In November 2013, Linda Tirado, a college student, fast-food employee, mother of two, and a self-proclaimed poor person, wrote a blog post called “Why I Make Terrible Decisions, or, poverty thoughts” on the discussion forum of the website Gawker. In it, she described the stresses of living on too little sleep and too little money. Tirado defended fast-food dinners as sensible for people whose kitchens are prone to roach infestations. Smoking, she said, was one of the few means of relaxation available to low-income adults. She argued that someone who can afford to save only $5 a month is probably better off spending that money on the kinds of tiny pleasures that might make each day easier to live through. “Poverty is bleak and cuts off your long-term brain,” she wrote—and there is an increasing pool of social science research to back that claim up.
The post went viral and The Huffington Post picked it up, amplifying its reach. Afterward, a predictable backlash began. Observers followed a well-rehearsed script for a debate about how Tirado wasn’t really poor. TheHouston Press, an alternative news site, claimed Tirado had been a wealthy boarding-school student. She had in fact gone to private school and had also attended, but not finished, college. She had worked on political campaigns as well. On her LinkedIn profile, she described herself as a freelance writer and political consultant.
Tirado later described how her mother and grandparents had been middle class, how she’d become estranged from them after she dropped out of college, and how, after years spent in poverty, she had reunited with her family, who helped her purchase a house. She was already on an upward swing when she wrote the blog post that started everything, though none of what she’d written was false. Still, both The New York Times and CNN listed Tirado’s commentary as one of the year’s biggest Internet hoaxes. The journalist Michelle Goldberg defended Tirado, following up at The Nationwith records of Tirado’s past enrollment in Medicaid and the Women, Infants, and Children supplemental nutrition program—which would only have been available to her if she was poor—and an apartment eviction. But the image of Tirado as a liar or, at best, an exaggerator was already set. It was enhanced when a crowdfunding campaign netted her more than $60,000 and she signed a book deal. Detractors argued that Tirado had merely been milking liberal guilt, and that it had worked.
In fairness to those skeptics, it was easy to wonder what might be missing from her story, since much of her writing had trafficked in sweeping generalities rather than delving into particulars. Can someone who has the skill to write her way into a new career really claim to be poor? It’s a question we’ve been wrestling with since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society legislation promised to end American poverty: Who can call themselves poor, and who deserves help?