Poorsplaining: What It's Really Like to Be Poor in America

Poor people are more likely than rich people to smoke. To get fat. To get into hassles with cops and creditors. To have children despite no visible means of support, to lurch from one crisis to another, and sometimes to have very bad attitudes. But before you judge them, just try being poor yourself.

Linda Tirado has been poor, and she doesn’t judge. Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America, which goes on sale Oct. 2, is her unapologetic explanation for why she and other poor people do what they do. It’s funny, sarcastic, full of expletives, and most of all outrageously honest.

For Tirado, being poor has meant walking miles to jobs because she didn’t have money to fix her car. Stacking boxes and cleaning toilets. Suffering chronic pain from rotten teeth she can’t afford to have cared for properly. Getting treated like human garbage by customers, bosses, doctors, and landlords. And then, after all that, being asked why she’s not smiling on command. She writes:

I get that poor people’s coping mechanisms aren’t cute. Really, I do. But what I don’t get is why other people feel so free in judging us for them. As if our self-destructive behaviors therefore justify and explain our crappy lives. Newsflash: It goes both ways. Sometimes the habits are a reaction to the situation.

The genesis of Hand to Mouth was something she wrote last year on an online forum responding to a person who asked why poor people do things that seem so self-destructive. “Poverty is bleak and cuts off your long-term brain,” she wrote, while enumerating various things she’s done that might not seem particularly foresighted. Her impromptu essay was picked up by the Huffington Post, the Nation, and Forbes and generated, she says, “thousands” of e-mails.

Barbara Ehrenreich wrote the foreword. Ehrenreich is a professional writer who took a series of low-wage jobs just to see what it was like and produced a best-selling 2001 book, Nickel and Dimed. Writes Ehrenreich of Tirado: “She makes all the points I have been trying to make in my years of campaigning for higher wages and workers’ rights: That poverty is not a ‘culture’ or a character defect; it is a shortage of money.”

One obvious objection to Tirado’s book is that it paints all poor people alike, and Tirado is the first to admit that she’s not speaking for everyone. For instance, she writes, “There are poor people who would never dream of doing anything as déclassé as using drugs.” It’s true, too, that Tirado didn’t grow up in poverty, if that makes a difference to anyone. She left home at 16 for college, became estranged from her family for over a decade, suffered health problems, and had everything she owned destroyed in a flood. “I slid to the bottom through a mix of my own decisions and some seriously bad luck,” she writes. “I think that’s true of most people.”

Considering how depressing the subject matter is, Hand to Mouth is a quick read because Tirado has a way with words that’s somehow both breezy and blunt. The section on her teeth alone is more persuasive than a stack of think-tank treatises on poverty. She lost a bunch of teeth and damaged her jaw when a drunk driver hit the car she was riding in. The dentist who fitted her for a denture kept lecturing her not to do meth, even though Tirado told her that she had damaged her teeth in an accident. The denture snapped two years later. She can’t eat with it.

“I usually eat alone, at night, tearing off bits of food and bolting them down without chewing,” Tirado writes. She doesn’t smile, either, so she refuses to join group photos. “They will cajole and wheedle and bring the whole group photo to a screeching halt until you finally, shamefully, admit that you can’t, that you don’t want a picture of you like this to exist.”

And that is what it’s like to be poor in “bootstrap America.”

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