Culture » September 30, 2014
The Poor Don’t Need Pity
In a new book, Linda Tirado elaborates on her viral essay, ‘Why I Make Terrible Decisions, or, Poverty Thoughts.’
Tirado's book is not a sob story; it's a confrontation with the way poor people are judged day after day—by good liberals and evil Republicans.
Linda Tirado is angry, and she wants to make you angry, too. Even when her voice is calm and clear, lining up cold numbers and hard truths, it’s lit up by fury, ignited by the experience of being poor in the richest country in the world. Let me be clear (to use one of Tirado’s favorite turns of phrase): This is not a criticism. Given the story she has to tell, of injustice and indignity, it is remarkable that she, and the millions of other Americans living that story, aren’t angrier.
The kernel of Tirado's book, Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America, out October 2, was an essay that she wrote last year on an online forum in response to the question “Why do poor people do things that seem so self-destructive?” That broad question implied several more specific ones, which haunt all our debates over how the state should support the poor and how far it should dictate how they live in exchange. Why do poor people eat junk food (and feed it to their kids)? Why do they have kids at all? Why do they smoke, drink and take drugs? Why do they drop out of school? Tirado, 32, had fielded versions of these questions many times in her years working minimum-wage jobs after leaving home at 16 and dropping out of college. Her response sought to replace that faceless, misbehaving “they” with an honest and forthright “I.” It explained, from the inside, all the problems that spiral from a simple lack of money: How minimum wage means no benefits means long hours means endless commuting means bad food means no sleep means sickness means self-medication. All of which means no time to plan ahead, save money, move forward. Which means having kids anyway, because there’ll never be a better time. (Tirado and her husband, a former Marine, have two young daughters.)
Tirado’s essay, “Why I Make Terrible Decisions, or, Poverty Thoughts” went viral with a speed that knocked her sideways. It was reprinted by The Nation, Forbes and The Huffington Post and attracted thousands of messages of support, mixed up with vitriolic efforts to debunk the story and discredit its author. In her book, Tirado describes how a car accident and the subsequent impossible cost of dental care left her with a mouthful of damaged and decayed teeth. After her story went viral and online doubters questioned the truth of her story, she decided to go “full fuck-you gutter punk” and display them in a video for the Internet to see. The book similarly confronts readers with the ugly and painful reality of poverty and challenges us not to look away.
Although the story Tirado tells is based on her life, she avoids telling it in a linear way, tied to a specific period and place. It’s not clear in what order the dead-end jobs line up or whether a sleazy boss in one chapter is the same one she walks out on later. Sometimes she’s in Utah, sometimes Ohio, sometimes California, and now Washington, D.C.; sometimes she’s single, sometimes not. Tracking her story through these vivid but scattered fragments makes it hard to get a handle on Tirado as a whole person, whose singular experiences and voice make her such a riveting narrator. But these details, she implies, don’t matter—there’s nowhere in the country where $7.25 an hour allows you to have a life, rather than just about live, and all these service and retail jobs are basically interchangeable. A chronological structure makes it too easy for a reader to intervene and judge—that’s where you went wrong, or there—and miss the story’s larger point, that “poverty is a potential outcome for all of us.”
This is scary to admit. In a country with vast resources but a social safety net that’s been shredded to ribbons, “the layer between lower-middle class and poor is horrifyingly porous from above,” Tirado writes. “A lot of us live in that spongy divide.” Our finely tuned class distinctions are a way of trying to order that “spongy divide” and predict who will fall—not us! Tirado’s distinctions, on the other hand, are rooted in experience: “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, you have a place to live; middle class, that place is secure, even “nice,” and you can buy furniture and toys; and “rich is anything above that.” This is not about the 99% and the 1%, terms Tirado doesn’t use. When she addresses “rich people,” she means the people who can afford to buy this book and have the leisure to read it—not Koch-level plutocrats. People whose lives are relatively stable, who might have a decent credit score, health insurance, a bank account, retirement savings, the basic requirements of civic life that we have redefined as luxuries for the luckiest.
This important redefining of “rich” means that when Tirado addresses a final chapter to “Rich People,” the reader has to line up with the straw men: right-wing hypocrites who think the poor are lazy, or smug urbanites who believe that a lack of organic kale equals child abuse. I’m not a rich person, you want to protest—I don’t think it’s superior to get drunk on claret in a restaurant rather than on moonshine at the side of the road. But Tirado keeps tapping your knee and she’ll find a place that makes you jerk, where you find yourself thinking, I wouldn’t do that. You should make a different choice. Her refusal to flatter the reader gives the book its urgency and its force. It’s not a sob story (though it could 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 Republicans, by the 99% as well as the 0.01%.
Tirado’s stories, her calculations, and her statistics are not new. When you reach a chapter called “You Can’t Pay a Doctor in Chickens Anymore,” you take a deep breath, because you know what’s coming. It’s still shocking, though, that an expectant first-time mother on Medicaid can’t find a clinic to give her care and has to rely on books, friends and Google until she shows up at the ER to give birth. Dental care, mental health care, vision care, preventative care—it all costs money, and its lack is written on the bodies of the poor. We might imagine that people who clean toilets or fry fast food are exhausted and demoralized; we might not appreciate that they probably have to ask their boss for permission to pee, since American workers aren’t guaranteed bathroom breaks. We might not always register that the service worker speaking in perky inanities is reading from a script and can be fired if she misses a word. We might not do the math to calculate that the earnings from a 40-hour-a-week job on minimum wage, after half go to housing, equal $7,540. Per year. Even a more generous calculation—10 bucks an hour, one-third on rent—gives you 10 unallocated dollars a day, so “the world is your oyster.” In case the tone’s too subtle here, Tirado clarifies: “The math doesn’t fucking work.”
Tirado is no martyr, and she doesn’t romanticize poverty, although she does suggest that the poor tend to be rather “a bit more generous” than the rich, likely for the simple reason that “we understand what it might be like to have to beg.” She makes the passionate case that parenting while poor isn’t a crime, and that kids need a lot less than we might think—a crooked rainbow painted on her children’s bedroom wall is, for a decent while, “a pretty fucking cool rainbow” and not a marker of deprivation. An awareness of class status, of having and having not, is something children learn, and too often, something that their parents teach. It doesn’t matter if kids wear hand-me-downs. It does matter that they’re loved, and that it’s not assumed that their parents are less loving because they’re poor. But even if Tirado’s kids grow up smart and healthy, the world they’re inheriting is in no way an equal one, and they’ll have to fight harder for every opportunity than the children of the rich. We should all be a lot angrier about that.
Joanna Scutts is a freelance writer based in Queens, NY, and a board member of the National Book Critics Circle. Her book reviews and essays have appeared in the Washington Post, the New Yorker Online, The Nation, The Wall Street Journal and several other publications. You can follow her on Twitter @life_savour.