Who Gets to Be Poor?

A viral essay shows that we’re confused about the difference between “downwardly mobile” and “impoverished.”

Poverty Thoughts - In Book Form
The GoFundMe page of Linda Tirado, author of the widely shared “Poverty Thoughts” essay.

Photo via Linda Tirado/GoFundMe

This week, Americans have had two radically different opportunities to consider tough questions about poverty, health care access, and downward mobility in the post–Great Recession era. One came when President Obama delivered a speech on economic mobility. The other came when Linda Tirado took out her dental bridge for a YouTube video to prove she was poor.

If you haven’t been following the Tirado saga, here’s a recap. On Oct. 22, the frequent Gawker commenter posted a personal essay called “Why I Make Terrible Decisions, or, Poverty Thoughts,” which she framed as “random observations that might help explain the mental processes” of poor people like herself. In the piece, Tirado—a line cook, freelance writer, and sometime political campaign worker who lives in Utah—described the cognitive toll of juggling two low-wage jobs, a full college course load, a marriage (Tirado’s husband is an Iraq War veteran), and two children, some days on just three hours of sleep. Chronic stress and exhaustion, she explained, left her little bandwidth for good planning and decision-making, or for basic health and dental care. Her piece transpires in a grinding, perpetual present tense, both urgent and fatalistic: “You have to understand that we know that we will never not feel tired,” she wrote. “We will never feel hopeful. We will never get a vacation. Ever. We know that the very act of being poor guarantees that we will never not be poor.”

As the essay began to gather steam online, Tirado asked Jessica Coen, editor of Jezebel, if the piece could land a spot on Jezebel’s front page, which it did. Exactly a month after Tirado originally posted “Poverty Thoughts,” it hit the front page of the Huffington Post, which hailed her as “the woman who accidentally explained poverty to the nation.” Millions read her essay. So many offers of financial assistance flowed in that Tirado set up a GoFundMe page where she raised over $60,000 for dental surgery—her teeth, which were damaged in a car crash, contributed to her difficulty finding good jobs, she said. She’d use the rest of the money to work on a book.

Inevitably, a backlash followed. Skeptics and cranks dug up dentally impeccable photos of Tirado taken years after her car accident as well as a July 2011 post detailing her unstable but privileged upbringing, which included private schooling—as well as a scholarship at the exclusive boarding school Cranbrook, alma mater of Mitt Romney (she never enrolled)—and ample cultural enrichment: “I had private music lessons from the age of four … I owned twenty-three instruments when I was twelve. I toured Europe as a featured soprano the summer after I graduated high school.”* Over Thanksgiving weekend, the Houston Press published an impassioned debunking of “Poverty Thoughts.” On Tuesday, Mediaite went so far as to declare “Poverty Thoughts” “a hoax.”

Tuesday was also the day Tirado posted her video in response to the doubters. This was not her first bizarre postscript to “Poverty Thoughts.” The first was a mystifying update she added to the essay after her GoFundMe account was already fat with donations: “Not all of this piece is about me. That is why I said that they were observations.” (Note to the children of America: Next time Mom or Dad catches you in a tall tale, try, “I wasn’t exaggerating; I was making an observation.”) She later described herself as “comfortably working-class,” contradicting her self-presentation in “Poverty Thoughts.”

It’s a decent bet, however, that Tirado’s story is largely true, thanks to reporting by The Nation’s Michelle Goldberg, who interviewed Tirado and one of her former employers, Ryan Clayton (who attested both to Tirado’s diligence and her damaged teeth). And plenty of fair-minded people, including her GoFundMe benefactors, could readily accept the idea that Tirado—despite the house her parents helped her get, despite the advantages of social class and cultural capital that secure you a spot at Cranbrook or on the homepage of a Gawker Media site—believes herself to be “a poor person,” a thinker of “poverty thoughts.” But the fact is that Linda Tirado, the woman who explained poverty to the nation, is almost certainly not one of the 50 million Americans now living in poverty. “Broke” or “downwardly mobile,” maybe, but not poor. And that says less about Tirado’s credibility than it does about our stringent standards for defining poverty in America.

Even with just two low-wage jobs and her husband’s veteran benefits to get by, Tirado’s household income likely well outstrips the 2013 federal poverty guidelines, which top out at $23,550 for a family of four like Tirado’s. That may seem shockingly low, yet 16 percent of Americans still meet the federal definition of poor according to the Census Bureau’s supplemental measure of poverty (which takes into account tax breaks, necessary expenses, and geographic differences across states). And if you were to double that tiny family-of-four figure, you’d be only a few grand short of the median household income in the U.S., which is also lower than many might assume: just over $51,000 in 2012. Pointing out these grim numbers doesn’t belittle the challenges faced by any hard-working family trying to pay for a home, child care, health insurance, taxes, and so much else even at $51k per year. But it does put the circumstances of the tens of millions with so much less in sharper relief.

Curiously enough, there are symmetrical blind spots in media outlets’ embrace of Tirado as the face of American poverty and in President Obama’s Wednesday speech in Washington, and that blind spot is unemployment. Obama talked about class mobility and income inequality and affordable health care, but he didn’t talk much about jobs for those who don’t have them. As my colleague Matthew Yglesias pointed out in his coverage of Obama’s speech, “The people suffering the most in this country aren’t the people whose wages are stagnating; it’s the people who don’t have any wages at all.” There are 20 million adults in the U.S. who are out of work. Again, it’s not that Tirado, with her exhausting pair of low-wage jobs, isn’t having a hard time. It’s that such a tragic number of people in this country would see that exhausting pair of low-wage jobs as a big step up.

So in an alternate reality, how would the ideal version of “Poverty Thoughts” have shed an empathetic light on the plight of impoverished Americans? I posed this question to one of America’s most renowned poverty experts, Kathryn Edin, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School. “She should have written, ‘My life is a disaster and I’m only below the median—how can we even imagine truly poor people making it?’ ” Edin says. “Or, ‘I have a relatively privileged background and education, and yet my decision-making skills have been impaired by the stress of my situation—how on earth are the poor getting by?’ ”

Such scruples and perspective perhaps aren’t the stuff of a viral blockbuster or brimming GoFundMe coffers. But they are an admission that a person can absorb the terrible, traumatic impact of what feels like hitting bottom, only to look closer and see how far down the bottom really goes.

Correction, Dec. 5, 2013: This article originally stated that Linda Tirado attended Cranbrook. Though Tirado won a scholarship to the school, she did not enroll. (Return.)