Book Review: “Hand to Mouth … Living in Bootstrap America”

Written by Linda Turado and Published by G.P. Putnam & Sons (Penguin Group) in 2014

By Ron Jones

With the divide between rich and poor getting wider every day and the middle class all but gone, poverty in the United States is approaching historic proportions. And, although there is no lack of pseudo experts on the subject, there is little that explains in the first person what it is like to be poor in America. The new book “Hand to Mouth … Living in Bootstrap America” by Linda Tirado nails it. Tirado is a completely average “poor” American with two kids and until recently, two jobs.

This is Linda’s first book and it arose out of a blog she posted entitled, “Why I Make Terrible Decisions, or Poverty Thoughts,” to a website which quickly “went viral.” Picked up by the Huffington Post website and also by Nickle and Dimed author Barbara Ehrenreich, Linda was encouraged to write a book explaining in more depth what her personal experience of being poor was like.

Exploding every stereotype and myth that the rich have about the poor, Tirado takes no prisoners. A high school graduate with above average intelligence, Tirado nevertheless ends up in many minimum wage jobs – sometimes three jobs at a time just to survive. Living on the edge between minimum survival and abject poverty, she tells how perilous everyday life is without financial security. She is just one car repair bill away from losing transportation to work and hence her job or jobs. A sick kid, a shift change, the weather, all play a part in the tenuous existence that is being poor. And forget health care for oneself. At that level, there are no sick days – and often no money or insurance to pay for a doctor.

Never seeking to blame others – including rich people – for her plight, Tirado repeats over and over that the decisions she has made over the years have helped create the world in which she lives. But she still aims a volley at those who call poor people lazy and says, “So when financially comfortable people with health insurance and paid sick leave and all kinds of other benefits that pad their wallets and make their lives easier and healthier think that the poor are poor because somehow we lack the get-up –and-go to change our circumstances … well, I’m not sure my reaction is printable.”

And, in a volley to those who say well, if you can’t find a steady job, work for a temp agency, she states that in America, protections afforded temp workers are way behind those even in South Korea. To back up that claim, she cites a friend who worked through a temp agency for several years. That friend held out for years for a promised permanent position with the factory only to lose the job when the temp agency itself moved out of town. They moved because the factory it supplied workers to closed its doors. Tirado then says, “Who says capitalism isn’t cruel?”

Tirado says getting out of poverty is little more than wishful thinking for most and sheer luck for the very few who escape. She then adds that trying to live on the meager wages paid at the bottom of the economic scale is nearly impossible. She dutifully does the math and shows the reader how bad it is.

Tirado goes on to say that poor people are likely at some time to live in weekly motels, use payday loan sharks, eat convenience foods regularly and are constantly depressed. “We know that we will never not feel tired, will never feel hopeful and never get a vacation … EVER! The very act of being poor guarantees that we will never, not be poor. “We don’t apply for certain jobs because we know we can’t afford to look nice enough to hold them … we don’t fit the image.” She said, “(she) is not beautiful, has missing teeth and skin that looks like it will when you live on B12, coffee and nicotine and no sleep.” Beauty, she says, “is a thing you can get when you can afford it and that’s how you get the job that you need in order to be beautiful!”

“Poverty is bleak,” she adds, “and cuts off your long term brain. It’s why you see people with four baby daddies instead of one. You grab a bit of connection where you can to survive. You have no idea how strong the pull to feel worthwhile is. It’s more basic than food. You go to these people who make you feel lovely for an hour that one time, and that’s all you get. You’re probably not compatible with them long term but, right this minute they can make you feel powerful and valuable. It does not matter what will happen in a month. It’s best not to hope. You just take what you can get as you spot it.”

Tirado ends her book with an “Open Letter to Rich People.” In the intro she says she knows that nobody understands rich people and that she “feels their pain” and wants to help them understand how to survive in this “f…ed up” world. Because … “… seriously? You people are doing it wrong.”                 WORK – Stop whining about how hard you work because you don’t really DO much of anything. If you are so overworked then, hire us … at $10 per hour and we will run your errands for you.

CIVICS – She asks rich people to answer the question, “… if you were born tomorrow into the lower classes would you be quite so sure that America is the land of opportunity? Would you want to live in this nation you’ve created?”

ATTITUDE – Rich people look ridiculous whining about the taxes they pay because it is so hard to make ends meet on just $200,000 per year. She says … “You guys have got to get tougher than that.”

HEALTH Has it occurred to you that you don’t have to pay someone for the privilege of becoming physically exhausted? You can run for free on the streets.

COPING – Don’t look down on poor people for smoking and using drugs. You do it too and probably for the same reasons … stress.

SEX – You cannot cut access to birth control for poor people and then act surprised when people get pregnant. “Poor people are allowed to f… sometimes too – just like you.” And, “please find a high end sex club for your ‘wanton sex romps.’

PARENTING “Stop treating your kids as if they were all special precious unicorns destined to cure cancer. Just teach your kids that they are human like everyone else.”

PRACTICALITIES “As long as you keep holding me accountable for not making it when I was well under the national median income, I’ll hear no whining about how difficult it is to find good help. Here’s a tip: Treat us fairly, pay us decently and make it clear that you give half a f…. whether we live or die and we’ll kill ourselves for you!”

The frankness with which Tirado explains and explores the realities of being poor in 21st century America is refreshing if not downright scary. It’s a must read for everyone who has ever “been there” or “is there” or claims to be an expert on the subject while living in the “other” world.

And, it’s a should-read for “rich people,” although they probably won’t.

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