Book review: ‘Hand To Mouth; Living In Bootstrap America’ by Linda Tirado
January 1, 2017
America, as with much of the world, is a country of contrasts, and though the U.S. has long been called the land of opportunity, there is no escaping the reality that opportunity is reaching fewer people and in less transformative ways than ever before. Politicians do not need to remind us that there is massive disparity between the richest and the poorest in our society, for the evidence assaults us daily on every news program. But, for many — the middle class and up — the notion of real poverty is an abstract, open for little more than analytical discussion as a distant concept, but for some, it is daily life.
For first-time author Linda Tirado, poverty is a situation that, once it grabs you, is hard to overcome. In her book, "Hand To Mouth; Living In Bootstrap America," she says that "downward mobility is like quicksand." If you get even one foot in, it's hard to pull yourself back out.
Tirado began to ponder the predicament of being poor when she was struggling to get a degree while married with two small children and working two jobs. The long and short of it, she says — in bitter, cynical and straight-talking style — is that poor people are essentially too busy and too tired to even bother making long-terms plans. This living-in-the-moment mindset, journalist Barbara Ehrenreich says in the book's foreword, means that "to be poor is to be treated like a criminal, under constant suspicion of drug use and theft." There is an assumption that poor people are lazy and unmotivated, and inherently corrupt, which Tirado writes, is very much, for the most part, not the case.
Tirado's recently published account of her family's experience with poverty came about after she posted her feelings on the subject to the comment section of an online blog, and her brutally honest musings went viral, eventually trending on Huffington Post, Forbes and in The Nation Magazine. Her book includes the full text of the original post that gained all the initial attention, both positive and negative. Some accused her of being "the wrong sort of poor," as though how you got there mattered once you were poor. Mostly, though, the response was supportive, revealing the truth that many were experiencing the same realities that she was.
She emphasizes that there is no one way to experience poverty, rather that "our experiences and our reactions to them are as varied as our personalities and backgrounds." Also, worth pointing out and repeatedly highlighting, according to Tirado, is the fact that the more time you spend being poor, the more likely it is that you will stay poor, and this is doubly so, she has observed, if you are a person of color.
In addition to a big-picture analysis of poverty, she does a lot of number crunching that is best seen from the perspective of someone who has lived inside the world of the poor, as much, she says, gets overlooked when considered from an outside angle. Hot topics like minimum wage, health insurance and affordable housing are all presented from her own experiential frame of reference. Many very heavy topics are delivered in a chatty, slang-heavy tone, and Tirado is not above using some colorful language in the process of presenting one viable point after another.
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As America enters a new era with an untested style of federal leadership, "Hand To Mouth" gives voice to those who have fallen through the cracks, and Tirado is a strong front person for advocating for anyone who feels forgotten by the system, as she sees few ascending paths for most, saying, "while it can seem like upward mobility is blocked by a lead ceiling, the layer between lower-middle class and poor is horrifyingly porous from above." Remembering that one bad turn can tumble anyone into poverty is worth keeping in mind, no matter your economic station.
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