The issue of poverty and responsibility starkly divides leftists and liberals from conservatives and libertarians. Is poverty caused by conditions beyond individual control, or by bad personal choices? Can the poor help themselves, or is it a social responsibility? In recent days, this debate has been dramatized by the saga of Linda Walther Tirado (pictured at right), the woman who (depending on which side you take) either perpetrated a brazen hoax by offering "poverty porn" to the gullible left, or told a brave, honest tale of American poverty only to be savaged by the heartless right.
As is often the case with conflicting politicized narratives, neither one quite matches the facts. Tirado's story is not quite a hoax; but there is nothing honest about it. It is a combination of partial truths and dramatic embellishments spun into a false narrative with a political agenda.
On October 22, Tirado, known as "KillerMartinis" in the forums of the Gawker website and its feminist sister site, Jezebel.com, weighed in on a discussion of why poor people often make seemingly irresponsible and self-defeating choices. Tirado's essay, titled "Why I Make Terrible Decisions, or, poverty thoughts," offered a wrenching description of her life as an exhausted mother of two small children working two jobs and taking college classes, regularly getting by on three hours of sleep with the help of coffee and cigarettes. And there were lurid details like trying to battle a cockroach infestation by impaling dead roaches on toothpicks to scare off the living ones.
The central theme of Tirado's "thoughts" was that the poor make bad decisions (smoking, having kids they can't support, buying junk food) because they have no incentive to make good ones: they're stuck no matter what. "[W]e will never not feel tired," she declared, in a much-quoted passage. "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. It doesn't give us much reason to improve ourselves." According to Tirado, not only are the poor too overworked to have the mental energy for forward planning, but they know there's no point. Besides, they "can't afford to look nice enough" for decent jobs—in her case, because of bad skin and missing teeth that keep her from working as anything but a chain restaurant cook "hidden away in the kitchen."
Despite a few skeptical commenters, Tirado received overwhelmingly positive feedback; eventually, she wrote to the editor of Jezebel suggesting that her post be promoted on the site's front page. From there, it made the leap to The Huffington Post and to fame (including a mention on Touré's MSNBC show). Moved by Tirado's plight, people began to send her money via PayPal and then a GoFundMe account she set up; in late November, she stopped her fundraising at $62,000—to be used not only for dental work but to write a book on her experience of poverty.
In a November 14 note on her GoFundMe page (which later became the second and, so far, the last entry on her Huffington Post blog, under the title, "Meet the Woman Who Accidentally Explained Poverty to the Nation"), Tirado told her story in more detail—and admitted that her tale of living in desperate poverty wasn't, strictly speaking, true. Or rather: "Well, it is and it isn't. … I never meant to say that all of these things were happening to me right now, or that I was still quite so abject." She revealed that her history included a middle-class upbringing, a great deal of family turmoil, and teenage rebellion. She explained that her teeth were damaged in a car accident caused by a drunk driver when she was 19, then deteriorated because she couldn't pay for dental care. She also mentioned that she now had "family resources," having reconciled with her parents (actually her grandparents, who had raised her since infancy) when she was pregnant with her first child.
A few days later, the backlash hit. Houston Press blogger Angelica Leicht dug around Tirado's extensive digital trail and declared her an out-and-out fake—a "privileged" woman with a boarding school education, a homeowner, a political consultant, and a military wife posing as a poor person. On National Review's blog, The Corner, David French cited Leicht's exposé and labeled Tirado's story a "poverty hoax" eagerly lapped up by the left; he was echoed by Mediaite's right-of-center columnist Noah Rothman. then, CNN and The New York Times included the Tirado tale in their roundups of recent online hoaxes and fibs.
Meanwhile, The Huffington Post stood by Tirado (notoriously featuring a video clip in which she removed her partial denture and displayed her ruined teeth as proof of her authenticity). The Nation has come to Tirado's defense as well: in a new post on the magazine's blog, Michelle Goldberg accuses the media of relying on error-riddled "debunkings" to paint her as "a middle-class fabulist preying on naïve and guilty liberals."
Goldberg, who interviewed Tirado and one of her former employers, makes some valid points. Dismissing Tirado's story of poverty as "fiction" is a stretch, and some claims about her alleged affluence are either inaccurate or exaggerated.
Thus, Leicht suggests that Tirado went to the Cranbrook prep school in Michigan, whose alums include Mitt Romney; in fact, Tirado has written that she got a partial scholarship to Cranbrook but her family couldn't afford the rest of the tuition. (She attended a private religious school.) Leicht also points to Tirado's profile on the LinkedIn networking site as proof of a flourishing career: "She's been a freelance writer and political consultant since 2010, and has worked in politics since 2004, a claim backed by 27 decent connections." But Tirado's resume on LinkedIn shows only sporadic work in political organizing: nine months in 2004, five months in 2006, two months each in 2007 and 2009. (Her short-lived political blog shows that she also worked on a campaign in 2011.) And 27 connections on LinkedIn is hardly evidence of professional success.
In her autobiographical note, Tirado, now 31, says that she dropped out of college to embrace a nomadic life of political activism and "was poor in the way that most people who do not have resources are when they are young and idealistic"—only to slide into real poverty in her late twenties while expecting her first child. By her account, the downward spiral was partly bad luck: her husband's benefits as an Iraq war veteran were delayed due to an administrative screw-up, and while waiting for the payments to come through the couple lost everything they owned when their basement apartment got flooded. For a while, in 2010, their situation seems to have been genuinely dire; Goldberg provides documents indicating that they relied on public assistance and fought eviction notices. The next year, Tirado's grandparents, from whom she had been estranged (they are devout Mormon converts, she had come out as a lesbian in her late teens), persuaded her and her husband to move to Utah and set them up in a trailer. After she gave birth to her second child earlier this year, they helped her buy a foreclosed house.
Tirado has acknowledged that her initial essay gave the wrong impression that she was still extremely poor. Her defenders assert that she took the initiative in setting the record straight. But while Tirado's subsequent post telling her life story came two weeks before the "debunking" began, she was already under pressure from Internet commenters who felt things didn't quite add up. And even the autobiographical note is not entirely candid about Tirado's present non-poverty: thus, she mentions that her grandparents "helped us find a house to live in"—but not that the house is her mortgage-free property. (In a discussion of her college plans on Jezebel's GroupThink forum last August, she says that she'd "hate to mortgage the house.")
"KillerMartinis'" pre-fame forum posts make enough mention of financial difficulties to dispel the notion that her claims of hardship are simply fabricated. But they also clash, disconcertingly, with Tirado's current self-presentation. For instance, less than two weeks before "Poverty Thoughts," she was asking for input on "turning my kids' room into a forest" ("I want them to want to play in their own spaces and leave my china cabinet alone") and discussing "awesome tutorials on making tree stump and mushroom stools." In a follow-up post, she wrote, "I don't want them spoiled, so I don't want more toys, but I would like them to wake up thinking that life is really cool."
Gibes about the forest room infuriate Tirado's supporters, who angrily accuse critics of begrudging nice things to the poor. But that's not the point. The point is that this Linda Tirado—the one who hangs out on Internet forums a lot, ponders the design of forest rooms, and seeks advice on having extramarital affairs because her marriage has grown sexually and emotionally unsatisfying—does not exactly sound like a struggling mom/student/worker too busy to sleep and too tired to think. The disconnect between the two personas is even more jarring in light of Tirado's more recent claims of suffering near-constant pain and low-grade fever from infections caused by her untreated dental problems.
Tirado may not be a "scam artist" or a "fraud," but her online history does suggest that she is prone to shading the truth. In 2008, during the controversy over the Mormon Church's involvement in the campaign for California's same-sex marriage ban, she made a post on a website for Mormon dissenters in which she repeatedly described herself as gay—when, in fact, she was married to a man with whom she had been together for about five years. Sexual identity is a complex issue, and some people continue to identify as gay even when in a long-term relationship with an opposite-sex partner; nonetheless, Tirado was clearly presenting an image of herself that didn't quite match the reality of her life. And, while her "should I cheat?" post asserts that her husband was "the first empenised person I've ever been attracted to," I stumbled on a Reddit comment in which she mentions an ex-boyfriend.
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.