Hand to Mouth: The brutal truth about being poor in the US
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 United States, 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 yourself.”
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 the book, 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 Kafka-esque descent.
Tirado 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 her exposes a large part of the issue she is talking about – that of labelling justifiable fury as a case of bad manners.
The way down
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 food stamps.
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, to make it to the next paycheque, 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.
“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, some protein.
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 any other”.
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 do”.
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.”