Why did the ‘poor Mercedes lady’ evoke such a passionate response?

By now, you’ve seen it, or heard about it, or at least scrolled past the link on Facebook. The first-person account in The Washington Post of Darlena Cunha, the mom who drove her husband’s 2003 Mercedes Kompressor to pick up food coupons from the WIC (Women, Infants and Children) office.

“To this day,” Cunha wrote, “it is the single most embarrassing thing I’ve ever done.”

Cunha is hardly the first person or even the first former journalist to write about an unexpected plunge into relative poverty — just a few months ago, former Politico White House correspondent Joseph Williams detailed his struggles for the Atlantic. So what was it that made Cunha’s story stick? The Mercedes? The government aid? The combination? Cunha’s story, in some form or another, seems to have been picked up by half the Internet. On Wednesday, Cunha was a guest on CNN Tonight with Don Lemon.

Everyone has processed Cunha’s story through their various filters and reached some conclusion or judgment of their own, something she herself experienced before sharing her story with the world. “That’s the funny thing about being poor,” Cunha wrote. “Everyone has an opinion on it, and everyone feels entitled to share.”

And share they did, in all corners of the Internet. Some found Cunha to be out of touch.

“I read this lady’s story the other day and I just really have to say, she doesn’t get it,” wrote allin4au, a commenter on the Birmingham News Web site. “Yes, she and her husband fell on hard times and had to use safety nets.  That’s what they are there for.  But this lady was never in ‘Poverty’ and frankly her use of the term should be insulting to those who actually live in poverty. … Actual poverty looks nothing like what this woman described.  It’s not about driving your Mercedes to get food stamps, it’s about being stuck there with no way out or no idea how to use the opportunities afforded to them to get out.”

A blogger, Edward Burton, wrote of a “sense of entitlement”:

The sense of entitlement that reeks from this article is another example of the dramatic change in culture that has swept the American landscape. There was a time where folks tried to dig their way out of their own financial hole. But, not in the modern world. There is always the government — the anonymous taxpayer or the unborn child who gets to pay back the debt accumulated by the current generation. Meanwhile, drive on in your Mercedes.

While another identified with her wholeheartedly in an e-mail to the Post:

Thank you for telling your (‘our’) story. After years in a more than comfortable life I found myself flat broke -literally overnight. My husband of 27 years was a successful banker and in February 2007 he announced that we were 1.6 million in debt. He promptly checked into a rehab facility for six months (paid by his current employer) and left me to figure it out. I couldn’t, nothing made sense – least of all the accounting. …

Thank you again for sharing your story, I wish you a lifetime of joy with your girls.

Rene at PopSugar wasn’t sure if Cunha had written her dispatch to evoke sympathy:

So why exactly am I feeling sorry for her? Because she was a white woman with financial stability and all of a sudden she wasn’t? Yes they absolutely should have gotten rid of their Mercedes, even if it was already paid off. I had a 95 Saturn that lasted me until 2008. I paid $1200 when I first got it and never made a single payment on it and it lasted over 10 years. So what’s her excuse for keeping a fancy car? And the house? You downsize. … I’ll be honest, I understand that it must have been hard for her but I find it highly insulting that she is complaining so much about this. It was probably the best thing to happen to her. She never would have thought twice about the young women who have to use these programs had she not had to use them herself. She may have even been one of those giving ‘faux concern’ looks. I don’t know what to make of this article. As someone who was a single mother at 15 and a single mother of 2 at 17 I never needed this kind of help.

While a reader at the Stir, IKnow0101, thought the couple was right to keep the car:

I read the original article and she was definitely right in keeping the car. I doubt she would receive a lot of money at the time and plus she really needed reliable transportation for two newborns.

The Cunha story was posted on the message boards at ChowHound:

Great post. I was humbled and sobered when, in the past 8 years, my husband lost a job, had a stroke, and when my own job was downsized. We were lucky, relatively … I got extra part time jobs, my 1991 car is holding up, and we have no kids. My mom used to say ‘there but for the grace go God go I…’ so true.

And Raquel Pinkbullet at HotAir wasn’t so keen on Cunha praising the government as a safety net:

They could have filed for bankruptcy to get out from under the mortgage or worked with the bank. I know many who did just that. They also could have sold one of the two cars (I don’t care which one). Family could have helped them with food costs. But leave it to a freaking leftist to only consider the solution that involves getting govt. sugar.

Sure there’s a tension in driving up to collect WIC vouchers in a late-model Mercedes, but the public tends to be captivated by narratives that follow a similar arc to Cunha’s. Perhaps we’re all a little gripped by the nagging fear that you can do everything “the right way,” whatever way that is, only to still end up on society’s bottom rung, having to climb your way up again. There’s something haunting about that, and it’s employed to great effect in fictional and real-life accounts.

No matter how many times or different ways it’s deployed, it grabs people, like the point in the BBC drama “Mistresses” when one of the characters, Jessica, is forced to give up her Ludvig Mies van der Rohe Barcelona chairs (licensed reproductions can cost upward of $5,200, and she had two) after her husband Mark bankrupts them both. They were her I-Made-It chairs, which she paid for with her own money. She didn’t want to let go of those, either, though she was ultimately forced to. The having-it-all-and-then-losing-it narrative is what made “12 Years A Slave” such a compelling movie, and, at the time it was published, a best-selling book.

In her interview with Lemon, Cunha reiterated that being poor is not the same as being lazy. “I don’t think that there are many people that are on assistance that are not hard workers, and I feel that that would be the main point of the piece itself,” Cunha told Lemon. “You don’t get into poverty and have to rely on government assistance because you’re a lazy quote unquote ‘welfare queen’ most of the time. These people are hard-working American citizens. They’re working two and three jobs. And when you are broke, you don’t have the time to find out ways to save money. You’re busy spending it on food … it’s expensive to be poor.”

Soraya Nadia McDonald covers arts, entertainment and culture for the Washington Post with a focus on race and gender issues.
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