Even with just two low-wage jobs and her husband’s veteran benefits to get by, Tirado’s household income likely well outstrips the 2013 federal poverty guidelines, which top out at $23,550 for a family of four like Tirado’s. That may seem shockingly low, yet 16 percent of Americans still meet the federal definition of poor according to the Census Bureau’s supplemental measure of poverty (which takes into account tax breaks, necessary expenses, and geographic differences across states). And if you were to double that tiny family-of-four figure, you’d be only a few grand short of the median household income in the U.S., which is also lower than many might assume: just over $51,000 in 2012. Pointing out these grim numbers doesn’t belittle the challenges faced by any hard-working family trying to pay for a home, child care, health insurance, taxes, and so much else even at $51,000 per year. But it does put the circumstances of the tens of millions with so much less in sharper relief.
Curiously enough, there are symmetrical blind spots in media outlets’ embrace of Tirado as the face of American poverty and in President Obama’s Wednesday speech in Washington, and that blind spot is unemployment. Obama talked about class mobility and income inequality and affordable health care, but he didn’t talk much about jobs for those who don’t have them. As Slate writer Matthew Yglesias pointed out in his coverage of Obama’s speech, “The people suffering the most in this country aren’t the people whose wages are stagnating; it’s the people who don’t have any wages at all.” There are 20 million adults in the U.S. who are out of work. Again, it’s not that Tirado, with her exhausting pair of low-wage jobs, isn’t having a hard time. It’s that such a tragic number of people in this country would see that exhausting pair of low-wage jobs as a big step up.