Hand to Mouth

by Linda Tirado

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Publisher: G.P. Putnam's Sons
Copyright: October 2014
ISBN: 0-698-17528-X
Format: Kindle
Pages: 194

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The first time Linda Tirado came to the viral attention of the Internet was in 2013 when she responded to a forum question: "Why do poor people do things that seem so self-destructive?" Here are some excerpts from her virally popular five-page response, which is included in the first chapter:

I know how to cook. I had to take Home Ec. to graduate high school. Most people on my level didn't. Broccoli is intimidating. You have to have a working stove, and pots, and spices, and you'll have to do the dishes no matter how tired you are or they'll attract bugs. It is a huge new skill for a lot of people. That's not great, but it's true. And if you fuck it up, you could make your family sick. We have learned not to try too hard to be middle class. It never works out well and always makes you feel worse for having tried and failed yet again. Better not to try. It makes more sense to get food that you know will be palatable and cheap and that keeps well. Junk food is a pleasure that we are allowed to have; why would we give that up? We have very few of them.

and

I smoke. 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. When I am enraged and beaten down and incapable of accomplishing one more thing, I can smoke and I feel a little better, just for a minute. It is the only relaxation I am allowed. It is not a good decision, but it is the only one that I have access to. It is the only thing I have found that keeps me from collapsing or exploding.

This book is an expansion on that essay. It's an entry in a growing genre of examinations of what it means to be poor in the United States in the 21st century. Unlike most of those examinations, it isn't written by an outsider performing essentially anthropological field work. It's one of the rare books written by someone who is herself poor and had the combination of skill and viral fame required to get an opportunity to talk about it in her own words.

I haven't had it worse than anyone else, and actually, that's kind of the point. This is just what life is for roughly a third of the country. We all handle it in our own ways, but we all work in the same jobs, live in the same places, feel the same sense of never quite catching up. We're not any happier about the exploding welfare rolls than anyone else is, believe me. It's not like everyone grows up and dreams of working two essentially meaningless part-time jobs while collecting food stamps. It's just that there aren't many other options for a lot of people.

I didn't find this book back in 2014 when it was published. I found it in 2020 during Tirado's second round of Internet fame: when the police shot out her eye with "non-lethal" rounds while she was covering the George Floyd protests as a photojournalist. In characteristic fashion, she subsequently reached out to the other people who had been blinded by the police, used her temporary fame to organize crowdfunded support for others, and is planning on having "try again" tattooed over the scar.

That will give you a feel for the style of this book. Tirado is blunt, opinionated, honest, and full speed ahead. It feels weird to call this book delightful since it's fundamentally about the degree to which the United States is failing a huge group of its citizens and making their lives miserable, but there is something so refreshing and clear-headed about Tirado's willingness to tell you the straight truth about her life. It's empathy delivered with the subtlety of a brick, but also with about as much self-pity as a brick. Tirado is not interested in making you feel sorry for her; she's interested in you paying attention.

I don't get much of my own time, and I am vicious about protecting it. For the most part, I am paid to pretend that I am inhuman, paid to cater to both the reasonable and unreasonable demands of the general public. So when I'm off work, feel free to go fuck yourself. The times that I am off work, awake, and not taking care of life's details are few and far between. It's the only time I have any autonomy. I do not choose to waste that precious time worrying about how you feel. Worrying about you is something they pay me for; I don't work for free.

If you've read other books on this topic (Emily Guendelsberger's On the Clock is still the best of those I've read), you probably won't get many new facts from Hand to Mouth. I think this book is less important for the policy specifics than it is for who is writing it (someone who is living that life and can be honest about it) and the depth of emotional specifics that Tirado brings to the description. If you have never been poor, you will learn the details of what life is like, but more significantly you'll get a feel for how Tirado feels about it, and while this is one individual perspective (as Tirado stresses, including the fact that, as a white person, there are other aspects of poverty she's not experienced), I think that perspective is incredibly valuable.

That said, Hand to Mouth provides even more reinforcement of the importance of universal medical care, the absurdity of not including dental care in even some of the more progressive policy proposals, and the difficulties in the way of universal medical care even if we solve the basic coverage problem. Tirado has significant dental problems due to unrepaired damage from a car accident, and her account reinforces my belief that we woefully underestimate how important good dental care is to quality of life. But providing universal insurance or access is only the start of the problem.

There is a price point for good health in America, and I have rarely been able to meet it. I choose not to pursue treatment if it will cost me more than it will gain me, and my cost-benefit is done in more than dollars. I have to think of whether I can afford any potential treatment emotionally, financially, and timewise. I have to sort out whether I can afford to change my life enough to make any treatment worth it — I've been told by more than one therapist that I'd be fine if I simply reduced the amount of stress in my life. It's true, albeit unhelpful. Doctors are fans of telling you to sleep and eat properly, as though that were a thing one can simply do.

That excerpt also illustrates one of the best qualities of this book. So much writing about "the poor" treats them as an abstract problem that the implicitly not-poor audience needs to solve, and this leads rather directly to the endless moralizing as "we" attempt to solve that problem by telling poor people what they need to do. Tirado is unremitting in fighting for her own agency. She has a shitty set of options, but within those options she makes her own decisions. She wants better options and more space in which to choose them, which I think is a much more productive way to frame the moral argument than the endless hand-wringing over how to help "those poor people."

This is so much of why I support universal basic income. Just give people money. It's not all of the solution — UBI doesn't solve the problem of universal medical care, and we desperately need to find a way to make work less awful — but it's the most effective thing we can do immediately. Poor people are, if anything, much better at making consequential financial decisions than rich people because they have so much more practice. Bad decisions are less often due to bad decision-making than bad options and the balancing of objectives that those of us who are not poor don't understand.

Hand to Mouth is short, clear, refreshing, bracing, and, as you might have noticed, very quotable. I think there are other books in this genre that offer more breadth or policy insight, but none that have the same feel of someone cutting through the bullshit of lazy beliefs and laying down some truth. If any of the above excerpts sound like the sort of book you would enjoy reading, pick this one up.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2020-10-11

Last modified and spun 2020-10-12