Book Reviews

In Plain Sight

Poor people can be the panhandler at your subway stop—but they can also be your neighbor. Who can call themselves poor, and who deserves help?

By Monica Potts

Tagged Poverty

Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America By Linda Tirado • Putnam Adult • 2014 • 224 pages • $25.95

In November 2013, Linda Tirado, a college student, fast-food employee, mother of two, and a self-proclaimed poor person, wrote a blog post called “Why I Make Terrible Decisions, or, poverty thoughts” on the discussion forum of the website Gawker. In it, she described the stresses of living on too little sleep and too little money. Tirado defended fast-food dinners as sensible for people whose kitchens are prone to roach infestations. Smoking, she said, was one of the few means of relaxation available to low-income adults. She argued that someone who can afford to save only $5 a month is probably better off spending that money on the kinds of tiny pleasures that might make each day easier to live through. “Poverty is bleak and cuts off your long-term brain,” she wrote—and there is an increasing pool of social science research to back that claim up.

The post went viral and The Huffington Post picked it up, amplifying its reach. Afterward, a predictable backlash began. Observers followed a well-rehearsed script for a debate about how Tirado wasn’t really poor. The Houston Press, an alternative news site, claimed Tirado had been a wealthy boarding-school student. She had in fact gone to private school and had also attended, but not finished, college. She had worked on political campaigns as well. On her LinkedIn profile, she described herself as a freelance writer and political consultant.

Tirado later described how her mother and grandparents had been middle class, how she’d become estranged from them after she dropped out of college, and how, after years spent in poverty, she had reunited with her family, who helped her purchase a house. She was already on an upward swing when she wrote the blog post that started everything, though none of what she’d written was false. Still, both The New York Times and CNN listed Tirado’s commentary as one of the year’s biggest Internet hoaxes. The journalist Michelle Goldberg defended Tirado, following up at The Nation with records of Tirado’s past enrollment in Medicaid and the Women, Infants, and Children supplemental nutrition program—which would only have been available to her if she was poor—and an apartment eviction. But the image of Tirado as a liar or, at best, an exaggerator was already set. It was enhanced when a crowdfunding campaign netted her more than $60,000 and she signed a book deal. Detractors argued that Tirado had merely been milking liberal guilt, and that it had worked.

In fairness to those skeptics, it was easy to wonder what might be missing from her story, since much of her writing had trafficked in sweeping generalities rather than delving into particulars. Can someone who has the skill to write her way into a new career really claim to be poor? It’s a question we’ve been wrestling with since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society legislation promised to end American poverty: Who can call themselves poor, and who deserves help?

When Johnson and John and Bobby Kennedy toured inner cities and mountain enclaves to raise awareness about the problem of American poverty in the 1960s, the pictures from the communities they visited were of shoeless children, toothless adults, unemployed men sleeping on the streets, and other images of utter destitution. Those remain stuck in our collective mind as representing “true poverty.” Anyone whose life looks marginally better is just someone complaining and looking for a handout.

Yet there are other kinds of poverty. A single mother of two working full time at minimum wage cannot lift her income high enough to jump into the middle class—she counts among the working poor. There are people who can only piece together work a few months out of the year—the cyclically poor. Recent research shows that half of adults in the United States—half!—will drop below the poverty line at some point, most rising back above it within four years—the situationally poor. There are a huge number of people, as much as 20 percent of the population, who earn too much income to qualify for aid like Food Stamps but don’t earn enough to truly afford all of the basics—the near poor. All of the data we have show that the people who fall into these categories suffer regular and intense financial hardship, and there are millions of them.

For some reason, though, we can’t resist wondering whether they’re really doing better than they say they are, and are somehow getting a leg up by seeking government help they don’t need. It’s an undercurrent in all of our political debates. Fox News repeatedly cites reports from the conservative Heritage Foundation noting that 98 percent of the American poor own refrigerators, and 81 percent own cell phones, as if those items were luxurious amenities rather than modern necessities.

We’re aghast if low-income families purchase the same things the middle class might. In an “investigative” article at the conservative website The Daily Caller, the writer Matthew Boyle obtained Food Stamps and noted, with horror and opprobrium, that no one forbade him from purchasing swordfish from Whole Foods with his benefits. (Had he truly needed to rely on Food Stamps, his hungry stomach would have protested when the money that was supposed to last a month ran out in a week.) We don’t think low-income families should spend money on cable TV or fast food. We deem it a bad choice to go to an expensive check-cashing spot on the corner rather than the bank a 30-minute subway or bus ride away. The only acceptable way to be poor is, presumably, to sit, shoeless, reading the Bible by candlelight after a dinner of plain white rice. Anyone who does anything else—catching an occasional movie, eating a hamburger, smoking, shopping for convenience rather than thrift—is committing not only an economic sin but a moral one as well, and must blame her poor decision-making for her poverty.

Tirado’s post fought against these implicit, and sometimes explicit, indictments. She provided a visceral defense of trying to feel good. Poor people, it turns out, are human like the rest of us—fallible, pleasure-seeking, generous even when they don’t have the means. The calculus for survival is just a bit different. “This is what our lives are like, and here are our defense mechanisms, and here is why we think differently,” Tirado wrote. “It’s certainly self-defeating, but it’s safer. That’s all. I hope it helps make sense of it.” The substance of what she wrote wasn’t new. But her post came with a casual, authoritative, unapologetic, common-sense attitude. One could almost hear the sighs of relief from millions of low-income Americans who finally had a champion.

Tirado’s book, Hand to Mouth, is out now. Unfortunately, it doesn’t do much to fill in the missing pieces of her tale. The biggest thing that’s missing—and it’s a very big one indeed—is a simple recounting of her life. What you can gather about her story is impressionistic, gleaned from asides in the book and the blog posts. Goldberg fills in some details at The Nation: Tirado was raised by her grandparents, whom she calls Mom and Dad, and her grandmother ran a day-care facility until she lost it after an accusation of molestation in which she wasn’t directly involved but was unfairly wrapped up in.

Tirado skims past the particular circumstances that created a rift between her and her family after she left college. We still don’t know the whys and wherefores. She doesn’t explain how long her period in the wilderness was, how many years she spent in crap jobs as a young adult and then a young mom. It’s hard not to wonder exactly how many jobs she’s had, how many she’s been fired from, what her income has been at different points in her life. Tirado hints that she’s not the easiest person to get along with, that she has some mental health issues, but we don’t have any description of how these came to bear on her downward spiral. She is happy to tell you what she believes, but stingy when it comes to details about her life.

It’s a shame they’re missing. These questions about details arise not from a compulsion to judge, but from a simple desire for a compelling story. The situations Tirado has been through are increasingly common. Downward mobility in this country is on the upswing, and the generation of Americans coming of age now may be the first to live less well and die younger than their parents. Telling us the details of her fall into poverty, and her rise out of it, would make a much more fascinating book and enhance the points she’s trying to make. It would also combat the stereotypes of poverty that make it so hard for people to believe that Tirado was actually poor—she was the working poor, the situationally poor, one of many women made poor by the birth of a child, and the near poor. Whatever we imagine financial deprivation should look like, Tirado is a reality. Poor people can be the panhandler at your subway stop, but they can also be your neighbor.

Instead, the book is an extended blog post. Tirado argues against stereotypes she doesn’t raise, and defends the lives of the poor against judgments she doesn’t spell out. Every chapter could start out with a topic statement: “Poor people do X because Y.” A chapter about sex, in which she swiftly glosses over an admission that she occasionally dipped into sex work, is missing the details that would make her conundrums and the solutions she chose more tangible and visceral. She says she entered sexual relationships to have a place to live, but we don’t get a sense of how close to homelessness she was, or how she felt about the men with whom she traded sex for security and money. The chapter about her mental health problems and exhaustion also suffers because she doesn’t describe her periods of suffering in ways we can actually see.

Tirado does have a unique perspective that can enliven the book. She spends a page talking about how itchy cheap clothes are, and I longed for more descriptions like those. These are the garments that low-income people can afford, the kind they’re forced to wear as uniforms at work, and the types that journalists are unlikely to don for research purposes. “Poverty, or poor, or working class—whatever level of not enough you’re at—you feel it in a million tiny ways,” she writes. On jeans: “The kind you can buy at Wal-Mart come in two styles: mom jeans and low-cut skinny jeans meant for middle schoolers because no grown woman could get into them. Regardless of style, they are heavy, the fabric is the rugged we-mine-coal thickness, and once they stretch across your unfortunate lower abdomen, you’re fucked.” I wanted more specific stories to go along with these insights about the tiny indignities of a life in poverty.

Despite the book’s flaws, Tirado is an engaging writer. Her prose is animated by anger, and she has a blunt, discursive style, combative and defensive. There are some great lines, like, “Here’s the thing: We know the value of money. We work for ours. If we’re at $10 an hour, we earn 83 cents, before taxes, every five minutes. We know exactly what a dollar’s worth; it’s counted in how many more times you have to duck and bend sideways out the drive-through window.”

It’s an easy read, and since it was produced in less than a year, all from someone who hadn’t been a professional author, I’m inclined to think its problems are less a result of her shortcomings as a writer than they are an indictment of the particular circumstances that led to her book deal, one that demanded a quick turnaround. Tirado’s book will launch her, again, into the center of the reinvigorated debate over inequality, and it’s important that her book, imperfect as it is, is out now. What makes her so skilled a commentator is that her middle-class upbringing grants her the cultural capital to communicate to the kinds of people who will read her book. And because she truly experienced poverty, she’s not writing as a tourist who’s merely observed it. Tirado’s bridging a divide.

Her book may have finally settled her firmly into the middle class, and she’s all but guaranteed a career beyond the grind of fast-food restaurants and bartending she was once caught in. Hand to Mouth is best seen for what it is, a triumph of small-d democracy in the Blog Era. We can only hope that there will be more blog posts, and more books, from Tirado and other members of the struggling classes—more voices from the people whose opinions matter most.

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Monica Potts is a writer based in Manassas, Virginia, and a fellow with the New America Foundation Asset Building Program.

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