NEW YORK — This week, Americans have had two radically different opportunities to consider tough questions about poverty, health care access, and downward mobility in the post-Great Recession era. One came when President Obama delivered a speech on economic mobility. The other came when Linda Tirado took out her dental bridge for a YouTube video to prove she was poor.
If you haven’t been following the Tirado saga, here’s a recap. On Oct. 22, the frequent Gawker commenter posted a personal essay called “Why I Make Terrible Decisions, or, Poverty Thoughts,” which she framed as “random observations that might help explain the mental processes” of poor people like herself. In the piece, Tirado — a line cook, freelance writer, and sometime political campaign worker who lives in Utah — described the cognitive toll of juggling two low-wage jobs, a full college course load, a marriage (Tirado’s husband is an Iraq War veteran), and two children, some days on just three hours of sleep. Chronic stress and exhaustion, she explained, left her little bandwidth for good planning and decision-making, or for basic health and dental care. Her piece transpires in a grinding, perpetual present tense, both urgent and fatalistic: “You have to understand that we know that we will never not feel tired,” she wrote. “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.”
As the essay began to gather steam online, Tirado asked Jessica Coen, editor of Jezebel, if the piece could land a spot on Jezebel’s front page, which it did. Exactly a month after Tirado originally posted “Poverty Thoughts,” it hit the front page of the Huffington Post, which hailed her as “the woman who accidentally explained poverty to the nation.” Millions read her essay. So many offers of financial assistance flowed in that Tirado set up a GoFundMe page where she raised over $60,000 for dental surgery — her teeth, which were damaged in a car crash, contributed to her difficulty finding good jobs, she said. She’d use the rest of the money to work on a book.