Poverty Essay Viral
Linda Tirado, 32, was attending college and working in two low-paid jobs when she first posted her essay about America’s poverty trap on an online forum. The post went viral, and Tirado extended her essay into a book while still working at a pancake shop near her home in Utah. She now lives in Washington DC, with her husband, a former marine, and two small daughters. She works as a new-media activist and journalist.
Were you expecting what happened after your essay was published?
Oh, God, no! I was just on a message board. I was just talking to my friends the same way I’d done for many years. Then I went to bed, and then I went to work. It took me about two weeks to realise I was awake because I was pretty sure I was having a really fucked-up dream. There is no processing what happens when the internet looks at you and says: it’s your turn. It was insane: people were outside my house, they were calling my elderly relatives, I got 20,000 emails in a week. I still have no idea why it was this piece at this moment; it’s nothing me and my friends haven’t been saying for years. I don’t understand why it was controversial. Period.
After the initial fuss, some journalists began muck-raking, trying to prove that you weren’t what you said you were. How did that feel?
I’m not going to recommend it as a lifestyle choice. I lost a ton of weight in three weeks. If you need a crash diet, go viral. Whatever it was I managed to capture had enough power truly to upset some people. A lot of them hoped I was a poor little rich girl, living in a McMansion. Emotionally, it would have been easier to deal with. But I’ve never claimed to be anything that I’m not. Guys, I called the thing “Why I make terrible decisions”. So, I gave my welfare records to the Washington Post. Those things, and the teeth video, closed it down [in her essay, Tirado wrote that her teeth had rotted because she could not afford dental care, and that this made her unsuitable for working front-of-house in restaurants and offices; when this was disputed she posted a video online in which the ugly gaps in her teeth can clearly be seen]. The trouble is that a lot of people simply don’t understand the stratification in the lower classes. I wasn’t born in Appalachia with no running water. At Burger King I made $28,000 a year. Yes, you can survive on that money. But that’s not the point. It’s a 90-hour week. What is your life like while you’re surviving? Can you keep a family on it?
In your book you say the rich are afraid of the poor. Do you think fear played a part in the media’s treatment of you?
In America we have this myth that if you deserve it, you will have it. We’re afraid to look at our downtrodden because it undercuts that myth. There is a fear of the poor that is uniquely American. It’s especially hard to look at someone who could be one of their kids – someone like me who’s white and intelligent – and see them as poor. When the crash happened, there was a panic among the rich because suddenly wealth wasn’t only to do with how hard you’d worked. It could be taken away! They got really fearful. So much of Americans’ self-image is based on what we own and how we present ourselves.
How has your life changed for the better?
Well, I got the book deal, and I started being invited to meetings and stuff. But now I’m actually angrier than I was before because, God, this life is so easy! I haven’t done a day of work since I quit International House of Pancakes.
Can you make life as a writer and activist pay?
Money from the book deal has helped me pay off some stuff. But I don’t belong in the world of Dior and Calvin Klein. I don’t need to make much money to do what I want to do. I’m used to $28,000 a year, and if I can make that in this world, it will be cool.
Did you have any qualms about writing the book in such a way as to suggest that you’re still working in the low-wage economy?
I did worry about it a little. But then I thought: look, I was in this situation for the greater part of my life; I can still say “we”. I was poor as shit when I was writing it. Once the book comes out, I’ll start being more careful about using “we” because clearly I am no longer among the ranks of Burger King workers.
You claim that the poor are more generous than the rich. Isn’t it dangerous to make these kinds of generalisations? Doesn’t that make you as bad as those who, say, insist the poor are just lazy?
That’s true! The poor are more generous. They’ve done studies. Look, if I’d had more time, the book would be way more perfect than it is. But, also, these are my impressions. They don’t have to be fair, or even true. This is how we, the poor, feel. Reality is perception, right?
Why do you think, as you say in your book, so many poor people vote against their own best interests?
You’re assuming people feel any sort of connection to the system. I have a very close friend who votes Republican like clockwork. He understands the party doesn’t do much that is likely to help him as someone who might need welfare. So, as a social conservative, he’s going to vote according to which party supports his views on abortion, because that’s a thing that matters to him and he feels he can get movement on it, there will be a direct effect. Whereas if he votes on an economic issue, it’s just a different bunch of rich people doing a bunch of rich people things. It’s a question of marginalisation and trust. We [the poor] don’t trust anybody.
Why do so many people still buy the lie that the poor have children in order to get money from the state?
When rich people, and even just middle-class people, look at poor people what they’re thinking is: they’re lazy. All of us are conmen, cunning like rats. But it’s frigging ridiculous. Nobody is going to sign up for a full year of colic for two grand, no matter how poor they are. It’s the silliest thing I’ve ever heard. You don’t get more money for having more kids. You must give up work, and therefore money, in order to qualify for benefits, and even then it doesn’t come as cash. In the US, it comes as food stamps, or coupons. We’re not getting a cheque. People just don’t understand how welfare works.
The journalist Barbara Ehrenreich [author of Nickel and Dimed, an acclaimed account of her attempt to survive in low-wage jobs] has been a great supporter, hasn’t she?
She has been incredible. She is gracious with her time and energy. The foreword she wrote for my book stirs me a lot. She’s a heroine of mine. But a few people reached out to me. Another was the comedian Tom Arnold. He told me to trust that this was happening, to make the most of it.
What do you make of Fast Food Forward, the group that is attempting to unionise fast-food workers, organising walkouts and marches?
It has been very effective; in some states the minimum wage has been raised. But the corporate owners in fast food answer to their franchisees. They set the wages. The question is: how do we make the franchisees come up with a system that works for their employees? Still, the fact that people are doing this is nothing but a net good for America, and perhaps the rest of the world in a global economy. I also want to say this: the brass balls of these people! The amount of courage it takes a minimum-wage worker to walk out, knowing they will be retaliated against. These people are the bravest I’ve seen in some time. They’re blacklisting themselves.
I know you’ve been in Ferguson recently. What does the situation there [civil unrest has followed the shooting of a young black man by police] tell us about America in the wider sense?
I’ve been hanging out with these kids. They’re called Lost Voices. They are camping out and refusing to leave until the indictment comes down. And they talk about marginalisation, and about rage, and about not understanding why people don’t give them credit for being human. Sometimes they talk about jobs, too. St Louis is one of the most segregated places in America. What struck me was that when we outsiders said “We can’t believe the police are doing this on camera”, people were mostly just shocked that we were shocked.
Now you’re in the public eye, have you had your (controversial) teeth fixed?
Actually, I’m turning that into a project. So… no, not yet. But I will say my shampoo is much nicer now. I’ve also had three new tattoos. The TV people don’t like those at all. They make me wear a jacket.
Linda Tirado knows what it's like to work two jobs, raise a family and attempt to go to school. Days start at 6am and end well past midnight. Junk food is one of the only "luxuries" you feel you have.
But there's one thing she misses about being poor in America: camaraderie.
"You have to entertain each other because you're just too broke to do anything else," Tirado, 32, said in an interview with CNNMoney. "You can have an awful lot of fun."
Tirado, whose new book "Hand to Mouth," comes out Thursday, says poor people tend to know each other in more intimate ways than folks in other tax brackets.
In the book, readers get to know Tirado's roller coaster journey from a being working class mother and blogger to having a lucky break that rocketed her into the middle class.
Related: U.S. poverty rate drops for the first time since 2006
Last October, Tirado wrote an online essay titled "Poverty Thoughts" about what her life was like. She was working at an IHOP and raising two young daughters. The post went viral, gaining millions of page views and, eventually, a book deal. Concerned readers donated over $60,000 to her.
"When I was pregnant the first time, I was living in a weekly motel for some time," she wrote. "I was on WIC. I ate peanut butter from the jar and frozen burritos because they were 12/$2."
(WIC is the Women, Infants and Children program the U.S. government runs that provides some money for food and parenting education).
The viral post also generated criticism from readers and journalists saying she was not entirely honest about her story. But Tirado did clarify early on that her essay was about her experience as well as her observations of others in poverty.
"I am just telling what I have seen," Tirado says. "I am indicative. I am not representative."
Raised by her grandparents in Michigan and Utah after her mother died when she was young and her father became estranged from the family, she dropped out of school at age 16. She has no regrets about not attending college. She does not see higher education as an imperative for all young adults.
"I think there should be better options than just universities," she said. "There's another entire group of human beings whose skill set is not in academia."
Related: Where the middle class is most unequal
Tirado, who is temporarily living in Washington D.C., with her two children and her husband, Tom, a former marine, hopes that Congress will listen more to their low-income constituents when making policy decisions, such as welfare appropriations.
Any drug testing for welfare recipients is humiliating, she says.
Tirado never set out to be a spokesperson for the poor but hopes her book will draw more attention to the difficulties impoverished people face.
From struggling to eat a healthy diet on a daily basis to finding time for long-term life planning, the dilemmas never end.
Related: Are you middle class?
Most of all, poverty deprives people of dignity.
"It is millions of us. You can't go through a day without seeing us and yet we somehow still don't exist," Tirado says. "All work has dignity."
Tirado is correct on the math: about 45 million Americans live in poverty, according to a report last month from the U.S. Census Bureau. That's defined as an annual income of $23,624 or less for a family for four.
Despite her personal struggles, Tirado gained some skills from her experience: "It makes you a creative cook."
CNNMoney (New York) First published October 2, 2014: 9:26 AM ET