Just finished my first audio-book of 2015! Since I work in the nonprofit sector with people who fit squarely below the poverty line in urban Appalachia, I knew the moment I heard about Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America that I had to read it. It called to me as important for my understanding of the people I serve, as well as for the general expansion of my personal horizons. Like all nonfiction, I opted for the audio version.
In all honesty, I’m a little scared to write this review. Poverty in America is such a sensitive subject, and I don’t want to toe the wrong end of the line in either direction. As a solidly middle class American, I know there are some things I simply can’t hope to understand about poverty (AmeriCorps stipend below the poverty line or not). So know at this moment that what follows are only my isolated opinions from my personal experiences and from my own reading of this one single book. I send you the caveat that I am politically moderate, leaning a little left in social areas, and you can decide for yourself whether you think you can keep reading this review.
First off, there’s a lot to be said about the author’s representativeness of what life in poverty is like, seeing as she comes from a middle class background and has a decent education–something which many people have never known, and unfortunately may never know. Don’t get me wrong–just because Linda Tirado is educated enough to write a book doesn’t mean she hasn’t known real poverty, but I can’t help but fail to be able to connect her well spoken mannerisms to the snapshot of poverty that I’ve personally seen (imagine a job interview as someone who speaks standard English. Now imagine it as someone who doesn’t–who can’t–know what that sounds like. See the difference in opportunity there?). Of course, poverty comes in all shapes, sizes, and educational backgrounds, so that is really neither here nor there–after all, would we have the book at all if it wasn’t coming from someone who could satisfy the idea of what a book should look like?
The author has truly put forth a devastating and plausibly honest picture of the hopelessness of being poor–the dead end jobs, the exhaustion of working so hard that you don’t have time for self betterment, of taking little pleasures where you can get them between jobs that will never pay enough. Even her justification for why she smokes and eats junk food resonated with me, making a little bit more sense of one of my biggest criticisms of poverty behaviors (why smoke when it’s such an expensive habit?). The book really helped me settle into the shoes of poverty and consider what my life would look life if it were formed in that way. But ultimately, I can’t help but feel that her level of righteous anger gets a bit tedious and overblown.
The tone of the book becomes accusatory and grating about halfway through. While anger at a system that makes it difficult to climb out of poverty is understandable, there is a certain point at which blaming others for your problems and using harsh language to mock their behavior is no longer productive. While I was at first all ears to the explanations of why Tirado smokes in spite of the giant money and health suck, the repetitive sense of “why bother?” eventually made it difficult for me to keep open ears and an open mind.
Yes, Tirado frequently makes it clear that she is speaking from her personal experience and not making overarching statements… but at times she seems to try to make those overarching claims, anyway. I remember smiling particularly at her insistence that no one, EVER, has had more children in order to qualify for more benefits. I shook my head sadly at this because, walking down the streets of downtown Cincinnati (a place the author actually once lived), I heard one woman advise another to have more babies because “mo’ babies, mo’ food stamps.” My evidence is, of course, equally anecdotal–but clearly not “NO ONE” has ever considered procreating as a means to get more government aid. It’s not a very well thought out strategy, as Tirado points out… but again, hungry tired people who haven’t had educational opportunities simply aren’t always going to make the most logical, numbers-based decisions. It’s deeply unfortunate that the few who try to exploit the system make it that much harder for people who are truly down on their luck to receive aid, but insisting that these exploitation never happen is not, in my opinion, particularly productive.
Additionally, there is a certain “us vs. them” mentality that bothered me. Yes, I know there are plenty of middle and upper class people who don’t tip well, or who treat service workers like dirt–but that’s not all of us any more than every poor person is dirty or stupid. I worked in retail all through college (yes, I know, lucky me for getting to GO to college), and have never a day in my life been rude to a service worker. While retail was not about to be my career, something for which I am eternally grateful, that doesn’t mean that I don’t remember what it was like or that I’m incapable of recognizing that the person wearing that TJ Maxx lanyard is a human being (a lot of people are, though, believe me, I remember).
Maybe some people out there deserve the condemnation that is smattered throughout the second half of this book. But some of us don’t. And I’ve always felt that a little more calm explanation will get through to a lot more people than the sort of tone that becomes alienating. There were a lot of interesting points here, and I do feel that I learned something from listening to the book, but I think it would’ve been much stronger had she stuck more to her own experiences and explanations of the life she leads than jumping on top of and condemning the lifestyles of others. I’m not saying the anger isn’t justified–I’m just saying maybe somewhere in the editorial process, it should’ve been handled a little more lightly in order to let the book have a strong voice more likely to impact, rather than alienate, its audience. I’m not asking for dishonesty–of COURSE I want to hear how Tirado feels, but maybe with a bit less of the mocking “aren’t you rich people all a bunch of idiots?” tone. After all… doesn’t that circle back to the same sort of “one size fits all” treatment that the author is asking not be applied to poor people?