Linda Tirado’s poverty was a horrible grind with no means of ready escape. “Why I Make Terrible Decisions, or, poverty thoughts,” her blog post that chronicled this poverty, went viral last November. By early December, Tirado had criticsmany, many criticswho more or less made her out to be a poor little rich girl gone slumming, trying to pull a scam with her gofundme page (that incidentally netted her some $61,000). A news outlet described her article as one of several web hoaxes that year.
In her defense, The Nation reproduced her public assistance records confirming her poverty. Tirado’s essay, ran one response, while not altogether chronologically factual, was impressionistically accurate: She did experience poverty in the way she described, only not all at once as her post suggests. But most of the conservative criticism focused on the fact that she experienced poverty in the first place. She made poor decisions, the accusations assert; her poverty was her own bad choice. (Her blog has also appeared as “Why Poor People’s Decisions Make Perfect Sense.”) I would count myself among her defenderseven with her middle class background and private school experience growing up.
As I read the tale, her decisions matched those of every other poor person I have met as a parish pastor. Something in Tirado’s piece rings absolutely true. People who are poor or those who are not but who have acquaintances among the poor will recognize it.
Ruby Payne’s A Framework: Understanding Poverty demonstrates how different classes think. Let me frame this distinction as a test. Among families who still sit down together to eat, which will ask, “Did it taste good?” The wealthy, the middle class, or the poor?
That’s the middle class. The wealthy ask about presentation, “Did it look nice?” The poor will ask “Did you get enough; do you need more?” How the classes think about what’s on the plate is significant, and that’s only one among many differences, what Payne calls the “hidden rules” of class.
For all the contention over whether Tirado was or was not in actual poverty, the way she thought resonated with my exchanges with the poor as a parish pastor, both urban and rural.
I came to regard a certain subset of the poor as hunter-gatherersan inelegant term, I know. But that is how they lived. Day-to-day scrambling last minute for a partial payment that would keep the electricity on another month, or scratching for the last eight bucks for a medical prescription, or looking for a tank of gas that morning to get to work, these were the people coming to the church door. I encountered people, families, living in and out of motels, as Tirado describes of herself, watching the daily rate with absolutely no means of paying it and needing, I remember this, exactly $32.48 for one more night.
Everybody had a story explaining why I should help. I got to the point where I did not want to hear a story, especially this person’s story, which was like everyone else’s story. Was I heartless? Maybe, but it did save time. And usually the story, like everyone else’s, portrayed the one telling it as a victim. Rightly. Many times the tellers were caught in circumstances not of their own making, needing only a nudge over today’s hump. Yet they all had something to say to convince me they “deserved” my aid. And nobody knew how to make a plan beyond the next twenty-four hours.
This explains why the poor will often get cable instead of opening a savings account. Things I would regard as absolutely unnecessary, something I could easily delay, loomed large in their mind. Grabbing a little bit of satisfaction now made a certain sense if one wasn’t likely to be able to afford it tomorrow. This is not middle-class thinking, and that’s because the poor are not middle class.
The one thing Tirado had going for her was that she could think middle class. Her poverty was not generational and she had family who eventually stepped up. She was not born into poverty and her middle-class roots helped get her out of it. She had a middle-class vocabulary.
The kind of poverty Tirado experienced, similar to the kind of poverty I encountered as a pastor, doesn’t rise to the paycheck-to-paycheck sort we hear about, and it doesn’t move beyond hand-to-mouth poverty either. But don’t think it doesn’t take work. It is a hard life.
I stopped, as I said, listening to the stories of those who came for help: “Just tell me how much you need, today, and I’ll see what I can do.” If I could do it, I did it. What was the point otherwise? Questioning whether they would use the money “honestly,” meaning something I approved; whether it would go for organically grown vegetables or cancer sticks, wasn’t really any of my business, was it? No, I eventually decided my job, if I could, was to slip them what they needed, that day, and say a prayer and invite them to worship.
Russell E. Saltzman is a dean in the North American Lutheran Church and assistant pastor of St. Matthew’s Church in Riverside, Missouri. His latest book, Speaking of the Dead, was published last July by ALPB Books. His previous articles can be found here.