Book Review: Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America
Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America by Linda Tirado
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Every so often a book comes along emphasizing issues that have been highlighted in other books long before it. Poverty is a perfect example of this. It’s one of those issues we seem to keep forgetting about. Mostly because in America we have this long running myth that if you deserve it, you will have it. We’re afraid to look at our downtrodden because it undercuts that myth. Which is a fear of the poor that, regretfully, is uniquely American.
A number of years back, books about what it was like to be poor were all the rage, following the success of Barbara Ehrenreich's, Nickel and Dimed. Which was an excellent book, albeit one that, like its imitators, was written from the vantage point of the minivan driving journalist, taking on a minimum wage job and then writing about her experiences after returning safely home to an upper middle class community. But her book missed a great deal. Most importantly what it feels like to live, the entirety of your life, in a culture that detests you.
In America to be poor is to be despised. By your former friends, your family, and most of the time, even yourself. Which makes the craving for personal dignity the force that drives much of the caustic commentary, in this gripping memoir, which started it’s life as a response to an online forum question, and who’s main argument is that the structure of the bottom end of the US labour market is unfair, demeaning and exploitative. The author buttresses these conclusions with her own unhappy experiences, anecdotes about others, and an analysis of how the lowest segment of the market actually works. In low-wage jobs, bosses don’t ask subordinates what they think. Humiliation is the rule. “Poor people” are dehumanized by “rich people” wielding contempt and hypocritical moral judgments across a stark divide.
But what’s most remarkable and upsetting about this book, to me, is that, given the story Tirado tells, of the injustice and indignities, that she, and millions of other Americans living the same story have to endure, aren’t angrier. Going to work forces us to give up power over our own lives, we sacrifice ourselves for the benefit of others and to have someone look down their nose at us for that, is the gravest insult I can imagine.
But, realistically, few working class people have the luxury of indignation. Enervated by swing shifts, cash shortfalls and too little sleep, they are badgered by the American creed that anyone who works hard can prosper, and many internalize the belief that those who don’t prosper are themselves to blame. “I wouldn’t even mind the degradations of my work life so much if the privileged and powerful were honest about it,” Tirado writes. “Instead, we’re told to work harder and be grateful we have jobs, food and a roof over our heads. . . . We are. But in exchange for all that work we’re doing, and all our miserable work conditions, we’re not allowed to demand anything in return. No sense of accomplishment, or respect from above or job security. We are expected not to feel entitled to these things.”
The one thing this book does to great effect, or I should say doesn’t do, is provide its readers with a chronological structure. Which is good, otherwise it would have made it far too easy for critics to intervene and cast judgement—that’s where you went wrong, or there—and miss the books larger point, that in a system of winners and losers, “poverty is a potential outcome for all of us.”
Tirado’s refusal to flatter her reader, is also what gives the book it’s undeniable authority. This isn’t a sob story, although it could very well make you weep with frustration; it’s a confrontation with the way that poor people are seen and judged day after day, by good liberals as well as evil conservatives, by the 99% as well as the 0.01%. And just as we dismiss those who deny the evidence of global climate change, so should we mock those who insist that if people only tried harder they wouldn’t be poor. It’s a lie, and Hand to Mouth shows us, in painstaking human detail, how it is a lie and why it is a lie.
I have been poor more often than I have been not poor. And I was told, all throughout my childhood, by guidance counselors, the media, and many adults, that if I no longer wanted to be poor, I had to work hard and go to college. I was told that that was the only way to not be poor. But that was a lie. And what I was promised has yet to materialize. But the most frustrating thing about it is that now those same people, those same authority figures, whom I trusted, and believed, and who sold me, as they sell so many, on the promises of the American Dream. Now blame me for, not only my failures, but for theirs as well.
Casting millennials as petulant adults trapped in adolescence has allowed previous generations to dismiss our concerns. Millennial bashing is, after all, as Mattias Lehman has written, simply a new form of “class warfare.”
Millennials have had to come of age in one of the worst economic climates since the Great Depression. We have grown up watching the selfishness of our parents in action. And we watched how the recklessness of the housing boom and bust wreaked havoc on our society and forced us to reach adulthood in a world in which opportunity is nonexistent. But we do not benefit from the selfishness of our parents. And hopefully we will not emulate it either.
Most of us are now entering into mid-adulthood, and most of us are still lagging far behind from where our parents were when they were our age. We have far less savings, far less equity, far less stability, and far, far more student debt. The “greatest generation” had the Depression and the GI Bill; boomers had the golden age of capitalism; Gen-X had deregulation and trickle-down economics. And millennials? We’ve got venture capital, but we’ve also got the 2008 financial crisis, the decline of the middle class and the rise of the 1%, and the steady decay of unions and stable, full-time employment. A new study has even confirmed that millennials are the poorest generation to date. Millennials really do have it harder than previous generations. But somehow, the narrative of spoiled, petted young people still prevails.
Yet the more work we do, the more efficient we’ve proven ourselves to be, the worse our jobs become: lower pay, worse benefits, less job security. Our efficiency hasn’t bucked wage stagnation; our steadfastness hasn’t made us more valuable. If anything, our commitment to work, no matter how exploitative, has simply encouraged and facilitated our exploitation. We put up with companies treating us poorly because we don’t see another option. We don’t quit. Instead we internalize that we’re not striving hard enough.
I never once imagined myself having to struggle this much in my thirties and perhaps it’s my fault, but perhaps, someone else is making it harder than it needs to be.
I’m never not thinking about money. I’m constantly running our budget through my head, trying to reassure myself that the numbers will work out this month. I dread going to the store or having to buy gas because each purchase moves us closer back down to that zero balance. The question always running through my mind is, what’s going to happen when the month comes that we can’t make it all work? The anxiety over our finances never quite goes away.
We’re trying to get back on our feet. We account for every dollar we make, and we don’t make any purchases without carefully considering our finances. It is just impossible to get ahead when every month seems to bring us a new setback, a visit to urgent care, a growing child who needs new shoes. Every step we take forward is followed by two steps backward and it’s exhausting. There’s no catching up when you’re behind; you just struggle to maintain. We’ve also learned to never try too hard to be middle class, as it only serves to make our situation worse. All of this obviously has a psychological and emotional impact. I’ve even flirted with addiction several times, but I’ve never let myself go there completely because I think it’d be too much of a relief and I’d never be able to come back.
I feel frustrated by all of this, but mostly embarrassed. It feels like I’m always climbing up the same hill, always trying to at least make it to neutral. But I don’t have the stamina of Sisyphus to keep going for much longer. And one day I’ll stop and put a bullet in my head. Anger is really the driving motivation that keeps me going. Honestly, if it wasn’t for anger, that bullet would have found it’s way into my cerebral cortex a long time ago. A running thread through all of the topics covered in the book is actually about the logic of anger as a means of survival: Speaking of mental health services, for example, Tirado concludes, "Professionals seem to only want to talk about my anger. They talk about my fatalism, my caustic outlook. They see these things as problems to be fixed. Personally, I think that anger is the only rational response to my world sometimes." It’s certainly the most productive.
Moreover, the problem isn’t just one of being undervalued either. As Tirado explains, “it’s, also, that it feels as though people go out of their way to make sure you know how useless you are.”
In the poor persons world, medical practitioners are condescending and unreasonably preachy, caseworkers are cruelly imperious, and government systems are Kafkaesque. Which is not even to mention the foaming resentment that spews from the mouths of those lucky enough to live a more middle class existence. “Why do they waste money on cigarettes and booze? Why do they eat junk food? Why do they have kids they can’t afford?” But a better question is, why do we keep hammering poor people with such supercilious judgments, for their habits, their pleasures, their health, their parenting, in a word, their very lives? Because double standards, directed at the poor, are used, first and foremost, to force poor people out of the public sphere and delegitimize their own testimony about their lives and needs.
Most people are uncomfortable with the idea that maybe there’s merit to be found in the lower classes. The stigma and prejudice that’s attached to poverty creates the assumption that poor people can’t be smart, so anyone who is smart can’t be poor. It’s a perfect circle that ensures that no poor person who talks about their experience is seen as credible. Unless, like J.D. Vance in his memoir Hillbilly Elegy, the working class people in question are careful to position themselves as exceptionally meritorious and decry the immorality and poor work ethic of their peers. Poor people who cosign prejudice against poor people are lauded. Everyone else is dismissed. It’s just easier to dismiss poor people than to listen to them.
Our political system is also utterly, and embarrassingly, unresponsive to the needs of poor and low-income people; they cannot be counted on for campaign contributions, after all, they don’t hire lobbyists, and are less likely to vote, not because they are apathetic, but because the U.S. makes voting complicated and time-consuming, and they don’t think it matters anyway. Which it doesn’t. If our system depends on the right person, or persons, being in power, it’s by definition a bad system.
Much of the criticism, however, surrounding this book, and much of which has been aimed directly at Tirado herself, mainly concerns what the proper poor person should look like. If you’re going to ask for help in America, critics invariably insist, you’d better be really, truly, abjectly, miserably poor, and you’d better perform that poverty for the benefit of the more fortunate. But a far more legitimate criticism of Tirado, would be the same one that I often levy against religion. Neither of them have any real incentive to want to see poverty eliminated completely, simply because they both make money from it. Which isn’t so much a criticism as it is a question concerning both parties underlying motivations. Nonetheless, Tirado’s book vehemently accosts it’s readers with the ugly and painful realities of poverty and challenges us not to look away from it. As Noah Berlatsky once said, “If we didn’t hate the poor, the poor wouldn’t exist.”
But, today I’m afraid, the humanitarian conviction that we all have a collective national responsibility to the poorest among us, can no longer offer us a scythe sharp enough to fell the stalks of capitalist ideology. And because of this I maintain that we are now entering a terminal phase of human existence, that, unfortunately for us, doesn’t look very likely that we will survive it. In order to survive it, we would need drastic changes to take place. But, in order for real change to occur people would have to at least be willing to give up their greed, and they’ll never pay that price for freedom.