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An unusual amount of effort has been expended tearing this author down.

Econ Nerd Book Review: Hand to Mouth by Linda Tirado

“Pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” originally meant “impossible.” Think of it: you can’t defy gravity just by pulling up on your shoes. It can’t be done.

And yet this phrase has become both a command and an insult wielded by those who insist that anyone can make it in America. “Quit whining and pull yourself up by your bootstraps!” is the refrain from news anchors and radio hosts who seem to think that being poor is a choice and poverty an indication of moral failing.

Enter Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America by Linda Tirado. I was pretty psyched to read this one, as most of the books on economics and inequality I’ve read recently have been written by academics or historians.

Linda Tirado is neither. She’s a person who has lived the reality of being poor in this country. She’s one of the millions of Americans who lives hand to mouth, told to pull herself up by her bootstraps, who has fought to navigate the maddening labyrinth of government welfare, been mistreated and shat upon in minimum wage jobs, whose life has been stressful and precarious because of a lack of money, and whose health and quality of life has therefore suffered.

This story on poverty in America is from the horse’s mouth.

Tirado answered a question on an online forum about what life was like for the poor and her post went viral. From there, she was offered a book deal. This book is basically an expansion on her original blog post. It is angry, frustrated, passionate, filled with the pent-up rage of years of being downtrodden.

Here’s what I learned.

Stop shaming the poor for their “bad habits”

You can tell Tirado has been criticized for smoking before… a lot. Honestly, I felt chastened by her exhausted, frustrated explanation for why she smokes. For one thing, it’s her one vice. For another, it’s a relatively cheap way for her to gain the energy to stay on her feet after back-to-back-to-back shifts at work.

Look, I hate smoking and I make no secret of it. My grandfather died of lung cancer and frankly, I think it’s gross. But I will be a lot more likely to keep my opinions to myself after this.

More to the point though: plenty of rich people spend their money on vices… but we don’t judge them for it because they have “extra” money. We only shame the poor because we’re locked in this perspective that [insert vice here] is the only thing keeping them poor, and if only the dumb fucks would quit [vice] they’d finally achieve the middle class lifestyle we hard-working, virtuous folks have!

But it’s soooo much more complicated than the latte factor. So why do we hold poor people to higher standards than rich people? Why do we hammer them with judgment for their habits, their pleasures, their health, their parenting? LEAVE BRITTANY—I MEAN, THE IMPOVERISHED ALONE.

You’re not feminist unless you care about poor women

And on that note: let’s stop shaming the poor for their “welfare babies.”

Tirado goes on at length about the fallacy of “having children for the welfare.” It’s literally not a thing. And even those who don’t espouse this damaging stereotype look down on people who “have children they can’t afford.”

If you’re a feminist who has ever judged poor parents for having children, I’m hereby relieving you of duty.

Reproductive freedom is more than the freedom to use birth control and terminate a pregnancy. It’s the freedom to bear healthy pregnancies and give birth safely and according to your own wishes. It’s the freedom to act on your desire to become a parent and to raise your children in safety, to provide them with an education and healthcare. Reproductive freedom—a central tenant of the feminist movements—is the freedom to reproduce if, when, and how you wish.

The poor are no less deserving of that right than the rich.

And poor mothers all too often are forced to sacrifice their parenting in favor of working shitty low-wage jobs in horrid conditions. They’re judged for staying home to care for their children while “living on the government’s teat” and they’re judged for leaving their children to go to work to earn money. There’s no winning.

Consider Tirado’s chapter on mothering while poor an “Ain’t I a Woman?” for our age.

Don’t downplay how hard it is to “make it”

There are people who say “It’s not that hard to be successful in America. After all, I did it and I was raised by a single mother of three with nine jobs in Section 8 housing subsisting on food stamps.” I run into them on Twitter all the time. Lots of them write personal finance blogs!

This attitude honestly baffles me. Why are they downplaying how remarkable their own stories are?

Why are they shrugging off their own hardship and accomplishments and using their stories as a judgmental cudgel against those who didn’t manage to achieve the same success?

Shouldn’t they be saying, “I understand just how hard it is to make it out of poverty because I did it. You have my sympathy”? Shouldn’t they be voting in accordance with the concept that the impoverished need all the help they can get to move up a few ladder rungs and become financially stable? Shouldn’t they be proud of their accomplishments instead of pretending like it wasn’t that hard?

Needless to say, Tirado finds this attitude rage-inducing. And I don’t fucking blame her. She made one bad choice, had one bad medical crisis without a safety net… and now she and her family will live a life of poverty. (Spoiler alert: this book deal was her strike of lightning.)

The poor are far more likely to stay poor than to become rich. To suggest otherwise is insulting and disrespectful. And it’s especially selfish and cruel (and weirdly forgetful and faux-humble) coming from someone who “made it out.”

It’s more expensive to be poor than to be rich

We’ve definitely gone over this before:

Tirado and her family and neighbors are constantly nickel and dimed by society’s version of the “poor tax.”

They couldn’t afford to pay the fine after her car was towed, so the towing company tacked on a “storage fee” for every day they had the car (she couldn’t pay the storage fees, so she had to just… give up the car). Tirado can’t afford banking fees, so she uses payday loan services which take a chunk out of her pay check instead. She can’t check into a hotel without a credit card, and she can’t get a credit card because—you guessed it!—she po’.

The poor are fined because they can’t afford to keep their lawns looking nice. They get tickets because they can’t afford to register their cars. Too often they fall prey to sub-prime auto lenders because they can’t afford to buy a car outright. They have to buy a new pair of cheap boots every year because they can’t afford to buy nice boots that will last ten years.

It’s fucking hard to save up when you’re constantly being financially punished for not having any money.

Health and beauty are for the rich

I was once on a business trip at a resort in a ritzy mountain town. Also staying at this resort was a wedding party. I couldn’t help noticing that the members of the wedding party were universally gorgeous: perfectly tanned and toned, with perfect teeth, hair, makeup, and designer outfits.

It was while listening to them talk about flying in on a private jet that I had an epiphany: it’s easy to be healthy and beautiful if you have a lot of money.

If you’re poor, you don’t have time for that shit.

As Tirado explains, working multiple jobs means working odd hours, long shifts, and engaging in some logistical ninja-ing to even find time to feed yourself. How are you supposed to afford a gym membership or personal trainer? Find time to sunbathe or do your hair? Go to the dentist with your nonexistent dental insurance?

Tirado talks about how a car accident permanently disfigured her face and has caused her a lifetime of dental problems… all of which could have been avoided if she’d been able to afford surgery to fix her mouth. This would be a non-issue to a wealthy, highly insured person.

Even when “sucking on the government’s teat,” it’s maddeningly difficult to get help

Tirado’s husband is a veteran. And as I think I’ve mentioned before, the way this country treats its veterans is and always has been shameful.

We have a whole political party that pretends to have the corner market on patriotism and supporting the troops, yet when it comes down to it, veterans like my father are under-served by VA hospitals when they have major medical issues and veterans like Tirado’s husband are fucking abandoned when they need help feeding their families or paying for school.

At least, this is what happened when Tirado’s husband dared to try to get ahead using the GI Bill. They got stuck in paperwork limbo for months, forced into literal homelessness.

How’s that for supporting the troops, huh?

Tirado reveals that a lot of people, even if they qualify for welfare benefits, don’t actually collect on those benefits because a) it’s so damn hard to navigate the system, and b) the system is so under-staffed and under-funded as to be virtually nonexistent for some. One small error in paperwork and you’re stuck in welfare limbo: qualified, but not collecting.

After reading this, it’s easy to see why some people just… give up, stop caring, give in to despair. It takes a remarkable person to endure being handed the poopy end of the stick over and over again and still grab it with a smile.

Poverty is a systemic problem

I really don’t blame people for their frustration, despair, and disillusion. It’s a totally understandable reaction if you take Tirado at her word! And you should, because while her experience is by no means the only experience of poverty in America, it is all too common.

And yet there are those who won’t believe her, as evidenced by certain reviews and backlash. An unusual amount of effort has been expended tearing her down or justifying why she deserves to be poor or why she really isn’t that poor. I guess it’s easier to pretend the systemic problems she describes don’t exist than to actually face them and admit we have a problem.

There are those who will point to her decision to drop out of college and become estranged from her parents, her mistake with insurance after she was the victim of a drunk driver, as an indication of her own fault in all this. They will say “Oh well, if only she’d done this she’d be fine and therefore her whole story is invalid.”

This ignores the basic concept that the author is trying to hammer into her readers: in America, people shouldn’t live one accident or mistake away from abject poverty. We should treat our most vulnerable citizens better. In this “Christian nation,” we should practice a modicum of compassion instead of getting up on the pulpit of bootstrapism.

Early in the book, Tirado defines poverty thusly:

“Poverty is when a quarter is a fucking miracle. Poor is when a dollar is a miracle. Broke is when five dollars is a miracle. Working class is being broke, but doing so in a place that might not be so worn down. Middle class is being able to own some toys and to live in a nice place… and rich is anything above that.”

By any definition, I am a middle class person. My life is so goddamn #blessed.

I was raised by middle class parents. We have a mortgage and our income covers the bills. I go grocery shopping at a real grocery store a few blocks from my house and I feed myself vegetables and high quality meat. I have time to exercise regularly and my car is only a few years old. If I lost my job tomorrow, I have $8,000 in liquid savings (not including investments or retirement funds) to keep me afloat. When I went to the emergency room recently, I easily covered the bills.

Linda Tirado’s life—and the lives of those living broke, poor, or in poverty—is entirely foreign to me. Or it would be, if I didn’t take the time to learn about her struggles. And since I have, I can’t ignore it.

It shames me to know my neighbors, my fellow citizens are living one day getting to work late away from absolute desperation. And if that doesn’t kick start the compassion center of any American’s brain when they go to the polls, I have no idea what would.

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20 thoughts to “Econ Nerd Book Review: Hand to Mouth by Linda Tirado”

  1. “We’re aware that we are not ‘having kids,’ we’re ‘breeding.’”
    Just read her article. What a punch in the gut.

    Adding this book to my reading list. Thank you for sharing!

  2. I remember that article (which I loved) from years ago and did not realize she had written a book! *goes to library*

  3. Hey Piggy. Well-written piece, thank you.

    In the post you mention: “If I lost my job tomorrow, I have $8,000 in liquid savings (not including investments or retirement funds) to keep me afloat.”. Why do you not consider your investments/retirement funds to be liquid? In the event you became unemployed for a prolonged period, then you would surely need to liquidate them. Assuming for a moment they are liquid, would you have substantially more than $8,000; perhaps qualifying you above middle class (i.e. rich)?

    1. Thanks Rishi!

      I don’t consider my retirement investments to be liquid because a) withdrawing from them before I retire would cost a financial penalty, b) I’m personally very determined to never touch my retirement accounts before I retire, so I would have to be in extremely dire straits before taking the step to liquidate them. To me, that money doesn’t even really exist. It belongs to Future Piggy. In the event of job loss, I could find another income stream before I ran out of the $8k in my savings and checking accounts.

      But yeah, I’m definitely one rich bitch even for having a 401k and Roth IRA! So many are not as fortunate, as Tirado explains in her book.

      1. Thank you for explaining your thinking here. And appreciate you being humble in acknowledging that you are rich 🙂

  4. I am so glad to have found your blog.
    The land of personal finance blogging and FIRE never touches upon these topics.
    Your written voice is so powerful and the content is very clearly written by someone who is educated and caring.
    Keep up the good work.

    1. Thank you so much!!! You’ve warmed the cockles of my withered little heart and hit on one of the main reasons Kitty and I started this blog.

  5. I have another one for you!

    Interesting perspective. Although sounds like you are convinced that there is no way out for the poor, which is a little too pessimistic for me. Comes off as “they are screwed and there is nothing they can do for themselves”. There are people that are poorer than these poor and yet live contented lives (albeit in simpler countries/regions).

    I agree with you in that the entitlement system is broken and needs to be improved so that people can make claims with dignity. That said, we all have some control over our well being.

    1. I think it reads more as the times of social mobility (as they were advertised and enjoyed and expected since the beginning of industrialisation and particularly the past 70 years) are over and statistically speaking being poor means that you are more likely to remain poor or thereabouts then it is to significantly climb the social ladder.
      And you already kind of make that point yourself but I think it’s always important to remember that poverty is a fluent thing. The poverty line in the US is at a different level than it is in Croatia or in Cambodia so what we would consider poor for US standards might not be poor there, which is why they seem more content with less (yes, it’s more complex than that but it’s my birthday and I’ve got birthdaying to do so I don’t have time to be more academic :))

    2. So, I’ve procrastinated on responding to this comment for a while because a) I was on a business trip when the comment was made, and b) I wasn’t sure exactly how I wanted to answer it before now.

      I believe it is far more important to spread information on income inequality in the US and the difficulties of getting out of poverty than it is to spread an optimistic message of personal responsibility and control over one’s own destiny. The latter is touted by soooooo many other personal finance blogs. If you’re looking for “I retired early and so can you!” you can go elsewhere to read it. Certainly that kind of hopeful, optimistic message is useful to many.

      But we get an awful lot of critical comments on various platforms about how we’re negative nancies who need to be more optimistic about the outlook for people living in poverty. Which is funny, because I don’t believe I’m being particularly prescriptive or editorial in the above post—I set out to be informative. That information, however, is pretty damning.

      The truth is, we wouldn’t feel compelled to keep writing on subjects like this (read: the reality of poverty in the US and how difficult it is to escape without considerable effort and help) if others didn’t keep ignoring the realities of poverty and supporting governmental policies that make it even harder for people to get out of poverty.

      No, I don’t think it’s impossible to get out of poverty in America. But there are a number of factors that make it pretty fucking hard. And not all of those factors come down to individual choice and responsibility. So I’m going to keep writing about that in the hopes of engendering compassion in our readers and policy change in our country.

  6. I loved her book. There was a lot of skepticism about how “real” it was, which angered me because it misses the point, and works to dismiss her important contribution to the conversation about poverty. Another reason I like this author: she drunk tweeted her reading of Hillbilly Elegy and it was everything I could hope for in an analysis of that book.

  7. Thanks for this – I just downloaded a sample for my Kindle. Looking forward to reading it, especially now that I know she dissed Hillbilly Elegy. I had SUCH problems with that book, yet everyone I know was taking it as the Holy Grail for understanding why the dems lost in 2016. Knowing he has plans to run for office (at least that’s the rumor) is really scary.

    Tirado’s voice is something we really need right now. Income inequality continues to rise, and upward mobility is almost nonexistent. This situation is bad.

    And YOUR voice, Piggy, is something I haven’t encountered in the PF blogs I’ve come across. You and Kitty are fantastic!!

    ps the level of swearing in your posts is awesome. I do enjoy it very much.

    1. Thank you for reading!!!
      And fuck Hillbilly Elegy. I went into it expecting what everyone said it was (why the Dems lost 2016), and it was not only NOT that, it also provided very little insight into the poorest demographics, let alone hillbillies. After reading it, I read “White Trash,” whicih was much more what I was looking for, and learned a lot more from.
      I guess I’m ok with him running for office, since he’s marginally more woke than most born-millionnaires in Congress.
      Now we’re going to preen over your compliments like the vain peacocks we are!

  8. She did make quite a few bad choices though to be fair.

    At one point in the book she bemoans the number of times she’s had to move house. But one of those moves she did was because the refrigerator broke down and the landlord dragged his heels replacing it. Would have been better and cheaper just to have forked out a few bucks and replaced it herself via Craigslist.

    And getting her truck towed? Just don’t park the darned thing where it’s going to get towed, yo! (And don’t buy a truck either!)

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