I’m almost finished reading Linda Tirado’s book Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America. I only discovered it a few days ago, so the fact that I’m almost done means it’s good. Unlike most people that explain poverty to the middle classes – for instance because they got a book contract to go undercover in low-wage jobs for a couple of months, *cough* Barbara Ehrenreich *cough* – Tirado’s been legitimately poor. (The only reason she’s not still poor is because she got paid to write this book after a freak incident where a post she’d written on the internet went viral and was picked up my major newspapers.) She gets into the psychological and physical effects of poverty in a way I’ve never seen before.
What the book really is, overall, is a reminder that poor people are actually human beings, and an elaboration of what that means. It shouldn’t be needed. We shouldn’t need a book to say, “Hey, guess what, we may not have a savings account but we still have pride and dignity and emotions and values, we have the right to have relationships and families and to pursue happiness in whatever little ways are available to us.” But we do need that book.
Because in many Americans’ minds, when you need any kind of government support (never mind how many jobs you’re working), you are suddenly reduced to a subhuman parasite on society and everything you do to survive and get through your day is an irresponsible waste of other people’s money. For instance:
You used food stamps to buy junky frozen food because it’s cheap and satisfying and you’re trying to stretch that money? You’re a horrible person. The rest of us will have to pay for your ER bills when you develop diabetes.
You used food stamps to buy organic strawberries because you’re concerned about pesticides? You’re a horrible person. How dare you waste taxpayer money on such luxuries as uncontaminated food.
You bought a toy for your child? You’re a horrible person. Don’t you know that your child should be wearing rags and begging joylessly for scraps of rotten food outside Trump’s hotel? Why are you even breeding anyway?
You have an iPhone? You’re a horrible person. I don’t care how you got it, or if it’s the only technological device you have (doubling as phone and computer), or what you use it for (staying awake during the slow parts of your 14 hour night shifts at a group home, for example); the fact that you own this one item is proof that you’re using taxpayer money to live in the lap of luxury. You probably live in a mansion and buy brand-name clothes directly from the designers and do heroin.
(But when rich people actually do all that stuff with their corporate tax breaks, it’s totally OK. For some reason, a multi-billionaire’s yacht is a better use of tax money than our heating bills or our kids’ lunches.)
When you’re low income, you’re made to feel your supposed lack of worth in a hundred ways, from your employer’s expectation that you’ll be available every minute of every day for your part-time job that doesn’t pay the bills and has zero benefits (in other words, your time is worth nothing), to the demand that you smile and be cheerful all the time in the face of verbal abuse from customers and supervisors (in other words, your emotions are worth nothing), to the lack of bathroom breaks at many low-wage jobs, or requirement to ask permission (in other words, your basic comfort and privacy is worth nothing), to the insistence that, while dealing with all of this day in and day out, you feel properly embarrassed for taking whatever help you need to feed your family.
At one of the group homes where I worked, the director decided to save money by making employees bring their own toilet paper. Well, some of the residents used toilet paper, too, so that meant we were supposed to use our part-time minimum wage money to provide toilet paper for ourselves and for the residents. Mind you, nobody bothered to tell us this ahead of time. I just showed up to work one day and discovered, when I needed to pee, that there was no toilet paper in the house. (Or paper towels.) I called my supervisor and was told I needed to provide my own. I pointed out that I was alone with three medically fragile residents in wheelchairs, so I couldn’t leave; someone would have to bring me toilet paper. My supervisor told me he would bring it himself after he was done with his meeting and all his other work. It would only be a few hours. No big deal when your bladder’s about to explode, right?
Fortunately, I was able to get my husband to bring me a roll of toilet paper on his way to work. If our schedules had been different, or if I’d waited another ten minutes, that wouldn’t have been an option.
Another time, at a different company, a supervisor reprimanded me for eating lunch on my shift. It was a 12 hour shift with no breaks, and I was pregnant.
When you work in these kinds of jobs, there are dozens of these little humiliations. Coming from a middle class background, I was shocked at how I and my coworkers were treated. My coworkers weren’t shocked, just pissed off.
Anyway, this is my personal spin-off rant on some of the subjects that Tirado addresses more coherently and with more depth. I particularly groaned over the incident where she had to pay back SNAP benefits because of a government error that she had repeatedly called the state about (this happened to me, too, with slightly different details). She discusses exhaustion, depression, the sense of never catching up. And she’s good at illustrating just exactly why it’s not possible (or even rational) to be responsible and plan ahead with money when you don’t have enough for the basics.
On the other hand, I will just note that I can’t really relate to what she says about having children. It’s not that I disagree with her in principle, but my experience parenting a child with multiple medical and developmental issues is very, very different from Tirado’s experience raising her typical children. But that’s because my parenting experience is very different from most people’s. She’s also much more accepting of capitalism than I am, although the mutual class resentment that’s on full display in her book seems to me like a pretty good argument for something else.
I’ll just end this with a passage from Tirado’s book that I found particularly poignant. No comment; it speaks for itself. A lot of free-market religious conservatives could stand to read it a few times and pray about it.
“Living in low-income neighborhoods, I’ve seen sexual health campaigns aimed at slut-shaming us into celibacy. They talk about things like self-esteem and value and all the usual abstinence arguments. They assume that our bodies are a gift that we should bestow selectively on others, rather than the one thing that can never be anything but our own. […]
These are the bodies that hold the brains we’re supposed to shut off all day at work, the same bodies that aren’t important enough to heal. These are the bodies that come with the genitalia that we should be so protective of? I really don’t understand the logic.
You can’t tell us that our brains and labor and emotions are worth next to nothing and then expect us to get all full of intrinsic worth when it comes to our genitals. Either we’re cheap or we’re not.
Make up your fucking mind.”
–Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America