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When I drove my Mercedes to pick up food stamps ...

By DARLENA CUNHA Special To The Washington Post

Publication: The Day

Published July 13. 2014 4:00AM
Darlena Cunha is a former television producer turned stay-at-home mom to twin girls. She blogs daily at parentwin.com and writes for The Huffington Post and Thought Catalog.

Hartford - 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. 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.

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.

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.

Using the coupons was even worse. The stares, the faux concern, the pity, the outrage - I hated it.

The funny thing about being poor is 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.

But 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?

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.

No one spoke to me, but they did stare. I didn't feel animosity coming from them, more wonderment, maybe a bit of resentment.

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.

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 to twin girls. She blogs daily at http://parentwin.com, and writes for The Huffington Post and Thought Catalog.

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