The Great Divide: Hand To Mouth

13 November 2014 Katherine Smyrk

The Great Divide: Hand To Mouth

Life on the Line

Although Linda Tirado's book centres on the US, it's exposure of poverty in a wealthy country is alarmingly relevant for a lot of the world, including Australia.

“Why do poor people do things that seem so self-destructive?”

This question was posted on an internet message board one day in 2013. Surfing the internet after coming home from her second job, Linda Tirado decided to respond, then went to bed. She woke up the next day and went back to work. It was only later that she realised her random words had gone viral across the US.

Her short essay, ‘Why I make terrible decisions, or, poverty thoughts’, was soon published on the front page of The Huffington Post and Forbes. People showed up at her house in Utah. She got 20,000 emails in one week.

The things she was saying weren’t new; most people will have read about the hardships of the poor working class, especially in the US. But this was not a middle-class interpretation or an academic analysis. This was a story written by a woman who was working two low-paying jobs, had small children and was trying to put herself through college. Her authenticity rang virulently through her words: she was the real deal and wasn’t afraid to talk about it.

Her bracing account of living in working-class poverty was something people obviously hungered for. The enthusiasm was so great that she wrote a book about it, Hand to Mouth: The truth about being poor in a wealthy world.

“Poor people talk about these things, but no one’s listening to us. We don’t usually get a chance to explain our own logic. The original piece and this book are simply that: explanations. I am doing what I can to walk you through what it is to be poor,” Tirado explains in the book’s introduction.

Hand to Mouth is a no holds barred account of living and working in poverty – complete with expletives, dripping irony and brutal honesty. There is a deep anger in her words that almost jumps off the page.

“I’ve been called brutal, vengeful, and angry. Especially angry. But I’m finding that nobody is really saying my anger is unjust, nor that my tone is overly harsh given the subject,” says Tirado.

The subject is indeed a serious and frightening one, mostly because her story is not particularly remarkable. She was not born into poverty, but through a series of unfortunate circumstances – including a car crash, a flood and a few mistakes – found herself struggling to survive.

The chapters recount stories of her toilsome life in the US; they are prosaic but horrifying. There is the landlord who suggests if she really cared about paying her bills, she should be turning tricks. There’s the employer that dictates when and if she takes a toilet break. There’s the other employer who frequently asks whether she’d be willing to service him sexually.

You might be thinking: hang on, that’s all against the law. Why wouldn’t you say something? Why wouldn’t you just quit? Tirado explains that the law is there “if you care to take the risk of being [labelled] a troublemaker”.

“I worked at one restaurant that refused to spend 30 bucks on oven mitts when the old ones wore out… But you knew damn well you shouldn’t file a workers’ comp claim if you were injured. We all needed the money more than we needed hands without burn scars.”

It’s the glimpses like this throughout Hand to Mouth that make you squirm. Tirado’s book is about the US, but its focus on welfare and healthcare is strangely resonant following the Australian federal budget cuts, most of which will impact upon the poor and disadvantaged. With a recent report from the Australian Council of Social Services stating that one in seven Australians are living in poverty, it’s clear inequality is not just an American issue. There’s no running from the reality that in a very wealthy country, many people are still struggling.

As Tirado writes, in an eerie parallel to debates about welfare cuts in Australia: “We can and have to do better than this. We’re so far behind the curve on these issues that we’re having a public fight about whether or not the poor are too comfortable.”

Much of the book is almost myth-busting: there’s a chapter called ‘We Do Not Have Babies for Welfare Money’. Tirado hopes that through her writing she can show that the poor are real people, too: who love, drink for fun, want a family, make mistakes. “People seem to see the poor as some kind of different species. Not any of the ones they know personally, of course: their aunts or nephews or favourite cashiers are all decent people who have fallen on hard times. But poor people are different, somehow.”

Sometimes this book is a little ranty and disjointed, but it’s refreshing in its furious honesty. And with the pervasive debates in Australia about changes to Medicare, taking people off the disability support pension and the rhetoric of ‘lifters and leaners’, this book is an alarming and important one. At the very least, Hand to Mouth offers some perspective: “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?”


by Katherine Smyrk

» Hand to Mouth is out now.

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