In the fall of 2013 an online message board asked its members why are so many poor people so self-destructive? Why do they make such crappy decisions? One such member, a self-described poor person named Linda Tirado decided to answer this question in an essay called “Why I Make Terrible Decisions, or Poverty Thoughts.”
Tirado’s brutally honest essay went viral and kicked up a storm of thoughts (some not so nice) about poor people’s moral fiber, work ethic, family values and even their sex lives. Tirado caught the attention of online publications like the Huffington Post and people like Barbara Ehrenreich, who wrote about going undercover as a member of the working poor and documented her experiences in the seminal book Nickel and Dimed. Tirado became both a celebrated and derided Internet celebrity. Her notoriety helped her raise funds so she could write further about her experiences as a member of the working poor. The result is her brutally honest book: Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America.
It’s not exactly a shock that people have their opinions, ideas and misconceptions about the poor in America. For some conservatives, the poor are lazy, uneducated, and amoral. They have lots of out-of-wedlock babies with multiple partners, and often continue to have children so they can get more benefits. They spend their welfare checks on designer clothes and expensive electronics; and their food stamps on steak, lobster, cigarettes and booze. The poor would rather sit on their butts watching “Jerry Springer” than get a job.
And to be honest, some liberals aren’t much better when it comes to viewing the poor. They might not view their less-than-privileged brothers and sisters as welfare scum out the cheat hard-working, tax paying American citizens. But far too many liberals view the poor in ways that are both paternalistic and condescending. They think they know what is best to help the poor, not realizing that there is not one size fits all solution.
To these conservatives and liberals, Linda Tirado would probably like to say, “Fuck you.”
In Hand to Mouth, Tirado doesn’t claim to speak for every other poor person out there. However, she does speak and boy, does she have a story to tell.
Tirado didn’t grow up poor. Her family was middle class and she even attended a pricy boarding school on scholarship. After high school graduation, she went to college, later dropping out because at the time she didn’t have the maturity to handle college life. However, she did return to her studies when she was older. She also admits to being estranged from her family for a while.
Tirado has always worked, often working more than one job at a time. She worked a lot of restaurant jobs, mostly waiting on tables, bartending, and at times managing restaurants. With an interest in politics Tirado also worked on various political campaigns. Sadly, these jobs, despite requiring a strong work ethic, experience, skill, smarts and talent, didn’t exactly bring in the money and benefits. Tirado often worked at these jobs because at times they were the only gigs she could get and she needed jobs that worked with her college studies.
While working in these low wage jobs, Tirado was merely a cog in the machine, and she writes eloquently and with biting candor about some of the humiliation she and her co-workers faced on a daily basis. They included being harassed by upper management, denied raises and promotions unless they provided sexual favors, having to ask permission to go use the bathroom and having their bags and purses searched for any stolen goods they may want to take home. Tirado was often forced to change shifts on very short notice, which sometimes conflicted with school and any other job she might be working.
Going to school? Working more than one job? So much for the no work ethic the poor are supposed to have.
Tirado laments about the low pay, the crappy hours, the day-to-day drudgery and the bad management she had to endure, but what really got under her skin was how devalued she felt as a human being. Or as she puts it: “Nobody is interested in our thoughts, opinions or the contributions we might be able to make—they want robots.” When dealing with people working in the service industry, Tirado behooves the reader to be nice to them, treat them with respect, and ask them intelligent questions. This can really go a long way of making service workers feel valued.
Other than her time in the survival jobs trenches, Tirado writes about her experiences as a wife and mother of two children. Yes, a lot of poor women have spouses and their children are born in holy wedlock. Tirado’s husband is a former member of the military. They did not have children to get more benefits; they had their children because they desired to have children, just like any well-to-do couple. And just like a lot of parents out there, Tirado makes sure her kids know their manners, are educated and eat their veggies. Yes, poor people are good parents, too.
However, Tirado doesn’t fail to mention how the poor live is scrutinized and judged much more harshly than those of more considerable means. Not surprisingly, it is the poor people’s sex lives that are the most scrutinized the most. Sure, some Wall Street titan can frequent high-priced call girls and a millionaire rock star can bang a bunch of groupies, but Heaven forbid someone who isn’t flush with cash enjoy a little horizontal sweaty. Tirado admits she often had sex simply because she wanted to feel close to someone and sex feels good. What a harlot!
And Tirado is quite honest on other ways where she doesn’t exactly measure up to virtuous standards. For one, thing, she smokes. Yes, a filthy and disgusting habit that may end up killing her. And how dare she waste her money on those cancer sticks! Tirado knows fully well how bad smoking is for her health and her wallet, But sometimes a quick drag on a cigarette is what gave Tirado an extra bolt of energy to keep on working.
Tirado admits she sometimes she other bad decisions, too. She has often bought crappy items that soon fall apart because they are cheaper and at the time she can’t invest in better quality items. She often ate horrid processed foods, not because she was too lazy to cook, but because her apartment at the time lacked the amenities to cook a good, nutritious meal. And instead of saving money, she often spent it because she thought she might not have access to extra cash ever again.
Now besides having casual sex, smoking and bad spending habits, what else did Tirado do inspire derision? Well, she also spent some time on WIC and food stamps. WIC made sure she got the nutrients she needed when pregnant and food stamps helped keep her family got fed. Tirado makes no apology for needing these benefits, and she shouldn’t have to. We spend a lot less of our tax dollars on individual welfare than corporate welfare, but that’s another book.
Tirado also had her share of unfortunate events that suck for any well-off person, but were absolutely devastating to someone of Tirado’s economic station. She was in a horrible car accident in her younger years, which knocked out a bunch of her teeth. And while pregnant, her apartment was completely damaged by a flood; she lost nearly all of her possessions. It’s hard enough to deal with these when you make good money, but when you’re poor, these things can destroy you.
And then there people who should have helped Tirado the most, but were often the most dismissive and condescending like the dentist who accused her of being on crystal meth because of her messed up teeth or various social works who treated her rudely or ignored her plight. The section of the book where Tirado explains the frustration of trying to get the state of Ohio to stop her food stamp benefits because her family was moving to Utah was especially exasperating.
At the end of Hand to Mouth, Tirado writes an open letter to rich people where she snarks on them for their expensive titanium strollers, their insane drive to make sure their kids get into the right pre-school and their obsession with anti-bacterial hand gels. Sure, she stereotypes the rich a bit, but it’s only fair considering poor people get stereotyped all the time.
Hand to Mouth is a provocative read, and at times, very difficult. Tirado isn’t necessarily likable. Some readers will find her whiny and obstinate. And many others will be put off by the many swear words Tirado drops in the pages of this book. There are also naysayers out there who are questioning Tirado’s story, thinking a lot of it is made up.
Do I believe Tirado? Do I believe the naysayers? Right now I’m holding my judgment. I do think the stories of the working poor need to be known and considered without derision and with more a little more compassion. I’m sure there are members of the working poor who can relate to Hand to Mouth, but perhaps so can the professional class, especially in an era of stagnant and falling wages, at-will employment, excessive CEO pay and out-sourcing of jobs.
Hand to Mouth is not a perfect book, but it is needed and will probably be a book that will be read and debated for a long time.