“Here is how I have felt, as me: as a relatively young person who is perceived as white, who is naturally sociable, who is intelligent and well-spoken, who was taught well and as a result loves learning things, who is able to lift objects up to fifty pounds repeatedly. And many times, with all that going for me, I still saw no hope. I cannot begin to imagine how much harder it is for someone who faces more discrimination than I have or grew up without these basic tools that I am lucky enough to have.”
I’ve gotten a number of book recommendations from Facebook these days. So when a friend posted Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America (2014) by Linda Tirado, I was interested enough to hunt down a copy. Hand to Mouth is an informative, unapologetic, and sometimes angry, explanation of what it’s really like to be poor in America. This book is a fast read at a relatively short 224 pages. Tirado is a compelling writer, and the book stayed interesting and through-provoking until the end. However, I already had a healthy respect for some of the challenges of being poor, I wonder how someone who is not already sympathetic would view this book: someone who is so sure their innate abilities and strong work ethic made them so successful. Would this change their mind to a degree? Or would they continue to be unable to empathize with the plight of those not as well off? I’m not sure.
Tirado clarifies early on that she is writing about her personal experience, and she is not speaking for an entire socioeconomic class of people. She understands that being white and educated gave her advantages, even as she struggled. And it is her education and writing ability that gives her an advantage when telling her story. I would assume that there aren’t too many young women with children and struggling in poverty who have the education, time, and will to write a book about their experiences. Barbara Ehrenreich tried to illustrate the challenges of surviving pay check to pay check on low wage jobs in Nickel and Dimed, but she was just visiting the “common people” (Pulp music lyrics. Please note that I am not denigrating Ehrenreich’s book here, which I admired, just pointing out differences.). Although Ehrenreich endured hardships, it was for a limited time and she always had an out. On the other hand, Tirado’s experiences are not manufactured but her own life story. “Working your balls off, begging for more hours, hustling every penny you can, and still not being able to cover your electric bill with any regularity is soul-killing.” (8)
Hand to Mouth is a mix of descriptions and explanations of what it is really like to struggle for the basics with no safety net, as well as an explicit response to some prevailing negative stereotypes of poor people. She explains that it is almost impossible to save money when you are making so little, and that a precious five dollars a week saved only amounts to $60 after a whole year. She describes how something as simple as a flat tire,that would be a small annoyance to someone with money, can be devastating for those living on the edge. If you don’t immediately have the money to fix it, you might lose your transportation to work and even your job. Tirado also explains that she had kids because she wanted a family and didn’t feel that her family was complete and not that she was looking for welfare money.
“It’s not like mental health clinics are thick on the ground, like the people who need their services.” (46) Even though Tirado discusses her struggles with depression, she does not speak much to how mental illness and addiction affect and contribute to those living in poverty. The topic of mental illness and addiction and poverty and homelessness is something that I’d like to see addressed, and I wouldn’t have minded seeing more of it in Hand to Mouth, but I appreciated how Tirado described her experiences. This is definitely a book worth reading.
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