We are writing because two weeks ago an article appeared in The Washington Post about a woman’s struggle with becoming suddenly impoverished. This article was quickly shared throughout the Internet because there was something about the woman’s story that seemed unusual to people. We first noticed it when we saw dozens of retweets with the fetching headline, “This is what happened when I drove my Mercedes to pick up food stamps.” From a journalistic perspective, that’s a great hook.
We think that the article was popular because people could easily imagine it happening to them. Which is interesting because lots of people fantasize about being able to buy a Mercedes-Benz. This story took that visualization one step further by considering what happens if you “make it” but then lose it. It asked, “What would you do if your wages went down, your spouse lost his or her job, you gave birth to twins, the market gutted the value of your home, and the Mercedes-Benz was paid off?”
Plenty of people had opinions on whether the story’s author handled her life correctly. Right or wrong, thousands of people felt comfortable judging the story’s author. A lot of those opinions centered on the Mercedes-Benz and the house because they are signs of economic success. Many people thought the woman and her husband should sell both because they’re “luxury” items, which can be downgraded.
As the woman explained, weeks after purchasing the house, the market fell out, and to sell the house would be to assume an enormous amount of debt. The Mercedes-Benz was an older model which had also depreciated in value and had been paid off long, long ago. But because they are strong economic symbols, people rushed quickly to judgment, irrespective of facts below the symbolic level. People in the story, and those reading it, second-guessed the woman and her husband every step of the way because her appearance (nice house, nice car) didn’t match her reality (not being able to buy food, not being to find a job).
We would submit that poverty can be an incredibly nuanced concept. We usually hear “poverty” and jump straight to “lower class,” assuming that you’re already there, or that you should immediately start to look like what we imagine lower class looks like. This isn’t a very compassionate view, and in the wake of the economic turbulence of the Great Recession, we think it would behoove us all to be more flexible in our viewpoints and less hasty in our judgments. In short: Learn. Observe. Watch. Ask questions. Be helpful. Swallow advice. Everyone’s experience is different, even and especially those who look unusual, like a woman in a Mercedes-Benz picking up food stamps.
Billions of people walk this planet with their own unique challenges and circumstances. In many cases a lot of good can be done simply by asking to hear their stories. The whole point of this article’s widespread interest is that the woman’s story did not match what people imagined it would be. Doling out advice and judgment based on her appearance is the exact opposite of what people should be taking away, and yet, that’s what we’ve been witnessing. The next time you hear or read a story that excites you, pause—take a moment. Take a day or even two. We are willing to bet that that extra time will create empathy, which is one thing this woman and her family could have used more of.