“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:
- “Poor People Are Poor Because They Are _____. Rich People Are Rich Because They Are _____.”
- It’s More Expensive to Be Poor Than to Be Rich
- The Latte Factor, Poor Shaming, and Economic Compassion
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
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.