“Poverty is a circumstance, not a value judgment.”

Terms of Endearment supermarketSolidly middle-class, white collar, and college educated, Darlena Cunha never expected to need to rely on the social safety net. But when confronted by unexpected, high-needs twins, a laid-off husband, and the reality that the house she had just bought had already lost the entirety of its value (and yet still needed to be paid off), she found herself driving a Mercedes to pick up food stamps. Please tamp down your knee-jerk reaction to yell “Sell the Mercedes!” at the screen, at least until you read the article.

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.

Before she knows it, she becomes “you people,” someone trying to buy inessentials with food stamps and enduring the scorn of know-it-alls.

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.”

The story ends well, in part because the US, for all its judgmental prudery when it comes to dealing with the poor, its insistence that the rich must deserve their good fortune and the unlucky simply aren’t working hard enough, still has something of a cushion in place for people who need it.

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 — from the extended unemployment benefits to the tax-free allowance for short-selling a home we couldn’t afford — 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. Poverty is a circumstance, not a value judgment.

This, as it happens, is also the rallying cry of American hero Maureen Taylor, who went on TV to discuss the water emergency in Detroit and was disgusted by reporter Hank Winchester.

“Some of these people have a desperate need,” reporter Hank Winchester said. “They need help from state agencies …. But there are other people and this is where it gets controversial who simply don’t want to pay the water bill, who’d rather spend money on cable.

Taylor refused to let that age old division stand, the division between the “good” poor — the worthy, moral, and hard-working salt-of-the-earth types who happen to be strapped at the moment but are doing their doggarned best to get straight — and the “bad,” who choose cable over water, iPhones over diapers, and have out-of-wedlock babies to wrest yet more money from the state. She lets her interlocutor have it.

“Before I answer that let me say, shame on Hank, shame on him,” Maureen Taylor said. “for putting that lie and that mis and that disinformation out on the air. To suggest that people don’t want to pay for a water bill is scandalous. What is at stake here is that there are tens of thousands of low incomefamilies who cannot pay rising water bill costs.  The cost of living is going up. The chances of living is going down. And we’ve got these reporters out here, like this guy, that’s just standing on the side of the people that have money.”

Maureen Taylor then brought up all the corporations that have owed tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands whose water was not shutoff. Somehow the payment delinquency of the rich and affluent is different than the generally forced payment delinquency of the poor.

Maureen Taylor’s final statement in the interview was epic and bold. “The next time you invite me to be here, Maureen Taylor said. “Let’s have some truth and a fair exchange as opposed to Hank who doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about. Gobble up all the time. I’ll talk to you later.”

This is the sound of one mic dropping.

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4 Comments / Post A Comment

HelloTheFuture (#5,275)

Don’t sell your (fully paid off) Mercedes, don’t liquidate your 401(k), don’t destroy your actual assets to get something worth much less that you’ll immediately put towards debts. YUP yup yup yup.

EM (#1,012)

This experience also serves as a glaring reminder about how important paid maternity leave is.

Allison (#4,509)

I hope people take it to heart, but the cynical part of me is saying “well when I pretty white lady says it, of course you’ll listen.”

madrassoup (#929)

Saying that “the house she had just bought had already lost the entirety of its value” is an outrageous mischaracterization. They bought it for $240k, its value depreciated to $150k. Which sucks but is not the same as saying the house wasn’t worth the paper the title was written on. It’s still a dramatic story without the hyperbole.

And I agree with Allison that so much of the weight of this story and attendant coverage of it comes from her being a “nice/pretty white lady.” But so does the fact that she got to tell the story herself and show how an individual story forms part of a larger narrative. I know the fact that she’s a journalist is part of why she got to write the article, but compare this to the Post’s normal coverage of poverty, in which its sufferers rarely get so much space to use their own words to talk about their own lives. That’s what reporters are for, and what Pulitzers are meant to reward.

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