POLITICS

Is This What You Want? Author Of Viral Poverty Piece Takes Out Teeth To Prove Her Story

12/04/2013 12:29 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

A poor woman's effort to explain poverty and its psychological toll to America has taken an ugly turn, after critics charged Linda Tirado with fabricating a "tragically fictional" tale.

Tirado's moment of Internet fame began when she posted a comment on Gawker explaining why poor people like herself make bad decisions. The comment was republished on The Huffington Post and has been read millions of times. Her supporters encouraged her to expand her thoughts into a book, and she set up a GoFundMe for that purpose, which has since raised more than $60,000.

Now the authenticity of her experience in poverty is being called into question. Her critics' supposedly damning evidence has come largely from Tirado's own disclosures, which were published on her GoFundMe site and prominently featured on HuffPost in a follow-up post.

In that article, Tirado says, "You have to understand that the piece you read was taken out of context, that I never meant to say that all of these things were happening to me right now, or that I was still quite so abject. I am not." In fact, nowhere in her first essay -- first published as a comment in a Gawker forum -- does she say that she is still living in a roach-infested motel; rather, she is quite clear the experience was in the past. She describes her situation at the time she wrote the essay as "lower working class," with two low-wage jobs, school, kids and a mouthful of infected or missing teeth. It is this admission -- that she is no longer in the depths of poverty -- that is being used to dismiss her entire essay.

Or rather, the critics have focused on Tirado's teeth as chief among her allegedly fraudulent claims. And with good reason: If "poor" isn't the word to describe someone who cannot afford to stem the constant pain of infection slowly eating away at what remains of their teeth, then what constitutes "middle class" has stretched so far down that it's no longer meaningful. Explain away her rotten teeth, and one can dismiss her essay.

As research from Mark Rank has shown, far more people than one might expect will spend at least a few of their adult years in poverty. Tirado's experience in this context is not extraordinary. But the Internet is not convinced by academic research.

The backlash was launched by a writer for the Houston Press, Angelica Leicht, who wrote earlier this week that Tirado's viral reflections on poverty were based on a life story that was "tragically fictional." Leicht's piece has been the basis for subsequent articles by Mediaite, which called it a "hoax," and The National Review, which deemed it a "revealing poverty hoax."

Tirado's critics think they have spotted a fraud and lay out their evidence. "She’s married to a Marine, has met President Obama while interning for a politician (who obviously wasn't disgusted by those rotten teeth), and has plenty of time to visit Las Vegas on vacation. And blog about her privileged life on WordPress," Leicht writes in a passage quoted by both Mediaite and NRO, also noting that Tirado's parents recently helped her buy a home. "She speaks both German and Dutch, and has a well-rounded political blog that ended in 2011. It's also a blog where she quite plainly references being paid to win races."

Leicht returns repeatedly to Tirado's claim that poverty prevented her from addressing her growing dental problems, which left her with a malformed appearance that sapped her confidence and made getting a decent job more difficult.

Here's Leicht:

Oh, and not only does Linda say she's living in seedy motels and stabbing roaches, but she's also working two jobs, taking a full load of college courses, and is banished to a life as a cook in the "back of the house" at a restaurant, as she is deemed too unsightly as a waitress -- or apparently a legal secretary -- due to an unfortunate set of teeth. She's in desperate need of dental work, and her body is full of infection, but she can't afford to spend the money on medical or dental care. It's a tragic, tragic story.

It's also tragically fictional.

Leicht continues: "But in this case it's a scam; you're paying the bills of a person who has the time and resources to intern and hang out at political rallies, and who has medical and dental benefits provided by way of the military spouse."

In fact, a person in Tirado's situation is not entitled to dental benefits through her military spouse because he is not 100 percent disabled, according to the Veterans Administration, which was not contacted by either Leicht or the other outlets that picked up her piece.

More:

She doesn't need you to pay her dental bill; she wants you to pay her dental bill. There's a difference. And it appears that may not even be necessary; those "rotten" teeth? They appear just fine in a 2004 political blog where her head shot is used, well after that "car accident" at 19 years of age. Her recent appearance on HuffPo Live, which was strange at best, seems to confirm that suspicion. Rotten teeth they are not.

Tirado is 31; the photo Leicht unearthed was taken when Tirado was 22, just a few years after her car accident, which wouldn't reflect how her teeth have decayed in the intervening years. And Michelle Goldberg's actual reporting for The Nation backs up Tirado's claim about her teeth.

But if seeing is believing, what choice does the woman have but to take to YouTube and expose her ruined mouth? "I don't give a fuck anymore," Tirado says in the video below.

"You don't get hired for a job if you look like this," she says, flashing her gaps to the camera. "Maybe you get hired at the corner store for the graveyard shift, but nobody's putting you out in front, buddy. Nobody wants to hire somebody like this because it will reflect poorly on them."

Tirado said that she had hoped her viral post would kick off a much-needed discussion about the reality of poverty and its psychological effects. In a way it has, because what the backlash reveals is that the country has a lot of baggage to work through before it can have that discussion. Instead of absorbing her insights into a life in poverty -- insights she could only share so eloquently because of her education -- her critics sought instead to disqualify her from the conversation.

Lots of poor people own homes and, according to Rank's research, have been or will be wealthier at some point. Tirado's journey up and down the economic ladder actually makes her more representative of poverty in America, not less. But when she wrote her post, Tirado had deformed teeth, was working two low-paying jobs, going to school and raising kids. Only the former was challenged factually, and she conclusively refutes that challenge in the video above.

Now that she has bared her raw mouth for the Internet, will her critics take a closer look at her reflections on poverty and grapple with them honestly?

Not all of them. Leicht and the Houston Press did not return requests for comment. Over at the National Review, they explained why it is so important ideologically to disqualify Tirado:

Why does this matter? It matters because the stories we tell about poverty are critical for our understanding of poverty. Generations of social science (and trillions of War on Poverty dollars) demonstrate that in the battle between terrible decisions and welfare, terrible decisions will win virtually every time.

Wedded to the welfare state, many on the left have now turned to justifying bad acts to not just preserve the status quo but also (presumably) to prevent jaded Americans from turning their backs on the poor. Justification can be poignant and (seemingly) personal, like Ms. Tirado's essay, or pseudo-scientific, like this Atlantic piece describing the IQ burden of poverty.

One reason why the Left strips moral agency from people who are baby-daddies of multiple kids from multiple moms, who abuse drugs, who commit petty crimes, who drop out of school, etc. is they've lost an understanding of man's fallen nature and a true theology of service. They fear that if the poor aren't seen as "deserving," then no one will help.

...

But it has to be the right kind of service, one that recognizes that man is fallen and that people living in desperate circumstances are quite often morally responsible for their plight. Our service has to recognize the limits of our ability to impact and influence the human heart. Terrible decision-makers don't suddenly become wise when given food stamps or disability checks. In fact, these very acts of public welfare can often reinforce the decisions that led to the need for charity.

In other words, Tirado's essay runs counter to conservative beliefs about poverty and the role of government. If it is poverty, or a lack of resources, that drives bad decision-making and holds people back from achieving their potential, then the answer is to attack the root of that poverty by providing people with resources to escape the self-destructive cycle of poverty. But if it is government assistance itself that leads to bad decision-making, as Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan argued during the 2012 campaign, then the answer is to cut back on government assistance, precisely what the Ryan budget seeks to do.

But Tirado's essay is a challenge to more than just Paul Ryan. It is easier to reject Tirado as a fraud than to face the reality that someone can be smart, talented, hard-working and still be stuck in a desperate situation.

David Wood contributed reporting.

CORRECTION: This article initially misidentified the Houston Press as the Houston Free Press.

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