The stereotype of the so-called welfare queen driving a luxury car while leaching off of society is an enduring one.
Darlena Cunha takes on this idea in a personal essay published Tuesday by The Washington Post. It blew up on the Internet in part because of its "there but for the grace of God go I" quality, in part because it echoes the familiar stereotype, and in part because of the striking headline: "This is what happened when I drove my Mercedes to pick up food stamps."
As is often the case with headlines, it's not quite accurate. Cunha was actually going to enroll in WIC (the federal Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children), not food stamps. And the 2003 Mercedes Kompressor was her husband's, bought and paid for before they were married.
But still, Cunha writes that when she signed up for nutrition assistance for her and her twin daughters, people stared.
"The most embarrassing part was how I felt about myself," she writes. "How I had so internalized the message of what poor people should or should not have that I felt ashamed to be there, with that car, getting food. As if I were not allowed the food because of the car."
The way she and her husband got to that point is a story I've heard many times before as a reporter.
They bought a house in early 2008, then the market crashed. That wouldn't have been a problem, except that also their twins were born six weeks premature, and her husband lost his job. She writes that their income dropped from $120,000 a year to $25,000.
They couldn't pay their mortgage, their savings quickly ran out, and the stable middle-class life they thought they had built was gone.
When people lose their jobs, they don't expect to join the ranks of the long-term unemployed. They certainly don't imagine themselves having to rely on government help like food stamps or WIC. But expectations change, norms shift. Wages that would once have seemed laughably low, become a life line.
For Cunha and her husband, being poor was temporary. They've recovered.
For those who took even harder hits in the recession, there will be no return to the life they had before. Their job prospects, their economic aspirations are forever altered or were never that great.
Truly, Cunha is one of the lucky ones. She and her husband still have the Mercedes, and they don't have to drive it to get public assistance any more.
Many Americans are swamped with stress, but there may be ways to ease the tension without changing the circumstances.
Almost half of all adults say they've experienced a major stressful event in the past year, according to a poll conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health.
Meditation can help people cope, says author Sharon Salzberg, co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Mass.
Salzberg teaches "mindfulness," which she describes as a way of looking at the world without bias, fears or assumptions. "We have the opportunity to take a fresh look at our experience," she tells NPR's Tamara Keith.
Salzberg says getting that new perspective starts with taking a deep breath.
Mindfulness is not just focusing on the good things in life
[It's] focusing on everything, so that we're with it as it actually is. With pleasant and wonderful things, maybe we're so distracted we don't get to enjoy them. With painful and difficult things, maybe we add on shame and blame and dread and all of these things which make the bad ... or difficult situation so much worse. And with neutral experience, just ordinary routine, we tend to rely on intensity in order to feel alive.
Mindfulness training is about changing your relationship to everything. It's not changing the thing, but we're different with our experience.
On how mindfulness and mediation can help with serious chronic health issues like diabetes
I think it can, because the way we hold an experience like that, you know, sometimes we feel tremendously alone, we feel isolated, we're caught in this kind of corrosive self-hatred. One of the ways of understanding meditation is that it's about connection; it's connecting to other aspects of yourself, so that you're not only the diagnosis. That might be a benefit.
An example of a mindfulness exercise
Often we start just by listening to sound [like ocean waves]. ... Then bring your attention to the feeling of the breath. See if you can feel just one breath. If you find your attention slipping away, you get lost in thought, spun out in fantasy, or you're falling asleep, don't worry about it. You can practice just letting go gracefully, and bring your attention back to the feeling of the breath.
Utah's attorney general says he will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court to block a lower court ruling that same-sex couples must receive benefits following the overturning of the state's gay marriage ban.
In a statement issued late Friday, Attorney General Sean Reyes says the appeal will be filed in the coming weeks, to get "clarity and resolution" on the matter.
NPR's Howard Berkes, reporting from Salt Lake City, says Reyes' statement comes after the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that Utah must recognize spousal rights for married same-sex couples when it comes to adoptions, child custody cases, and medical decisions. The circuit court, which issued a stay on benefits in May, has declined to renew it past its expiration on July 21.
The Associated Press says: "This case is separate from the ongoing judicial review of the constitutionality of the state's same-sex marriage ban. The 10th Circuit recently upheld a December opinion from a federal judge in Utah who overturned the ban. Utah state officials plan to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court."
Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union has asked U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to offer federal recognition to gay couples in Indiana who wed before a federal appeals court stayed an order striking down the state's gay marriage ban.
The AP says the ACLU letter asks Holder:
"to issue a statement that the federal government will recognize the marriages as he did in Utah and Michigan, which would make Indiana's couples eligible for federal benefits for married couples."
"The ACLU's move comes the same week that Gov. Mike Pence's office said the state wouldn't recognize the same marriages."
Marijuana enthusiasts should still think twice before lighting up in the streets of Brooklyn.
The borough's district attorney announced this week that he'll no longer prosecute most low-level marijuana possession cases. But not all law enforcement officials in New York City are on board. Police Commissioner William Bratton responded to Thompson's decision with a shrug.
"It will not have any impact on our officers and the discretion they have as they go about their business," says Bratton.
Thousands of people in New York are arrested every year for having small amounts of marijuana on them. And the vast majority — more than 86 percent so far this year — are black and Latino, even though those groups are no more likely than others to smoke pot.
"I cannot ignore as the chief law enforcement officer in Brooklyn the racial disparity involved in these arrests," says Brooklyn DA Kenneth Thompson. Thompson, who is African-American, announced this week this his office will stop bringing cases against offenders with less than 25 grams of pot and no prior criminal record.
Thompson says this will let him move resources to more serious crimes.
"We are determined to keep people safe, but we also cannot prosecute everyone," says Thompson. "These are nonviolent offenses. These are minor offenses. That's why judges are dismissing two-thirds of these cases."
That's what happened to Keeshan Harley in 2011. Harley was 16 years old when he was arrested for marijuana possession in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
"We weren't doing anything criminal," says Harley, "just hanging around" after school. Then, he says, the police pulled up, did a warrantless search, and found a bag of marijuana in his friend's pocket.
"It was like a nickel bag," says Harley. "It wasn't like my friend had a whole kilo of marijuana on him. It was a very miniscule amount. Something that you wouldn't have even have saw, smelt, anything, if you hadn't gone in his pockets."
But Harley was arrested and charged. He fought the charges for a year, and his record is clean now. Others aren't so fortunate. For many, an arrest for a small amount of marijuana can lead to big problems finding work, housing, even college scholarships.
"This has taken a heavy toll on the future of tens of thousands of young men, derailing their careers," says Vanessa Gibson, the chairwoman of the New York City Council's public safety committee.
Small amounts of pot were decriminalized in New York a long time ago. The drug is still illegal and possession is punishable by a fine. But there is one big exception: You can be arrested if the marijuana is on public display. Critics say that loophole has led to thousands of questionable arrests.
"If you're white today and you carry a small amount of marijuana, you may get a ticket for it," says state Sen. Daniel Squadron. "But you are overwhelmingly unlikely to get a criminal record. If you're black or Latino and you're carrying marijuana, you are vastly more likely to get a criminal record for it."
Squadron is co-sponsoring a bill that's intended to fix those inequities. But Brooklyn DA Thompson isn't waiting for the legislature.
His decision not to prosecute most low-level marijuana cases only applies in Brooklyn; it won't make any difference to people who get caught with pot in Manhattan, Queens or other boroughs.
It's not even clear if it will affect marijuana arrests in Brooklyn. Police Commissioner Bratton described Thompson's move as an "internal issue" for the DA's office, saying that "it does not impact" the work of the NYPD.
That seems to set up a conflict between the police and the Brooklyn DA. But Mayor Bill de Blasio is trying to downplay the apparent rift. He says marijuana arrests are down significantly from their peak in 2011.
"Look at the numbers," de Blasio says. "The lowest-level marijuana arrests are down. And the focus is on serious crime, as it should be."
But activists say those older numbers don't tell the whole story. Statistics show that marijuana arrests in New York are actually up slightly this year compared with 2013, on pace for more than 28,000 thousand arrests citywide.
"De Blasio has done nothing to stop these practices," says Gabriel Sayegh, state director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "So that's what makes this thing with Thompson so important. It's good policy; it's the right thing to do."
Sayegh hopes the rest of New York law enforcement will eventually follow the Brooklyn DA's lead. But there's no sign of that yet.
Fresh Air Weekend highlights some of the best interviews and reviews from past weeks, and new program elements specially paced for weekends. Our weekend show emphasizes interviews with writers, filmmakers, actors, and musicians, and often includes excerpts from live in-studio concerts. This week:
Filmed Over 12 Years, 'Boyhood' Follows A Kid's Coming Of Age: Writer-director Richard Linklater says picking the film's star was vital because he had to guess what he'd be like at 18. "I just went with a kid who seemed kind of the most interesting."
Strand Of Oaks: Songs Heal All Wounds: If you're going to be downbeat, glum, or morose, it's best to do it the way Timothy Showalter does it.
The Hazards Of Probing The Internet's Dark Side: Brian Krebs, who broke the Target security breach story last year, says cybercriminals are "some very bad people." He tells Terry Gross about how they have found creative ways to taunt him.
You can listen to the original interviews here: