Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America, by Linda Tirado, New York: NY: Putnam. 2014, 195 pp, Hardcover $25.95. ISBN: 978-0-399-1798-7.
Social workers, listen up. Author Linda Tirado wants to take you to school, and the subject is poverty. Tirado publicly established herself as a lived authority on poverty in 2013 when she penned a candid and straightforward blog in response to the question, “Why do poor people do things that seem so self-destructive?” Her essay, “Why I Make Terrible Decisions, Or, Poverty Thoughts,”caught Internet fire and was ultimately published by popular media, including the Huffington Post, Forbes, and The Nation. Here is just part of what Tirado had to say:
I make a lot of poor financial decisions. None of them matter, in the long term. I will never not be poor, so what does it matter if I don’t pay a thing and a half this week instead of just one thing? It’s not like the sacrifice will result in improved circumstances; the thing holding me back isn’t that I blow five bucks at Wendy’s. It’s that now that I have proven that I am a Poor Person, that is all that I am or ever will be. It is not worth it to me to live a bleak life devoid of small pleasures so that one day I can make a single large purchase. I will never have large pleasures to hold on to. There’s a certain pull to live what bits of life you can while there’s money in your pocket, because no matter how responsible you are, you will be broke in three days anyway. When you never have enough money, it ceases to have meaning. I imagine having a lot of it is the same thing (p. xvii).
Her book, Hand to Mouth: Living in Boot Strapped America, expands on that original blog, with provocative chapter titles including: You Can’t Pay a Doctor in Chickens Anymore; We Do Not Have Babies for Welfare Money; and Poverty is F***ing Expensive. Chapter 4, I’m Not Angry So Much as I’m Really Tired, speaks directly to social workers when Tirado states: “I’ve felt the poorest with the people who were supposed to be helping me” (p. 53).
Heartbreakingly familiar, Tirado describes her descent into poverty as the result of “bad decisions and bad luck” (p. xxi). Like many who straddle the categories of marginal and chronic poverty, her story includes a bureaucratic nightmare that delayed her husband’s benefits from the VA while also eradicating the family’s eligibility for food stamps; significant medical and car expenses after being plowed into by a drunk driver; periods of unemployment; and the lack of a rational, accessible safety net. These realities are compounded by the difficulty of climbing out of poverty with significant debt, a bad credit rating, and yes, Tirado admits, a bad attitude:
I recognize that the attitude that I fall into—hell, that I cultivate—as a ward against the instability of being poor isn’t always helpful to me. But it’s not as if I can just go in and out of it, like putting on or taking off my makeup. The attitude I carry as a poor person is my armor, and after so many years of fighting and clawing and protecting myself and my family from impending disaster, that armor has become a permanent part of me. (p. 67)
Readers, be forewarned, Hand to Mouth is raw, explicit, and angry. It is also bursting with insight and awareness. Tirado uses humor, irreverence, and satire to educate those who have (so far) been fortunate enough to have escaped poverty on the realities of those who have not. Her book is a gift to social workers who need to heed her lessons on behalf of the individuals, families, and communities that we serve.
Reviewed by Shelley Steenrod, Salem State University.