Column: Poverty Is a State of Mind as Much as a Fact
Sara Bareillis played softly through the surround-sound speakers of my husband’s 2003 Mercedes Kompressor as I sat idling at a light. I’d never been to this church before, but I could see it from where I was, across from an old park, abandoned in the chilly September air. The clouds hung low as I pulled the sleek, pewter machine into the lot. But I wasn’t going to pray or attend services. I was picking up food stamps.
Even then, I couldn’t quite believe it. This wasn’t supposed to happen to people like me.
I grew up in a white, affluent suburb, where failure seemed harder than success. In college, I studied biology and journalism. I worked for good money at a local hospital, which afforded me the opportunity to network at journalism conferences. That’s how I landed my first news job as an associate producer in Hartford, Conn. I climbed the ladder quickly, free to work any hours in any location for any pay. I moved from market to market, always achieving a better title, a better salary. Succeeding.
2007 was a grand year for me. I moved back home from San Diego, where I’d produced Good Morning San Diego. I quickly secured my next big gig, as a producer in Boston for the 6 p.m. news. The pay wasn’t great, but it was more than enough to support me. And my boyfriend was making good money, too, as a copy editor for the Hartford Courant.
When I found out I was pregnant in February 2008, it was a shock, but nothing we couldn’t handle. Two weeks later, when I discovered “it” was actually “they” (twins, as a matter of fact), I panicked a little. But not because I worried for our future. My middle-class life still seemed perfectly secure. I just wasn’t sure I wanted to do that much work.
The weeks flew by. My boyfriend proposed, and we bought a house. Then, just three weeks after we closed, the market crashed. The house we’d paid $240,000 for was suddenly worth $150,000. It was OK, though — we were still making enough money to cover the exorbitant mortgage payments. Then we weren’t.
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.
It’s not easy. To qualify, you must be pregnant or up to six months postpartum. I had to fill out at least six forms and furnish my Social Security card, birth certificate and marriage license. I sat through exams, meetings and screenings. They had a lot of questions about the house: Wasn’t it an asset? Hadn’t we just bought it? They questioned every last cent we’d ever made. Did we have stock options or pensions? Did we have savings? I had to send them my three most recent check stubs to prove I was making as little as I said I was.
On top of this, I had to get my vitals checked and blood work taken to determine whether I was at risk of improper nourishment without the program. It’s very bourgeois. Not. But I did it.
Driving to the WIC office the first time was scary. It wasn’t an office, like I’d thought it would be. It was the basement of a dreary church. We sat in disused pews, waiting to be called for our coupons, which would get us some tuna, some cheerios, a gallon of milk, baby formula.
Using the coupons was even worse. The stares, the faux concern, the pity, the outrage — I hated it. One time, an old, kind-looking man with a bit of a hunch was standing behind me with just a six-pack of soda, waiting to check out. The entire contents of my cart were splayed out on the conveyor belt. When he noticed the flash of large white paper stubs in my hand, he touched me on the shoulder. I was scared that he was going to give me money; instead he gave me a small, rectangular card. He asked me to accept Jesus into my heart so that my troubles would disappear. I think I managed a half-smile before breaking into long, jogging strides out of there, the workers calling after me as to whether I still wanted my receipt.
That was one of the better times. 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.”
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 lousier 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.
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 Barack 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 judgement. I still have to remind myself sometimes that I was my harshest critic. That the judgement 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.
Darlena Cunha is a former television producer turned stay-at-home mom. She blogs daily at http://parentwin.com, and writes for The Huffington Post and Thought Catalog.