From Middle-Class To Poverty In A Mercedes

Darlena Cunha sparked a heated debate online when she wrote about driving a luxury car to pick up her WIC benefits. Host Michel Martin talks to Cunha about her piece and the reaction to it.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We're going to begin the program today talking about poverty again. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty, and all this year we've been talking about what poverty is like in America today. Yesterday we talked about what researchers found out about race and poverty when they studied 800 poor children in Baltimore for more than a quarter-century and found out how poverty shaped their lives. Today, though, we're telling you about one woman's story - a story of someone who never thought she would struggle financially or need public assistance. And then life happened. It's a story of Darlena Cunha. She's a freelance journalist who wrote a piece for the Washington Post titled, "This Is What Happened When I Drove My Mercedes To Pick Up Food Stamps." The piece exploded on the Internet. It became one of the most widely shared pieces ever on the Washington Post website. And she's with us now to tell us more from member station WNPR. Thanks so much for joining us. Welcome.

DARLENA CUNHA: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So for people who haven't yet read the piece, set us up for us. You're working as a journalist. Your boyfriend then husband was working as a journalist. You both had good jobs. You both had decent educations. Life was going well. Then what happened?

CUNHA: Yeah, everything was on the up and up. And we ended up pregnant with twins, but we were both working so we bought a house to prepare for that because we had been living in a studio apartment. And, you know, we moved in and I kept working as a television producer up in Boston. And we lived in Manchester, Connecticut so it was a 90-minute drive, but no problem. And he continued to work up until about two weeks before they were born when he was laid off. And I think it was the second round of layoffs at the Hartford Courant.

MARTIN: So your husband's laid off and then the kids were born premature, which means they were...

CUNHA: At 34 weeks. Not even.

MARTIN: Right, and so they needed some extra support, right? In the hospital. And then the house that you bought - what?

CUNHA: It completely, obviously, went underwater. We had paid 240 for it and by the time the twins were born, it was worth just barely 150. And without his income we couldn't afford the mortgage payments for the 240 - which had he'd continued working, we would've still been able to pay that even though the house was upside down. But he wasn't, and so we started leaching out funds into that mortgage and the utilities and everything just trying to stay afloat. We had used up a large portion of our savings to put a decent down payment on that house. So it was shocking and very, very hard. And it happened very quickly.

MARTIN: You write in the piece in just two months we'd gone from making a combined $120,000 a year to making just $25,000 and leaching 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. So tell us about, you know, that saga. This kind of where the piece really begins. And, by the way, you weren't - it's not food stamps, it's WIC, which is a different program for the sticklers who need to know the difference.

CUNHA: Yes. I've been correcting that everywhere. As soon as that published I talked to the Washington Post and I asked them three different times to change it.

MARTIN: It's OK. It's OK. It's fine. It's fine. We get the picture.

CUNHA: Yeah.

MARTIN: So tell us what some of the main sort of impressions of the piece are. I mean, first there was - what - how hard it is to get that assistance, right?

CUNHA: Right, exactly. People think you could just make a phone call and it's done and in ten minutes you're collecting your vouchers or your EBT card and you're getting your food. And that's not what happens at all. You have to call and explain your story and then they required all kinds of proof like your Social Security number, your birth certificate to prove who you are, marriage license to make sure that your spouse isn't making any money, pay stubs for the past three months to ensure that you don't have any extra income and that you're being honest about it. All kinds of paperwork are required. And then after you do that and you travel all around to get the paperwork - which is hard for some people -and you send it in then you wait because it has to be processed. So you've gone and, you know, you've bared your soul, and now you're stuck in this purgatory of am I poor enough to deserve assistance? Am I going to be able to feed my family? And that waiting period can be anytime from a couple of weeks to a couple of months depending on how bogged down they are. And in 2008, they were pretty bogged down.

MARTIN: So and you get your coupons eventually using them as a whole other experience. You got so my stories in your piece. I think that kind of the bottom line, though, of these pieces is just how many people felt free to offer you advice or - can I put it this way - judgment or advice about you or your life just based on the fact that you were using some form of government support. And a lot of that centered on your husband's car. Right? Hence the headline - because there was a point at which you drove your husband's 2003, you know, Mercedes - which he'd bought before you got together and was paid off - to pick up your coupons. Do you want to talk a little bit about that? What reaction people had to that?

CUNHA: That part of the piece really relays how one feels when they are driving a nice car in their own selves to pick up food assistance like that. So I went in and I didn't look in any direction, just straight ahead. You know, I was aware that there were people's eyes on me but I couldn't tell you what their facial expressions were because over and over in my mind I was thinking - and that shocked me, too because I'm pretty open-minded but I was thinking, like, what are you doing here in this nice car? You shouldn't be on assistance - not because it shouldn't happen to you, but because you have nice things still and you don't deserve this. And so there's an inner component, also, to this new kind of broke - this new I have no money, this new poverty that people aren't really aware of because it's under the surface where you judge your own self and think, I have done everything wrong, this is a personal failing, and I don't deserve government assistance because I did this.

MARTIN: You're talking about that once when you had to drive the car - you drove the car to pick up your aid and you felt people, like, looking at you - although, you do say in the piece that there were people - mainly relatives and friends, people you did know personally, who kept telling you why don't you sell the car? One person's saying well, you know, your husband needs to sell that car. He doesn't get to keep his toys now. Why didn't you sell it?

CUNHA: There's a lot that goes into selling a car, and it wasn't worth that much. It would've been worth about $5,000. Had we sold the car and got that $5,000, even if we didn't buy a second car and somehow made it on one car - which we couldn't - we would spend that $5,000 in another 3 months because it took my husband 22 months to find work, and 3 months later I would've had to apply for assistance.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Darlena Cunha. She's a former television producer, now a freelance journalist, who wrote an attention-getting article for the Washington Post titled, "This Is What Happened When I Drove My Mercedes To Pick Up Food Stamps." And Darlena reminds us she was actually picking up WIC, not food stamps, for the sticklers. You said 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. Do you want to talk a little bit about that?

CUNHA: It took me by surprise because I consider myself, you know, fairly liberal and, you know, I really agree with all the social programs. I think human beings have the right to get assistance when they need it and, you know, eat and I have no - I feel like I have no judgment about that. And yet when it happened to me, I judged myself. That is really hard to work with, especially when you're trying to now dig out and move forward because when you're stuck in a situation like that the first thing you have to do is move, you know. You have to keep running. So you're dragging yourself down because there's this undercurrent of self - not hatred - but, you know, self-sadness and disappointment. There's an undercurrent of disappointment in yourself that shouldn't be there because, I mean, this crash affected the housing market and the job market and everyone in the nation. And I think a lot of individuals thought it was their fault.

MARTIN: What insights do you think that you gained from this experience? And I do want to mention now you're OK. In fact, you're making enough - her husband's making enough that you can actually go back to school and support your education. But what did you learn from all this? I mean, I want to talk about intellectually as well as emotionally. So tell me what you think you got from this experience that you didn't know otherwise.

CUNHA: I got a lot of gratitude for the system that I didn't have otherwise. It was eye-opening to me in the way that where I could always talk about it before on an idealistic level. I never really was able to understand it or empathize with what people must go through. Another huge part of this that I learned was going to the offices to pick up the coupons and making friends with the people that were there, in a way that I could not have before, really helped me to see how these programs are helping and how they could help better because a lot of the times, you know, people get so stuck on oh, you're going to be on assistance for life and, you know, you're never going to make your way out of it. And these people are working, you know, three and four jobs, and they've got little kids, and they've just been, you know, down on their luck. And they don't have the privilege that I had. I mean, what I walk away from with this is how very privileged I really was. I mean, I always knew it, but now I really know.

MARTIN: Let me ask you this. You could have passed for middle-class, right? Never having had this experience in the sense that - I mean that kind of euphemistically - you could've gone on after having had this experience, learned whatever you're going to learn from it, and keep it to yourself. Not tell anybody that you had gone through this and just - now that you've kind of regained your footing, why did you want to share this?

CUNHA: I thought it was something that wasn't talked about enough. And I had hidden it. My friends and family didn't know how bad it was. Of course they knew that we had hit tough times, but they didn't know exactly what had gone on. I thought it was a unique story that didn't happen to too many people because I hadn't heard any stories about this. And that wasn't the case.

MARTIN: Are you glad? How do you feel now that you got it out there? How do you feel now that you put it all out?

CUNHA: There are a couple of different feelings. It is a personal story. So the amount of attention it has gotten has been hard because it is - I'm not without embarrassment. But it's so important and it's so great that it did go huge because people are now talking about a very, very important thing that had been ignored or shoved under the rug and just assumed that, you know, it's one of those things you don't talk about at the dinner table. So now that it has gone very, very wide, I am happy to have served the purpose of a starting point for a very important discussion we need to have about what happened in 2008 and what people are doing about it even still today to get themselves out of that hole.

MARTIN: Darlena Cunha is a former television producer, now a freelance journalist and mom to twin girls. She writes for the Huffington Post and thought catalog. And we're talking about her piece which was published in the Washington Post. It's titled, "This Is What Happened When I Drove My Mercedes To Pick Up Food Stamps." Darlena, thanks so much for joining us. Good luck to you and your family.

CUNHA: Thank you for having me.

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