Darlena Cunha is a stay-at-home mother to twin girls who has seen firsthand how one’s comfortable lifestyle can quickly vanish. Just a few years ago, Cunha was making a decent living as a television producer with her boyfriend, who had a stable job as a copy editor for the Hartford Courant.
When Cunha became pregnant with twins in February 2008, it was a surprise – but nothing she and her boyfriend couldn’t handle. Things were going great, and within the next few months, her boyfriend had proposed and they’d bought a house together. But three weeks later, that changed – the market crashed and the house Cunha and her fiancé had paid $240,000 for was suddenly only worth $150,000.
“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.
Cunha went through the grueling process of applying for these assisted programs, which included multiple forms, taking exams and screenings, and enduring invasive questions about her family’s possessions, finances and lifestyle. Cunha qualified for the WIC program, which opened her eyes to what cultural challenges those on assisted programs face. She recalls:
“Using the coupons was even worse. The stares, the faux concern, the pity, the outrage — I hated it. 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.
Cunha also recalls how fast strangers – even loved ones – were to judge her family’s choices. Especially the decision to keep her husband’s Mercedes.
“That’s the funny thing about being poor. Everyone has an opinion on it, and everyone feels entitled to share. That was especially true about my husband’s Mercedes. 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.”
“That’s how I found myself, one dreary day when my Honda wouldn’t start, in my husband’s Mercedes at the WIC office. 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.”
Over time, Cunha and her fiancé were able to get back on their feet, and she credits government assisted programs with being a big part of the reason they were able to.
“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. 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. We still have that Mercedes.”
To read Cunha’s full article, click here.