_ Poverty means bad jobs, bad credit and bad housing – but even
worse is the assumption you aren't trying hard enough, as Tirado's
angry, coruscating memoir proves. _
_Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America_
Linda Tirado is angry. In fact she's furious – about her life, her
job, her health. Most of all, she is furious that the country she
lives in makes her existence almost impossible while telling her that,
along with millions of other low-wage workers in the US, the only
barrier between her and success is her own mentality. To which she
responds "I have only the wise words of Dick Cheney: go fuck
Books about what it's like to be poor were all the rage 10 years ago
after the success of Barbara Ehrenreich's _Nickel and Dimed_
That was an excellent book, albeit one that, like its imitators, was
written from the vantage point of the safari Jeep: middle-class
journalists taking minimum wage jobs and then writing about them when
they got safely home.
These books, while useful, missed a large part of what it is to be
poor: not just the logistical nightmare of juggling bad jobs, bad
credit and bad housing, but what it feels like, for the entirety of
your life, to be despised by the culture you live in. The existential
threat to one's self-esteem can only be got at by those who have lived
for decades with no safety net and who, as Tirado points out, not only
act but look poor. It changes the way people treat you.
The shocking thing about _Hand to Mouth_, which is part memoir, part
polemic and part howl of protest, is that, in some ways, Tirado is
lucky. She was not born into poverty. (She skirts over her
background, hinting at some family problems that meant her parents,
for a long stretch of her 20s, wouldn't help her out after she dropped
out of college. And she wrestled with ill health and depression.)
She is articulate and can argue her way out of things. And she has,
more often than not, been employed, albeit in one or more fast-food
jobs with no benefits or security.
Even so, for the decades recounted in this book, she was drowning.
After a car crash in which the uninsured other driver escaped paying
for the jaw surgery she needed, she found herself not only in constant
pain and without teeth, but in serious debt. And so it began: the
_Hand to Mouth_ is too angry, perhaps, from a literary standpoint:
the tone gets hectoring and relentless at times, and the author
invites you to dislike her, which is, of course, part of the problem.
The fact that one recoils from Tirado exposes a large part of the
issue she is talking about – that of labelling justifiable fury as
a case of bad manners.
Here is some of what happened to Tirado on the way down: her husband,
an army veteran, was denied the stipend owed to him because of a
clerical error, which took months to sort out, during which time the
system pegged them as receiving benefits, so they couldn't qualify for
Nonetheless, the couple scraped together enough from their
minimum-wage jobs to avoid public housing and put themselves at the
mercy of low-end private landlords. On one occasion, after their flat
flooded and the landlord refused to treat the mould, they moved to a
motel, whereupon he sued them for breaking the lease. With no money to
counter-litigate, their credit scores bombed, weighting every job,
borrowing and housing decision against them from then on.
Every month, in order to make it to the next pay cheque, everything
in Tirado's life had to go right. A single problem – car, boiler,
health, daycare – would capsize the couple's minutely balanced books
and probably cost them their jobs. In the best-case scenario,
she could save around $260 a year. That is the absolute most she
could hope for, until her two children were off her hands and she
could think about trying, along with holding down two jobs, to sign
up for a part‑time degree course.
This is the book's most important point. Living on minimum wage is one
thing, she writes: it means being on your feet for eight hours at a
stretch, having to ask permission to go to the loo and walking miles
to work if your car breaks down. Worse than all of this, however, is
the assumption made by wealthier people that Tirado and her peers just
aren't trying hard enough.
The assumptions start when she walks through the door: with missing
teeth, a weather-beaten face and poor clothing and grooming, Tirado
looks, by her own admission, like a meth addict, and is treated by
government agencies accordingly.
She writes: you know how surly fast‑food workers can be? And how
annoyed you get in McDonald's when they seem to be dawdling? Think
about that for a moment. "Bad attitudes are rife among people with
low-wage jobs. And it's no wonder, really, considering the lives we
lead. Yet many of our employers actually seem to think it's reasonable
to require unfeigned good cheer in their employees."
As for the much-debated spending habits of poor people: if the most
you could save in a year was two hundred bucks, perhaps you, too,
would blow tiny amounts of surplus income when you had them on
something to make life more bearable; a cigarette, a computer game,
She is interesting about language. Welfare comes in many guises – in
the US, everyone gets tax relief on their primary mortgages, which is
of course a form of government help. But only those at the bottom get
slated for it. Tirado suggests that we "stop calling it welfare and
start calling it something that describes what it is: a subsidy like
The most shocking moment in the book is something so bleak it runs
counter to what Americans are constitutionally required to
demonstrate: optimism about their children's futures. Tirado breaks a
powerful taboo by saying, really, what do you think my children will
be good for? Unlike the cosseting middle classes who tell their
children everything they do is miraculous, "I am getting them ready
to keep their damn mouths shut while some idiot tells them what to
The "likeliest scenario", she writes, is that, graduating from the
poorest school districts in the country, they won't become doctors and
lawyers. Nor will they define themselves by their work, as the middle
classes tend to. Instead, they will have to hang on to a sense of
identity despite being told they're worth seven dollars and change an
hour. "I'm getting them ready to scrap and hustle and pursue happiness
despite the struggle."
Statistically she's right: social mobility in the US is at an all-time
low. And of course, double standards extend to Tirado's children too.
"The only reason it looks like our kids misbehave more is that we
can't afford to cover up for them when they do," she writes.
_Hand to Mouth_ is an exhausting read, but an important one, given
the casual assumptions made in ignorance by the wealthy about the
lives of the poor. And so Tirado has a suggestion; the next time you
feel inclined to roll your eyes at slow service or disparage the anger
of someone with far less than you, take a moment to consider the
following: "If your car breaks down, you call a shop. If you are sick,
you go to a doctor. If you break a heel, you get a new pair of shoes.
Appreciate that, assholes."