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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez can both struggle to pay her rent and have a nice jacket | Opinion

A conservative writer's "fashion shaming" underscores just another way poor people are stereotyped.

Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY., arrives for orientation for new members of Congress, Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018, in Washington.
Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY., arrives for orientation for new members of Congress, Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018, in Washington.Read morePablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

After her historic election as the youngest member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made headlines by doing something truly radical: She admitted she was living from paycheck to paycheck.

Of course, it takes financial resources to move to a new city to take a new job, but how do you do that if you won't start collecting a paycheck for a few months? Like Ocasio-Cortez, many Americans need better jobs, but lack the time and money to actively job search while working a full-time or multiple part-time jobs to make ends meet. It was refreshing to see an elected representative struggling with these relatable issues.

I thought this was a moment of progress in our political discourse, understanding just how many barriers to economic security there are in people's lives.  But as I scrolled through my Twitter feed late Thursday, I was discouraged to see a now-viral tweet by Eddie Scarry, a writer for the Washington Examiner: "Hill staffer sent me this pic of Ocasio-Cortez they took just now.  I'll tell you something: that jacket and coat don't look like a girl who struggles."

In addition to the misogyny of calling an elected official a "girl," the tweet also implied that someone can't be struggling economically while looking professional and put together.

I braced myself to see the replies and agreement about how people who struggle financially bring it upon themselves or don't deserve to have anything of value in their lives. We've all heard the comments questioning why a person on public assistance also has a cell phone – as if a person who is poor doesn't also need a phone to conduct a job search.

I expected comments about how the clothes she wore were "too nice" for someone "like her."  As the executive director of a nonprofit organization that gives people who are job-searching access to free professional clothing, I have heard that argument more times than I care to remember.

But as I scrolled through my Twitter feed, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the backlash wasn't to Ocasio-Cortez's outfit, but to the "fashion shaming" of her critic.

My feed was full of photos of other women and men pointing out that of course she should be dressed professionally – she is a professional. And in fact, to suggest otherwise is an outdated way of thinking.  People shared their "fashion bargain stories," such as how they worked low-wage jobs, but used retail job discounts to get high-end clothes for next to nothing.

This is something I am sure the new congresswoman understands: the less money you have, the smarter you are at spending it.  Poor people aren't poor – as that tweet implied – because they spend beyond their means.  They struggle because they are stuck in low-paying, often part-time jobs that don't provide benefits or allow them to make enough money to move out of poverty.

Maybe Ocasio-Cortez paid full price for her professional suit.  Maybe it was on deep discount off-season and hung in her closet for months before she could wear it.  Maybe a friend lent it to her so she could look and feel great on her first day walking the halls of Congress.  In the end, it doesn't matter where she got it or how she paid for it.  It just matters that she is looking and feeling confident so she can advocate for the needs of most Americans who need economic relief.

Sheri K. Cole is executive director of Career Wardrobe, a nonprofit organization that gives people access to professional clothing and job search support. Since 1995, Career Wardrobe has helped more than 85,000 people in the Philadelphia region during their job search. Visit for information on how to donate or receive assistance.