former journalists discuss a profession in crisis

Lose the Mercedes: This riches to rags tale is about entitlement, not empathy

In Blog on July 13, 2014 at 3:27 pm

It’s often been said that a story that gets a lot of media attention is a story about something your editor talks about at a cocktail party.  Journalists, since they achieved a certain level of pay and status, have been largely interested in what occupies the minds and hearts of people like them – white, educated, upper middle class.

So it’s no surprise that the mainstream media in Washington DC would be so taken by Darlene Cunha’s op-ed about her journey from riches to rags.  Here was a cautionary tale they could understand, a story about someone in their crowd.

The piece first ran online at The Washington Post, then was published in the Outlook section of the Sunday Post. Cunha also got a very sympathetic interview on NPR.  In her op-ed, Cunha writes of the events that landed her in a “dreary” church applying for federal nutritional assistance.

I’m not quite sure what Cunha’s point was.  It seemed mostly a vehicle for talking about herself and her unfairly deserved plight, and how awful it felt when people reacted to the sight of her, a white woman driving a Mercedes, applying for government help. She seems to imply that poverty should not be considered a moral failing, and lamenting that it harmed her self-esteem.  She wasn’t going to let that happen again.

I agree with Cunha that in this country we tend to punish the poor.  But the people we punish are not like her, for the most part.  They start out without access to decent housing or education, often struggle in families for generations that have experienced underemployment and discrimination.

And I didn’t detect any empathy for all the other people sitting on hard chairs filling out pages of paperwork.  What we their lives like?  What options did they have?  She was knocked off kilter by an unintended pregnancy, the birth of premature of twins, a job loss, and the housing meltdown of 2008.

But it appears that she still had health insurance, so her woes did not appear to include medical bills that can bankrupt a family of modest means.  And she and her spouse had some options, most importantly, the education to navigate the forms and bureaucracy, to know about tax allowances for short sales of homes that are underwater, the skills to get new jobs.

Instead of showing empathy for others, her empathy was for herself.  Cunha heartily defends their Mercedes, paid in full, as the one “comfort” they could cling to in hard times.  And she argues, it wouldn’t make any sense for her partner to trade it in for a “crappier” used car that they would have to make payments on.  Of course, they could have sold the Mercedes and used the proceeds to buy a decent used car, or even gotten along with one car, — they owned two — but these options didn’t seem to have been on the table.  It was clear that she felt entitled to that Mercedes, and she offers it up as a sign of triumph.  The couple kept the car through all their hard times.

I make these comments not to condemn the author of the piece, but to point out the conclusion that she didn’t make.  She had all the advantages that her race, class and education could provide. Yet she landed in a precarious place, dependent on government help.  And, for her, poverty turned out to be merely a bit of a detour in a prosperous life.  By 2012, the couple was recovering, and now has enough income for her to afford to go to graduate school.

How much harder it is for the working poor, who lack of all these advantages, and have no Mercedes they can cling to in hard times.


  1. I welcome a spirited discussion. However, nothing in her op-ed states that she was undergoing fertility treatments. On the contrary, it appears the pregnancy was unplanned. And while I, too, would hope that food stamps are used for nutritious food, I don’t think we have the right to scold people for what they purchase with them.

  2. She was in crisis because they were living far beyond their means. She claims they made enough to have savings but also claims they were desperate to pay the mortgage within a month or 2 of him losing his job.

    That means they were being completely irresponsible…especially if they had an income of $120k. They didn’t have enough savings and bought an overpriced house. On top of that they paid for infertility treatments to add the massive expense of multiple babies to an already grossly financially irresponsible household.

    It isn’t a punishment to expect adults to be responsible for themselves and their families. It’s called reality and being a responsible member of society.

    She also cries about wanting to keep her luxuries to have her dignity. No one guaranteed you life, liberty, the right to spend way beyond your means without saving or the right to keep all the luxuries you overspent on while asking other people to pay your bills for you.

    I’m also 100% against food stamps being able to be used to buy unhealthy garbage like root beer. It should be for healthy US and produced grown fruits, veg, meat and fish. I saw a kid begging the mom to buy grapes that were on sale at 99cents a pound. She got annoyed and told the kid to shut up, they didn’t have the money for that… but their food stamps were fine to buy all the name brand frozen pizzas and sodas she could load into a cart.

  3. I agree with the criticism of Cunha’s attitude and the discussion of the privilege she has enjoyed, unlike most who qualify for food stamps. However, I disagree with one major piece: telling her to “lose the Mercedes.” It is an easy shot because of her privilege, but it only reinforces the idea that people get to dictate choices for those who use government assistance programs. That scene in the grocery store happens over and over for thousands of people every day and it comes this kind of thinking.

  4. You are right on? She shows no pity for others but herself.

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