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More relevant to the story that catapulted her to fame, in a post on Reddit about a year ago Tirado wrote that she “manage[s] a fast food restaurant”—referring to the employees as “my crew”—and shared a spirited tale of putting an obnoxious customer in her place after being “called to the counter” to deal with the woman’s complaint. That’s rather a far cry from the “poverty thoughts” narrator who is relegated to the kitchen because of her unsightly teeth.
About those teeth: The reason Tirado dramatically displayed them on camera is that, after her November 25 interview on Huffington Post Live, many people were startled by the lack of any visible damage to her teeth. In the video, she sarcastically thanks the doubters, saying that their skepticism was a compliment on how well she has trained herself to look normal—despite a broken denture that could fall out any time she laughs or chews. Yet in the same clip, Tirado coughs vigorously at one point, with no apparent ill effect. When she removes her partial denture, the missing upper front teeth are clearly visible but there is no evidence that the denture is broken.
In any case, if Tirado can present a normal appearance—and, despite claims to the contrary, there are plenty of moments in the HuffPost Live interview when she shows her teeth while speaking or smiling—this seriously undercuts her claim that her bad teeth keep her from getting a decent job. (In fact, her second job—of which her autobiographical post says only that it pays better than the one at the restaurant—is a “respectable” one with a disability nonprofit.)
Sorting fact from fiction in the Tirado story is an almost impossible task. And yet, ultimately, without any investigative reports at all, her supposedly eye-opening essay on poverty falls apart under the weight of its own paradox. If “now that I have proven that I am a Poor Person that is all that I am or ever will be,” if being poor fatally saps one’s ability to strive and plan for the future, why is the author not only working two jobs but going to college?
Even one of Tirado’s biggest boosters, The Huffington Post’s Ryan Grim, picked up on this contradiction, telling her in the HuffPost Live interview that the drive she projected seemed at odds with the sense of hopelessness she had described. Tirado’s response was that she wasn’t describing the permanent mindset of a poor person, but the thoughts and fears the poor must regularly wrestle with. But if she had written that to begin with, her post would have had a very different message. Struggling with defeatist thoughts (rather than being crushed by them) is not a particularly good reason for irresponsible behavior.
The more complete version of Tirado’s story contradicts her point in other ways. It leaves little doubt, for instance, that her bad choices are not the result of her poverty but to a large extent its cause—as she herself more or less concedes in her autobiographical note, admitting that she spent much of her young adulthood avoiding adult responsibility: “I chased dreams that I couldn't afford for longer than was strictly necessary, and only gave that up when children made life suddenly more stable.”
In his defense of Tirado, The Huffington Post’s Grim gets caught in another contradiction, writing that people are skeptical of Tirado’s story because they don’t realize how common it is for people to “spend at least a few of their adult years in poverty.” He cites research by George Washington University economist Mark Rank, showing that “fully 85 percent of Americans by age 60 will have experienced unemployment, sharply lower income, poverty or the use of welfare for at least a year of their adult lives.” Yet these statistics also demonstrate social mobility: for the vast majority of people, economic setbacks are surmountable and poverty is not a life sentence.
Grim accuses the right of seeking to disqualify Tirado for ideological reasons, because her essay “runs counter to conservative beliefs about poverty and the role of government.” But, of course, one can just as easily put the shoe on the other foot. The left was eager to embrace Tirado because her essay supports liberal beliefs about poverty in America: that the poor bear no responsibility for improving their lives; that any bad decisions they make are caused by poverty itself, and thus blameless; that our society is callous and cruel toward the needy. (Ironically, in the video clip in which she shows her missing teeth, Tirado excoriates America’s failure to provide affordable dental care to low-income people—but also rather sheepishly admits that she could have availed herself of free or low-cost options she didn’t know about.)
Indeed, on some websites, left-wing commenters have openly taken the “fake but accurate” attitude toward Tirado’s veracity. As one poster put it, “her powerfully accurate message goes beyond the stunted perceptions of those who refuse to understand how writers often combine their experiences with that of others to drive home a point.”
Some poor people in America really are trapped at the bottom, for socioeconomic and psychological reasons. Some are victims of terrible life circumstances; others, of a multigenerational cycle of poverty and dysfunction that only the exceptionally strong-willed and talented can overcome on their own. Such people need help (whether through government services or private and religious networks is another question), and simply lecturing them on responsibility is a sure way to come across as callous and smug. But even in these cases, using poverty as an excuse for reckless behavior and accepting defeatism as natural is, for obvious reasons, a bad idea. And there is nothing “brave” or “powerful” about extending the mantle of victimhood and absolution from responsibility to anyone who has ever fallen on hard times.
Like millions of Americans, Linda Tirado is going to overcome temporary poverty through a combination of hard work, help from family, kindness of strangers, and sheer luck. It’s too bad that the key to her success will have been a message that perpetuates the poverty trap.