The Poor and their Teeth: What to Make of Linda Tirado

Check out the teeth….

About a week ago, I read an article on the HuffPo from Linda Tirado. Adapted from a post on her personal blog, Linda tries to explain “why poor people make bad decisions.” At the time, I crafted a response to the article and didn’t post it.

Actually, looking at the large amount of material that doesn’t make it to this blog, I noticed that more than half of it deals with my personal experiences with poverty. It appears that I think on my experiences quite often, but I’m hesitant to share them. Perhaps it’s fear of being seen as wanting sympathy or just simply that I don’t want think about it. .

The intro to the article struck me:

“There’s no way to structure this coherently. They are random observations that might help explain the mental processes. But often, I think that we look at the academic problems of poverty and have no idea of the why.”

It’s quite easy for me to have an academic discussion of the causes and implications of poverty. In fact, it’s my job to. It’s much harder to talk about my own experience with poverty, as it’s a collection of disjointed, chaotic and often incomprehensible experiences that don’t fit well into a tight flowing narrative. I’m sensing that Linda feels the same way and wonder if my reticence might stem from the difficulty of making sense of the chaos.

Linda’s credibility has been called into question. The article that she wrote for her blog is being seen and a clever ploy to extract money from sympathetic readers to fund her dubious book project. To make matters worse, she is multi-lingual, attended private schools as a child and has run a political blog since 2011.

Now, I can’t really comment on what Linda’s goals were in writing the original post or whether her claims are true. I don’t know Linda and won’t embark on a mission to either support or discredit her. The last sentence in the above paragraph struck me though since it also describes the author of this blog (me).

I grew up in awful, awful poverty. The kind that doesn’t ring in pictures of well meaning, hard working folks trying to get by under challenging circumstances. No, my poverty is due to a long family history of abuse, irresponsibility, alcoholism, mental illness and violence. My story is so incredibly extreme that it doesn’t usually elicit sympathy, but rather disgust.

What Linda and I share is that we don’t fit the picture of poverty. We’re white, educated and have it together enough in adulthood to string a few sentences along and have people read them.

My “poverty cred” is often called into question. I think this is natural. In America, we have decidedly fixed ideas of what poverty is and isn’t. It’s hard for many Americans to imagine poverty, and wide collection of experiences make it almost impossible to adequately relate a concise narrative.

Honestly, I never know where to begin with my story of poverty, but my top class education and advanced degrees don’t erase it. My younger brother came from the same situation I did (though from a different father) but instead of collecting degrees, he’s in and out of jail (and the hospital when his girlfriend stabs him). I was extremely lucky.

What Linda and I do share is our teeth. My teeth are bad. I have too many of them for my small mouth and my family were too dysfunctional and mired in insanity to do anything about it. In America, bad teeth are like a glowing neon sign that says “I WAS POOR.” If you have bad teeth and are young, people know what’s up when you smile. (What a relief egalitarian Japan was, where even pop stars have bad teeth!) When you run into someone else with bad teeth it’s a moment of bonding, like war tattoos.

I used to be ashamed of them. Now I wear them like a badge of honor, like a middle finger to the world, irrefutable proof that these awful things happened.

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About Pete Larson

Researcher at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. Lecturer in the University of Michigan School of Public Health and at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. I do epidemiology, public health, GIS, health disparities and environmental justice. I also do music and weird stuff.

4 responses to “The Poor and their Teeth: What to Make of Linda Tirado”

  1. Mark Maynard says :

    Teeth are disgusting. Mouths are disgusting. Just think about it. They’re wet holes in the middle of your face where you grind up meat. Human beings are vile.

  2. Greg Pratt says :

    Poverty Cred. Hmph. Good essay

  3. teacherpatti says :

    I have bad teeth too but because I was a brat and refused braces. My parents tried for years and I wouldn’t do it. One of my biggest regrets.

    I had a feeling that the Linda blog was not totally accurate. Something about it was “off”, not the least of which was that she has time/resources to keep up a blog! I’ve worked with folks in poverty for most of my career and the majority were not huge internet users. It’s expensive to get a laptop and maintain the monthly internet fee. And yes of course you can go to the library (if you can get there) but folks in poverty often have more pressing things to worry about than a blog.

  4. Pete Larson says :

    I can’t speak to whether Linda’s post is genuine or not, but she has said that it refers to past events and is a collection of observations some of which aren’t hers.

    I tend to try not to scrutinize people’s claims of past traumas. Despite what the objective reality may be, the ways in which that person experiences it are what counts, at least for that individual.

    Regardless (as you very well know) people do experience poverty in the United States every day. The trouble is most of them don’t have the time, skills or motivation (or readership) to write about it. If only they did….

    Her response:

    “Thank you for reading. I am glad people find value in it. Because I am getting tired of people not reading this and then commenting anyway, I am making a few things clear: not all of this piece is about me. That is why I said that they were observations. And this piece is not all of me: that is why I said that they were random observations rather than complete ones. If you really have to urge me to abort or keep my knees closed or wonder whether I can fax you my citizenship documents or if I really in fact have been poor because I know multisyllabic words, I would like to ask that you read the comments and see whether anyone has made your point in the particular fashion you intend to.”

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