Solidly 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.”
Some days I log onto The Billfold and crack jokes about my shoes or my hair or Pizza Hut just giving away pizzas to anyone willing to fill out a form, and other days I visit the NYT and read a story about families in California who haven’t had any running water for five months.
“We don’t have the money to move, and who would buy this house without water?” said Ms. Gallegos, who grew up in the area and shares a tidy mobile home with her husband and two daughters. “When you wake up in the middle of the night sick to your stomach, you have to think about where the water bottle is before you can use the toilet.”
It’s so easy to forget, even when you try every day to remember, that America is simultaneously rich/poor. It’s not just California, either. People in Detroit are getting their water through jury-rigged systems of hoses and duct tape, since, to quote ABC News, “city repairs to the water system are on hold.”
That link, by the way, tells the story not only of hoses held on with duct tape but also other workarounds built out of necessity in a bankrupt city, such as Detroit firefighters who use “a can filled with screws that’s knocked over by paper from a fax machine to alert themselves to emergencies.”
I feel so privileged—and, simultaneously, ashamed—that my biggest concern is whether I get a Pizza Hut coupon or whether I overspent by $36 on my “fall haul.”
And in Tulare County, California:
“You don’t think of water as privilege until you don’t have it anymore,” said Ms. Serrato, whose husband works in the nearby fields. “We were very proud of making a life here for ourselves, for raising children here. We never ever expected to live this way.”
Yesterday Ester wrote about median one-bedroom rents reaching highs of more than $4,000 in NYC, and earlier this month I linked to a story from Southern California Public Radio discussing the high rents in Los Angeles. As cities become wealthier and price out low-income workers and the middle- and creative classes, what can be done? Shaila Dewan examines this question in the It’s the Economy section of the Times Magazine:
The rules of the market say that in this situation, people should simply opt to live someplace cheaper. But in today’s economy, that’s not so simple. Detroit has very cheap housing, but unfortunately, all of it is in Detroit. Alternately, more desirable cities could build more housing to satisfy demand, but new developments don’t tend to have that effect.
Luxury towers are sprouting up, adding density to unlikely places, from the Brooklyn waterfront to San Francisco’s Mid-Market district. But adding inventory to the high end does nothing to help the middle — one of the many irritating peculiarities of the 21st-century boomtown housing market. Building new apartments can actually push rents higher, and amenities for the masses, like transportation and parks, may have the effect of pricing them out. Everyone wants to live in these places, so no one can afford to. What’s a global city to do?