TAMARA KEITH, HOST:
The stereotype of the so-called welfare queen - driving a luxury car while leeching off of society - is an enduring one. Darlena Cunha offers one such anecdote. She wrote a personal essay that was published this week by The Washington Post. It blew up on the Internet, in part because of its there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I quality and in part because of its echoes of the familiar stereotype. It has a striking headline - "This Is What Happened When I Drove My Mercedes To Pick Up Food Stamps." As is often the case with headlines, it's not quite accurate. Cunha was actually going to enroll in WIC, the nutrition program for women, infants and children - not food stamps. And the 2003 Mercedes Kompressor was her husband's, bought and paid for before they were married. But still, Cunha writes that when she signed up for nutrition assistance for her and her twin daughters, people stared. Quote, "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."
The way she and her husband got to that point is a story I have heard many times before as a reporter. They bought a house in early 2008 then the market crashed. That wouldn't have been a problem except that also their twins were born six weeks premature and her husband lost his job. She writes their income dropped from $120,000 a year to $25,000. They couldn't pay their mortgage. Their savings quickly ran out and the stable middle-class life they thought they had built was gone. When people lose their jobs, they don't expect to join the ranks of the long-term unemployed. They certainly do not imagine themselves having to rely on government help, like food stamps or WIC. But expectations change, norms shift, wages that would once have seemed laughably low become a lifeline. For Cunha and her husband, being poor was temporary; they've recovered. For those who took even harder hits in the recession there will be no return to the life they had before. Their job prospects, their economic aspirations are forever altered or were never that great. Truly Cunha is one of the lucky ones. She and her husband still have the Mercedes, and they don't have to drive it to get public assistance anymore. You're listening to NPR News.
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