Mr. Brown folded his large hands and gleamed at me with a placid smile. Then, suddenly, he said, “You have to work!“ His tone was that of a father scolding an errant teenager. “If we give you money, you have to work!” I managed the seething anger brought on by this exchange, and compounded by the hunger I felt after having waited a few hours for my turn at this encounter, not to mention the set of events that led up to me applying for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Plan (SNAP, a.k.a. food stamps) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).
“I have a job,” I managed to say, “it’s part-time and I’m actively looking for a full time job.” I pointed to the printed e-mails of interview appointments, job applications and cover letters. He waved away my evidence and continued down his checklist. I could tell that he gave this speech regularly and had no interest in a rebuttal. I slumped down in the chair, defeated, feeling solidarity with the woman who was escorted out of the Brooklyn Human Resource Administration building, cusses and fists flying.
Like Darlena Cunha, the author of a much-discussed Washington Post piece titled “This Is What Happened When I Drove My Mercedes to Pick Up Food Stamps,” I’m a college-educated woman who had a promising career in media. The road to the Temporary Assistance (also known as welfare) office for me was similarly spurred by motherhood. But unlike the author (who describes herself as “a tall blond”), I’m a short black woman who very much blended in with the others waiting for assistance at the HRA building. What may have separated me from the other women in line at the welfare office was much more invisible than the Mercedes Cunha brazenly drove to her food-stamp appointment, but just as necessary to getting me out of there.
I graduated college in 2008 and after an internship at a prominent national magazine, I searched for a job at the beginning of the economic downturn. Later that year, the magazine hired me on a freelance basis. Lacking contacts and resources, I worked hard to build a network, and to impress the hell out of everyone I was around. I made a living stringing part-time gigs with freelancing jobs, and occasionally looked into grad school programs with longing.
I survived but, unlike Cunha, never quite thrived. When I found out I was pregnant, I was earning just enough to cover rent and bills. During my pregnancy, I hastily applied and interviewed for jobs, hoping they would be flexible and accommodating. I was offered a full-time job two weeks after my son was born but tearfully turned it down when I realized I had no way to make it work while caring for a newborn.
I continued freelancing at the magazine, but was let go for budget reasons. This made my search all the more desperate and urgent. I was faced with an infant who needed more than simply the warmth and comfort of a somewhat sane mother. While I had a community of friends nearby who were supportive, I didn’t have the village needed to consistently support my son emotionally and financially. I knew that stay-at-home motherhood was never a choice, but still opted to ease into a part-time to full-time situation as he got older.
Despite my education and a few but significant connections, I had to apply for the whole Temporary Assistance package including food stamps. I was struck by how I rated these services, seeing the welfare payments as more a marker of failure than SNAP. A few college-educated friends already received SNAP benefits, and it was almost fashionable to spend them at Whole Foods, the upscale supermarket. But I didn’t know anyone who was on TANF, and never told my family members that I was.
It took me four months, but my version of a Mercedes—resourcefulness, education and networking—got me out of the welfare office. But here’s where the personal stops being the universally-applicable political. Both Cunha and I are exceptions to a history and a system designed for entrapment and failure. The trouble with applying her story—or even mine—writ large to an entire diverse group of women is more insidiously judgmental than her conclusion about value judgment would allow. You see, she felt judged when she showed up at a food stamp facility in her fancy car, and seems to equate that with the reproach that is visited upon those who live lives of seemingly intractable poverty, including poor black women.
The “new poor,” by which she meant people like herself, she explained in the video accompanying the article, should be immune from the judgment of those “who never had anything.” While she makes attempts to reconcile her experience with a one-size-fits-all lesson of “just don’t judge anyone,” she ignores the decades of a campaign aimed at shaping the way we see welfare and food stamp recipients, especially those who are black. Workers in the welfare offices, policy makers, and the general public have all absorbed the message.
The mythic vision of a black woman driving her Cadillac to the welfare office is a powerful piece of American lore and has a much different connotation than Cunha in her Mercedes. While Cunha and her status symbol may have drawn some sidelong glances, she was never accused of gaming the system, or of using government funds for material wealth. Her fancy car came from a past life of relative luxury, and she looked the part.
Conservative media, meanwhile, have perpetuated and recycled the black woman/Cadillac symbol, along with other racially charged assertions that eventually informed President Bill Clinton’s gutting of the federal program (then known as Aid to Families With Dependent Children) under the guise of “welfare reform,” and which continue to fuel today’s threats to cut what’s left of it in its TANF incarnation. To conflate the two images as equally unfair judgments—Cunha in her Mercedes with the mythic “welfare queen”—continues the particular erasure of black women’s experiences, as we have long been rendered as symbols and targets for all that is wrong with the recidivist poor.
And it’s not just Cunha’s rendering of the harshly judged “new poor” as suffering the same reproof as people who embody the traditional vision of welfare and food-stamp recipients that negates the experience of black women under society’s gaze: Black women are disappeared from public discourse and programs designed to address specific needs regarding race and gender. Between programs for blacks, (read: black men) and programs for women (read: white women), we are at once seen and unseen as stereotypes dehumanize us. Programs like President Barack Obama’s well-intentioned My Brother’s Keeper, designed to “close the opportunity gaps face by boys and young men of color,” according to the White House website, ignore the women who for years made up for the gaps in social services for our sons, brothers, husbands and partners. Black girls and young women face more than our share of “opportunity gaps,” too. We attend the same schools, live in the same communities yet have specific vulnerabilities that are rarely ever addressed.
Too often, we lack the kind of social network that leads to success and find ourselves, even when we have a college degree, in competition for jobs with white high school graduates. Black women fare worse than their male counterparts and much worse than whites, both male and female, in just about every social marker.
In a letter titled, “Why We Can’t Wait: Women of Color Urge Inclusion in 'My Brother’s Keeper',” more than 1,400 activists, thought-leaders and citizens are calling on President Barack Obama to include us in the historic initiative, and address the challenges faced by women of color. The letter outlines ways that “our daughters” are sidelined both historically and by the Brother's Keeper initiative. The organizations that united to produce the letter show just one of the ways our communities work to address our issues.
Black women’s realities are the extension of personal internalized judgment such as Darlena Cunha’s. But when we work to achieve our dreams, the message we get is that we’re not deserving of the assistance afforded our black brothers, or sisters of other races facing similar issues. While I appreciate the potential of Cunha’s story to complicate the narrative of the “deserving poor,” I hope that the empathy she says she developed from her experience works to unite and not separate us in, as Cunha called it, the “grungy den” that is poverty, both the temporary and cyclical kind.