dealer. Also there is this thing called craigslist. Sorry but you get a big fat ZERO sympathy from me on the mercedes.
Here's an idea: Let's get Fred Smith to host a TV show called "How Sympathetic Is My Situation?" and on it, we will parade down-on-their-luck people in front of millions to lay out and justify their choices, mistakes and circumstances for us, so that we can all collectively decide for one and for all how much sympathy a person should get. The winner would be given free help but only while simultaneously being berated.
So nevermind the logic of keeping the car or not, like so many people temporarily in poverty or permanently there, Darlena Cunha is guilty of too much pride. Well, and also having something nicer than most people anyway.
And that is the insidious and damaging expectation about poverty we can't shed. Those in poverty should feel so ashamed and humbled by their lack of things that they dare not even want for nice stuff, and especially dare not hold onto it. You can take care of yourself, but not too much. You should clean yourself and look presentable, but you can't buy brand name clothing that is associated with rich people. You should want for nice things, but be honest — you're poor, you don't get an iPhone, you get a Cricket phone.
In other words, we want you to look poor if we are going to help you, whatever poor means to us. Make us feel bad for you. C'mon. Nevermind that people of means blow their money on objects and experiences well beyond their actual income and have the luxury of hiding behind debt, but there is somehow the sense that if we can't see the shell game going on behind it, you have earned the right to present yourself as better off than you are whether it's true or not.
When I lived in Section 8 housing, many neighbors complained of the people in the corner apartment who were rumored to pay only $12 a month for their rent, but still managed to have a super sweet big TV. The nerve! The gall! The con!
It has never confused me in the slightest why poor people want nice things, because it the same reason rich people want them. BECAUSE THEY ARE NICE.
Is there a formula for being deserving of nice things? Do you actually believe that everyone who is rich earned their wealth, or have you just been confused by an invisible system of networks, bridges, opportunity, hand-holding, inheritances, staggering debt, and even outright criminality in some cases behind it?
Darlene Cunha had every right to hold onto an asset, or the one nice thing she had left. We all would like to believe we are minimalist warriors who need for nothing in excess and would cut the fat the second we saw trouble coming, but if that were the case, we wouldn't have an average of $15k per family in credit card debt in this country. We'd all be living like Dave Ramsey, only buying cars in cash, and earmarking every dollar.
But we don't, because we are hypocrites. If you are living directly within your means, you are the exception. It is far more likely that your car is more than you can afford, so is your house, so are your clothes, and so is your grocery bill. You have no sense of real job security, and it could all go to pot in a heartbeat, and if it did, through the fog of depression, worry, and uncertainty about your future, you too might hold onto the one nice thing you had left, and that choice might even be laced with a little optimism that it was a symbol of better times still to come.
Cunha says she learned a huge lesson from her experience about poverty, and it's one we should all take to heart: We didn't deserve to be poor, any more than we deserved to be rich. Poverty is a circumstance, not a value judgment.
So if you ever find yourself questioning a poor person with a cellphone, or a lady on food stamps still getting her hair done — also a criticism lobbed at Katrina Gilbert, a poor single mother in Chattanooga who did all the right things and still struggled to get by — then consider that perhaps the person with the fucked up value system is you.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.