Working Poor in America

hand to mouthIn 2013, Linda Tirado saw a forum question online: Why do poor people do things that seem so self-destructive? Tirado is a poor person and wrote a lengthy reply. Her essay was picked up by and has become the introduction to her book, Hand to Mouth – Living in Bootstrap America.

Though Tirado makes some wider comments about the working poor, this is a memoir, written about her personal experience. Memoirs are not the genre we typically review for this blog. But public assistance may be debated in the upcoming election cycle and the book offers insight you’ll get nowhere else.

I don’t know if the publisher tried to verify Tirado’s story, but her tales of a chaotic work history ring true for me. I spent my working career at Rocky Flats, where employers invested a lot of time and expense in recruiting and training employees, and therefore invested patience and expense in retaining them. Since I’ve retired I’ve met people whose work seems disposable. Supporting what Tirado writes, their employers invest little in them and fire them for (what seem to me) minor offenses. They invest little in their jobs and quit over (what seem to me to be) minor conflicts with bosses or coworkers.

If you’ve ever asked the question that led to this book – Why do poor people do things that seem so self-destructive? – or the many related questions of why – here are answers in poignant, personal terms.

Tirado notes that this is her story. After her essay went viral she received comments from poor people saying they had different experiences. “That’s fair and true. Keep it in mind,” Tirado writes. “What is neither fair nor true was the criticism I received inferring that I was the wrong sort of poor… that I was not born into poverty… [But that’s not] the only way someone might find herself unable to make rent.”

I’ve read complaints that public assistance goes to people who are undeserving. In contrast, Tirado is surely the deserving poor. She is married to the father of her two children. Her husband is a military veteran. They often work two or more jobs each, have tried to better their educations, and do not use illegal drugs.

Anyone who has been led to believe all poor people live in publicly-funded leisure, or should be ashamed of the help they receive, or that healthcare can be had for free at emergency rooms, owes it to themselves to read Tirado’s book.

I’m struck by the futility of her life:

  • While working two jobs, she tells of being confronted by a boss at the first job who wants her to work longer one day, but if she does she’ll be late to her second job and be fired. But if she doesn’t stay she’ll be fired from the first job. So she loses a job.
  • She knows pay-day loans charge excessive interest, but if her car breaks down no bank will loan her $100 for repairs. “I think of it as a $15 poor tax… payday places, evil empire though they are and all, actually do fill a niche where there’s a real need.”
  • She smokes: “It’s expensive. It’s also the best option. You see, I am always, always exhausted. It’s a stimulant. When I am too tired to walk one more step, I can smoke and go for another hour.”
  • “I make a lot of poor financial decisions. None of them matter in the long run… It’s not like sacrifice will result in improved circumstances… It’s not worth it to me to live a life devoid of small pleasures… I will never have large pleasures to hold on to.”
  • She’s had jobs where she could not leave her work station to go to the bathroom without the boss’s permission. She says to rich people*: “The next time you feel as though you’re shouldering more than your fair share of society’s burdens, ask yourself: How badly do I have to pee right now, and do I need permission?”

Much of this post has been taken from the book’s introduction, so you learn a lot about her life quickly. Or read her piece online. I hope you’ll keep reading. It’s the accumulation of experiences, humiliation, and powerlessness that makes her points.

As you evaluate my recommendation, keep in mind I’ve also reviewed Gang Leader for a Day. I don’t think I’m overly naive. As Tirado requests, “Take a tour with me through some of the aspects of life that poverty impacts and on which poor people are judged… maybe you’ll learn something about the lives of your fellow Americans.”

Note * What makes a person rich? “Poverty is when a quarter is a fucking miracle. Poor is when a dollar is a miracle. Broke is when five bucks is a miracle. Working class is being broke… in a place that might not be run down… Middle class is being able to own some toys… afford to buy your own furniture and… you aren’t constantly worried about homelessness. And rich is anything above that.”

Tirado isn’t the only one writing about living poor:

And, the 2001 book by Barbara Ehrenreich, who wrote the foreword to Hand to Mouth which verifies the core of Tirado’s experiences. Ehrenreich wrote as a “semi-undercover journalist” working “low wage retail and service jobs.” She observed what Tirado makes clear: “the daily humiliation, the insults and what seemed like mean-spirited tricks. To be poor is to be treated like a criminal, under constant suspicion of drug-use and theft… ordered to ‘work through’ injuries and illness.” I have not read Ehrenreich’s book, but I expect it adds to understanding the “whys’ of the poor.

4 thoughts on “Working Poor in America

  1. Poverty is a horrible situation. It’s a trap. You just can’t get enough going to get ahead.
    But govt programs aren’t the answer. They are traps as well. Most politicians are interested in keeping people on the govt programs so that they will vote the way they want them to vote.
    Some friends I knew years ago had a ministry that helped people gain skills that helped them in the job market. They helped people get ahead. There were relationships between those in need and those helping.
    Govt employees would lose their jobs if they actually helped people get off welfare and succeed in the marketplace.
    Then there’s the issue of opportunities. If the economy is weak, there are fewer opportunities. When there are more opportunities, employers treat employees better. The govt can help by decreasing spending, cutting regulation, cutting taxes, and making the $ sound. The govt is doing the opposite.

    • That’s a problem with almost every government program – there’s no exit strategy. If a poor person can’t make a quantum leap with income, they are motivated to stay in the program. Certainly the government needs to be responsible, but eliminating the safety net would be a disaster – keep in mind some people are children or elderly or disabled. The marketplace won’t fill their need and charities don’t either – charities have pros and cons of their own. (Topic for another commentary.) Regulations must be judicious or we’re back to the Great Recession – I’m not about to throw myself on the mercy of any version of Robber Baron.
      But you make an excellent point that relationships are needed – not just checks. I agree. Our representatives need to address problems honestly, fix or replace programs that don’t work, and do the hard work, not just yell at each other.

  2. After reading the review, I looked at the original essay, prepared to be moved. Sorry. I guess my stony conservativism runs too deep. I wound up being more interested in what was not in the essay, such as more information on her, and her husband’s, background and the seeming contradiction between her stated resignation to her fate and the fact that she is using precious energy taking a full load of college classes. Maybe the book explains more? Anyway, now that she is living the new American Dream, which evidentially means to Go Viral, maybe she and her hubby can take their kids to Disneyland?

    I understand the “small pleasures” lament. I grew up poor enough to appreciate exactly how that feels. Now that I have made it across the tracks, though, I’m not sure how to evaluate my pleasures on a scale of size. Maybe all pleasures are small. My mother lived a hard, painful life. Smoked two packs of unfiltered Luckys a day. One of her small pleasures, later in her life, was finding the strength to quit. Go figure.

    • Hi Zep – you’re in a good position to comment on the book and I appreciate you sharing your own story. If your mother used tobacco for the lift it offers… maybe she finally got a chance to catch up on her sleep? It sounds like she deserved to. In the book, Tirado does discuss bouts with depression – that may help explain the alternating despair and hope – her husband seems to have been trying for more education throughout, but encountering various problems (some with government bureaucracy) that interfere. I don’t think having a book published is any guarantee of wealth, but it should help Tirado and her family for a while.

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