Hand to Mouth
, by Linda Tirado
G.P. Putnam's Sons
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
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.
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
. 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.
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