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How Poor Could They Be?


Jul 18 2014
On going broke and getting judged.

After I confessed some of the stupid decisions we've made during our financial dry spell, a woman told me her family, in similar straits, went to Disney World: "We'd paid for the trip before my husband got laid off. We couldn't get a refund. To cancel seemed foolish."

I nodded, understanding. "But because we went," she said, "people wonder now—even after two years of unemployment—how broke could we really be?"

Once upon a time, I'd have wondered the same thing. I'd have judged and murmured, curious how an unemployed, broke person manages Disney World.

Just like how I'd have joined the ranks mocking Hillary Clinton and her "dead broke"-ness upon leaving the White House. I don't care how many millions of dollars in legal debt you accrued!How broke can you be with a presidential pension?

But this attitude changes fast when the questions make an about-face. Since I've gone public with my own family's story of going broke, I've faced down the same ones:

You live in a cushy suburb. How broke can you be?

You never sold your diamond engagement ring. How broke can you be?

You guys went camping. How broke can you be?

You color your grays. How broke can you be?

Didn't I see you in the McDonald's drive-thru? How broke can you be?

And my all-time favorite:

You got a book deal. How broke can you be?

Aside from the book-deal one (ummmm, see: Edgar Allen Poe, Oscar Wilde, Herman Melville, et al. Not saying I'm in their league. But if they died broke…), I've struggled to answer these questions myself, hemming and hawing, trying to explain, to justify.

Until handily, just last week, my fellow blonde-and-broke compatriot Darlena Cunha gave me the answer I'd been looking for for years. In "This Is What Happened When I Drove My Mercedes to Get Food Stamps," Cunha writes:

The reality of poverty can spring quickly while the psychological effects take longer to surface. When you lose a job, your first thought isn't, "Oh…I'm poor. I'd better sell all my nice stuff!" It's "I need another job. Now." When you're scrambling, you hang on to the things that work, that bring you some comfort. That Mercedes was the one reliable, trustworthy thing in our lives.

And while reading this may cause some bodies to squirm or some minds to smack down reasoning (certainly the Internet comment brigade tried giving her the what-for), Cunha's right. And Christians would do well to pay attention to her words. If we want to be compassionate. If we want to help. If we want to be more like Jesus.

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