The Washington Post website carried an article a few days ago that has provoked a lot of comment. Entitled “This is what happened when I drove my Mercedes to pick up food stamps,” it tells the story of a middle-class woman who falls into poverty — at least, poverty of a sort.
It’s a sad story, but also the kind that naturally raises questions. The woman grew up in an affluent suburb, goes to good schools, and gets good jobs. She meets a guy, gets pregnant, then gets married — but her husband loses his job, they’re saddled with a mortgage that is more than they can afford, and she has twins who are born early and need expensive formula. Ultimately, she ends up signing up for Medicaid, food stamps, and the Women, Infants and Children Special Supplemental Nutrition Program.
The woman recounts embarrassing anecdotes. She’s got to answer a lot of questions before she gets the aid. She’s afraid an apparently well-meaning older man will give her money, but instead he makes a friendly religious pitch and she takes off to avoid further contact. A busybody woman questions her purchase of root beer using food stamps, and the check-out girl stands up for her. And finally, one day, she has to take her husband’s Mercedes — a 2003 Mercedes Kompressor — to pick up her food stamps. No one said anything, but they did stare at her . . . and to this day it’s the most embarrassing thing that has ever happened to her.
They kept the Mercedes because it was the one reliable thing in their lives. And now, after years of her husband being unemployed, he’s found a good job that pays well, and she’s going back to grad school. She says that “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.” She closes the story by noting that they still have the Mercedes. Thank God the combination of years of unemployment benefits, food stamps, and a federal program that let them get rid of a bad house purchase let them keep their Mercedes!
As I said, it’s a story that raises many questions. If this woman grew up in an affluent suburb, where was her apparently well-heeled family during this period of her falling into Mercedes-owning “poverty”? How could her husband have remained completely unemployed for years, as opposed to taking any job that would produce some income? If he wasn’t working at all, why did they need two cars? Why didn’t she make him go get the food stamps, perhaps to motivate him to get off his duff and find a job? How do we define poverty if a couple can own and drive two cars and get significant financial aid?
But Kish, as is usually the case, asked the most pertinent question of all: why would this woman write this story in the first place? If she’s as embarrassed as she claims to be, why not keep this sad tale of her struggles to herself rather than publicize her circumstances? Isn’t writing this story just a pathetic cry for attention from some needy person who wants the world to know that yes, she’s had her brush with the common folks?