This post first appeared in The Nation.
“You have to understand that we know that we will never not feel tired,” she wrote in an essay titled “Why I Make Terrible Decisions, or, poverty thoughts.” “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. We don’t apply for jobs because we know we can’t afford to look nice enough to hold them… I have missing teeth and skin that looks like it will when you live on b12 and coffee and nicotine and no sleep. Beauty is a thing you get when you can afford it and that’s how you get the job that you need in order to be beautiful. There isn’t much point trying.”
Tirado was trying to put flesh on the sort of ideas that Harvard economist Sendhil Mullainathan and Princeton psychologist Eldar Shafir popularized in their much-discussed new book Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much. Among other things, that book flipped the conventional wisdom about bad decisions leading to poverty, arguing instead that poverty impedes good decision-making. This was something Tirado understood intimately and she wanted to communicate what it feels like to live that way.
Initially, her piece, like most Internet comments, floated echoless in the ether. But a week and a half ago, it started going viral. After a few thousand people had read it, Tirado emailed Jessica Coen, the editor of Gawker’s sister site Jezebel and suggested that she highlight it on that site’s front page, which she did. Then the piece appeared on the front page of The Huffington Post. The Atlantic blogged about it. A literary agent got in touch and after a few readers emailed offers to contribute to a book project, Tirado started a GoFundMe page. Her initial goal was $10,500. As of this writing, she’s raised more than $60,000, well over twice what she typically earns in a year.
This crowd-sourced munificence has left Tirado less giddy than simply stunned. “I’ve never thought about the practicalities of what I would do and what my responsibilities would be if the Internet magically said, ‘Here’s $50,000,’” she says.
We spoke on Sunday while her 10-month-old napped, a few hours before her night shift as a cook at a cheap chain restaurant. At that point, she’d raised a little more than $54,000. She also had a new job offer. When her sudden fame hit, she’d just started a part-time contract with a disability-rights nonprofit and the boss, impressed with her evident fundraising abilities, invited her to come aboard full-time.
I was surprised that she hadn’t quit the restaurant job yet, especially since she had to drive an hour there and back. “I can’t screw over my bosses and my friends that hard just because something good happened to me,” she says. She’d told them to start finding other people to cover her shifts, but she’s still going to work on Thanksgiving, cooking for the Black Friday shoppers getting an early start at the nearby Wal-Mart.
Partly, this is the result of a work ethic that belies her description of herself as chronically shortsighted. But she also can’t quite get her head around the idea that her circumstances have suddenly, drastically changed. “I don’t trust that any of this is necessarily real for longer than ten minutes,” she says. The chronic anxiety born of scarcity doesn’t disappear overnight.
Meanwhile, there’s a backlash brewing against her and not just on the Internet. Angry people keep calling her on the phone, accusing her of exaggerating her desperation. And it’s true that her story seems, on the surface, to have certain inconsistencies. She depicts herself as hopeless — “We don’t plan long-term because if we do we’ll just get our hearts broken,” she writes — but also sketches a life of rather staggering discipline, saying she sometimes sleeps only three hours a night as she rushes from her restaurant job to her morning classes. Then there is the seeming discrepancy between Tirado’s eloquent, self-reflective voice and the punishing, thought-killing life she says she’s leading. It’s hard to believe that someone so poor she’s losing her teeth speaks in the same savvy idiom as Gawker readers.
As Tirado describes it, she’s spent much of her life slipping in and out of the lowest tier of the middle class. Her mother, now dead, was an addict of some sort and Tirado was raised by her paternal grandparents, who she calls mom and dad. When she was young, the family lived in Michigan, where her grandmother ran a daycare. Then came the satanic sex abuse hysteria of the early 1990s. An accusation was made, baseless but still devastating. The family moved to Utah and Tirado’s grandparents converted to Mormonism. “I was a teenager, but one dealing with parents who were barely holding themselves together,” she wrote in a follow-up post to her viral essay. “It was hell for everybody involved.” She was rebellious and miserable but also smart; she graduated at 16 and went to community college.
There, she wrote, “I promptly made the sorts of decisions you would expect out of a kid that age with low self-esteem and no social skills and access to what I saw as the cool kids who saw me as an intelligent kid sister and were willing to include me in things. I didn’t make it long.” During vacation, she volunteered on a political campaign and loved it. She took time off from school and began bouncing around the country, canvassing in New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Arizona, Iowa and elsewhere. She was poor, but it was an insouciant, youthful poverty, the sort of poverty that doesn’t weigh you down because it seems temporary. “I was 22,” she says. “Who cares if you live in a crappy apartment and have two crazy roommates? It was an adventure.”
Her teeth held her back. They were damaged when, at 19, she was hit by a car and without treatment they kept deteriorating. “Having messed-up teeth is not something that normally gets you a professional job, even though she’s really smart, capable and competent,” says Clayton, the field director for an Ohio Democratic congressional campaign she worked on. “It’s probably why she wasn’t more successful long-term in the business.”
In 2007, Tirado married her boyfriend, an Iraq veteran, right before he was recalled to serve in Fallujah. He returned in 2008, she got pregnant and they moved to Cincinnati so he could go to college. But an administrative screw-up delayed the veterans benefits they were counting on and with nothing to live on, they took jobs at Burger King and moved into a cheap basement apartment, figuring they’d find something better when the money arrived. That, she says, is when “we realized what it really is like to be impoverished instead of playing at poverty.”
Things got worse. The money still didn’t come and the apartment flooded, destroying everything they owned, including the things they’d bought for the baby. Soon they found themselves living in a squalid motel.
Her grandparents came to Ohio for the birth, and seeing how she was living, they convinced her to return to Utah for the baby’s sake, setting up the young family in a trailer. Eventually they were able to move into a house, and they settled into the lives they’re living now. “I’m comfortably working-class, which is to say I’m exhausted and tired and cannot cover my bills,” Tirado says. “It’s frustrating to know you could do better if only you could focus, and life never lets you stop long enough to do it.”
At the same time, the money, which a lot of writers would consider a respectable but not phenomenal advance, is more than she can imagine keeping; she’s talking about starting a nonprofit or giving some of it away. “Can I live with myself for taking this specifically because I spoke about what it is to not have chances?” she asks. “I don’t think I can take the whole amount and keep it for myself.”
It’s a generous impulse, and, at the same time, a sign of how far she still is from thinking like a person with privilege. After all, artists and writers crowd-fund creative projects all the time, and have no compunction about investing the money they raise in their own work. “It shouldn’t be on the whim of the Internet that people can get themselves out of poverty,” says Tirado. “It is so completely arbitrary.” Perhaps. But if she’s really going to have a middle-class life, she’s going to have to learn a bit of entitlement.