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Poverty Essay Viral

What does poverty look like? 

To most people, it doesn’t look like a young, multi-lingual woman who’s successfully raising a family and getting published in the Huffington Post. 

But one viral post about how “Poverty is bleak and cuts off your long-term brain,” two weeks, $60,000, and a flurry of media skepticism later, Linda Tirado has directly confronted her critics about how important appearance can be in the making or breaking of a successful member of society: in her case, the appearance of her teeth.

Last month Tirado wrote a moving comment on Gawker that went viral when it was published as a column in the Huffington Post. “This Is Why Poor People’s Bad Decisions Make Perfect Sense” outlined some of the ways in which poverty turns even the most resilient citizens into defeatist, hand-to-mouth outliers. Tirado detailed the difficulty of finding places to sleep without being able to hand over a credit card, even at roach-ridden motels. She also described the feedback loop of being too poor to indulge in beauty regimes, which hurt her chances of getting a job that would enable her to afford them:

I would make a super legal secretary, but I’ve been turned down more than once because I “don’t fit the image of the firm,” which is a nice way of saying “gtfo, pov.”… I am not beautiful. I have missing teeth and skin that looks like it will when you live on B12 and coffee and nicotine and no sleep. Beauty is a thing you get when you can afford it, and that’s how you get the job that you need in order to be beautiful. There isn’t much point trying.

Tirado’s story moved many readers, but it also attracted plenty of skeptics. As criticism poured in for Tirado to explain why, if she was so poor, she was able to freely blog on the Internet, Tirado wrote a second article in the Huffington Post to clarify that “I never meant to say that all of these things were happening to me right now,” and that she was currently “reasonably lower working class.”

Buoyed by support, Tirado launched a GoFundMe project to write a book about her experiences, which promptly raised over $60,000. This fueled even more backlash. Mediaite and the conservative National Review both called Tirado’s story a hoax. Slate hedged that even though Tirado’s story was true, as The Nation’s Michelle Goldberg had earlier reported, she was merely “downwardly mobile,” rather than truly “impoverished.”

A focal point of much of the criticism of Tirado involved a car accident she suffered years ago which damaged her teeth. Tirado received no dental care for the injury and wrote of the longterm damage that going without major surgery to repair the damage had done, not only to her mouth, but to her career prospects. Many reporters and onlookers who questioned her story focused on this part of the story with the most intensity. Among the most vituperative was Angelica Leicht, a blogger for the Houston Free Press who attempted to debunk Tirado’s story by questioning how a successful campaign worker could be that poor, and pointing out that her teeth appeared fine in later photos:

She doesn’t need you to pay her dental bill; she wants you to pay her dental bill. There’s a difference. And it appears that may not even be necessary; those “rotten” teeth?They appear just fine in a 2004 political blog where her head shot is used, well after that “car accident” at 19 years of age. Her recent appearance on HuffPo Live, which was strange at best,seems to confirm that suspicion. Rotten teeth they are not. 

Monday, Tirado responded with a video in which she reveals large gaps between her teeth where some are missing, and discusses the extent of the damage to her mouth. “I would like to talk about the fact that this is not a medical issue,” she said, “as though an infection that is so close to your brain could be considered anything but.”

Tirado pointed out that she sometimes has to excuse herself in mid-conversation to go fix her teeth before they fall out. Though her video is long, many YouTube viewers felt grateful to her for articulating an experience that few people ever talk about or know how to discuss. Recently on MetaFilter, a user asked for advice about how to get their significant other to open up about his possible teeth damage, something that Tirado related to: “Your brain is never allowed to relax because you always have to keep in mind that you have to hide your teeth.”

Ultimately, whether you think Tirado is “impoverished” or just “downwardly mobile,” it seems her experience shows that the appearance of poverty and cosmetic defects can exacerbate a situation that leads to actual poverty.

It’s a message that seems to be resonating across economic lines.

Screengrab via YouTube

Linda Tirado (Courtesy of gofundme)

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First, Internet fame brought Linda Tirado a miraculous windfall. Then it put her reputation through a meat grinder. She’s been saved and she’s been savaged. She has emotional whiplash.

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Last month, Tirado’s essay about poverty, “Why I Make Terrible Decisions, or, poverty thoughts”—originally written as a comment on a Gawker thread—went viral, and she was able to raise over $60,000 on GoFundMe to turn it into a book. On the cusp of a publishing deal, she’s been able to quit her job as a night cook at a cheap chain restaurant.

At the same time, though, there’s been a tidal backlash against her, replete with online death threats and media denunciations. If the initial narrative about her was that she was, as The Huffington Post dubbed her, the “woman who accidentally explained poverty to the nation,” the new story is that she’s nothing but a middle-class fabulist preying on naïve and guilty liberals. Much of this story is false, but it has legs. Earlier this month, Tirado was included in a CNN piece headlined, “2013: The Web’s year of the hoax.” This week, the backlash reached The New York Times, which included her in an article headlined, “If a Story Is Viral, Truth May Be Taking a Beating.”

Given that the Times piece was about fact-checking, it’s ironic that it got its facts wrong. Listing viral stories that later turned out to be “fake or embellished,” reporters Ravi Somaiya and Leslie Kaufman described Tirado’s piece as “an essay on poverty that prompted $60,000 in donations until it was revealed by its author to be impressionistic rather than strictly factual.” This is, at best, highly misleading. Somaiya and Kaufman’s passive construction—“was revealed”—elides the fact that the person doing the revealing was Tirado herself. She filled in her backstory in a post on her fundraising page dated November 14—well before most of her donations came in. It was almost a week later that The Huffington Post published her original essay, which gave her visibility a huge boost.

In other words, she was not hiding anything from most of the people who contributed to her book project. And what we know about the nuances of her story—particularly her middle-class upbringing—we know because she put it out there.

As Tirado explained in her November 14 post, as well as when she spoke to me ten days later, she’d had many privileges as well as many bad breaks. Her grandparents, who raised her, sent her to private school during part of her childhood—though not, as some have reported, to the fancy Cranbrook boarding school that Mitt Romney attended. The confusion about this is partly Tirado’s fault. In her essay, she wrote of receiving a partial scholarship to Cranbrook but being unable to afford the rest, but said her family “knew damn well what Cranbrook was and they were determined that I would have a chance at it.” Her point was that they had ambition and social capital, which is why they tried for the scholarship in the first place. Critics interpreted it as an admission that she is a Cranbrook alumna.

From there, the idea that she was a rich boarding school kid who has never known hard times took on a life of its own. A piece in a Houston alternative weekly, posing as an investigation, claimed that Tirado “has never experienced true poverty,” apparently because she hasn’t always been poor. “Her LinkedIn profile states she’s been a freelance writer and political consultant since 2010, and has worked in politics since 2004, a claim backed by 27 decent political connections,” wrote reporter Angelica Leicht, noting that Tirado had met President Obama while interning for a politician “who obviously wasn’t disgusted by those rotten teeth.” CNN, in turn, cited Leicht’s piece as revealing that “Tirado…has worked as a political consultant, attended a private boarding school and is married to a US Marine.”

As it happens, Tirado has been upfront about the fact that she dropped out of college to bounce around the country working on political campaigns. (When I first wrote about her, I spoke to one of her former bosses, who confirmed to me that her teeth held her back.) She’s written about marrying an Iraq veteran, and only fell into severe poverty during her first pregnancy. Ohio’s Hamilton County Court has records of an eviction case against her from this time, and she sent me documentation of her enrollment in Medicaid [PDF] and the Women, Infants and Children supplemental nutrition program for poor pregnant women, new mothers and their kids [PDF].

This was the period Tirado was writing about in her essay. It ended when her grandparents, from whom she’d become estranged, came to her and her husband’s rescue when they were living in a squalid motel, moving them to Utah and setting them up in a trailer. They went on food stamps—she sent me a screenshot of their computerized records—got restaurant jobs, climbed into the working class, and eventually bought a foreclosed house with her grandparents’ help. This is the story that Tirado has been telling ever since she became famous, and none of her detractors have found anything to contradict it.

To be clear, it would be easy, reading the essay that initially catapulted Tirado into the limelight, to get the impression that her current situation was more dire than it actually was. “Cooking attracts roaches,” she wrote. “Nobody realizes that. I’ve spent a lot of hours impaling roach bodies and leaving them out on toothpick pikes to discourage others from entering. It doesn’t work, but is amusing.” You would have thought that she was still spearing roaches, instead of describing something she’d done a few years ago. Those who gave her money before she clarified things might be entitled to feel misled. But she’s tried, since becoming famous, to be as straightforward as possible. The idea that she’s been running a scam that others have uncovered is absurd.

Underlying that idea is a set of assumptions about what a real poor person looks like. Leicht, for example, dwells on Tirado’s “past as a person from a much different background” as if it proves that she’s never known desperation. “The idea that class mobility only goes one way is incredibly harmful to American society,” Tirado said when I spoke to her on Tuesday. She’s right. Further, it’s bizarre to slam someone whose essay was called “Why I Make Terrible Decisions” as a person who isn’t really poor because she’s had opportunities that she squandered. Tirado never tried to depict herself as a perfectly deserving victim. Her essay was meant to push back against the idea that only those who’ve never made mistakes deserve help. “Nobody gets to where I am without a mix of bad luck and bad calls,” she says.

It is not easy to see oneself vilified in the media, to be the subject of a great outpouring of sneering Internet rage. Tirado has written about suffering from depression; even if she was perfectly stable, having her entire digital existence combed through by hostile strangers searching for inconsistencies would not be easy.

Still, even with all the anger directed at her, Tirado’s life is undeniably much better than it was before she wrote her fateful piece. There is her new writing career—she is, she says, in the initial stages of a book deal—and, thrillingly, the chance the to spread some of her bizarre good fortune around. A widow and mother of six in Washington State wrote to her after reading her story; like Tirado, she had dental problems and was inspired to set up her own crowd-funding page, though it didn’t seem to be going anywhere. “I know that I may never have work because of my teeth…and I am not pretty. Poor, almost toothless, and older,” she wrote. In response, Tirado offered to pay her dental bills. “This is not charity,” Tirado wrote. “This is one struggling mom to another, because I have it to pass on.”

Women, Infants and Children supplemental nutrition program enrollment, 7/2/2010
Central Clinic financial agreement, 10/21/2010
Medicaid enrollment, 7/27/2010

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