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Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America


Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America

Why do poor people do things that seem so self-destructive? When 32-year-old Linda Tirado, a college student, wife and working mother of two, responded to this question on an online discussion board in the fall of 2013, her stirring personal post entitled “Why I Make Terrible Decisions, or, poverty thoughts," went viral and sparked heated community discussions about poor people’s individual and collective work ethics, motivations, food choices, childrearing, health practices, mental states and even sex lives. 

Many supporters, including Barbara Ehrenreich, author of NICKEL AND DIMED: On (Not) Getting By in America, "felt an enormous wave of vindication" upon reading Tirado's words. And in the foreword of HAND TO MOUTH: Living in Bootstrap America, Ehrenreich praises Tirado for openly and unabashedly sharing the daily realities of her life as a low-wage worker and demonstrating "that poverty is not a ‘culture’ or a character defect; it is a shortage of money.” 

"In relating her story, Tirado goes from 0.2 seconds. And understandably so, because poverty is downright bleak, requiring the 'stamina of Sisyphus' to keep going."

"I am doing what I can to walk you through what it is to be poor," writes Tirado. She recalls in her mid-20s holding three jobs as a bartender (a boss offered female workers better shifts if they agreed to service him sexually), waitress (the baseline hourly wage for waiting tables was $2.13, and new staff got the slower shifts) and voter registration canvasser. The soul-killing experience, Tirado laments, "nearly killed me, and I still didn't break twenty grand that year." 

Tirado describes the fundamental lack of job security and basic benefits in the food service industry, such as paid sick leave and health insurance. "As a general manager for a chain restaurant, I got eight days of maternity leave after I had my second daughter. Unpaid." She reports on hazardous working conditions ("Most kitchens in the middle of the summer are intolerable, with temperatures well into the triple digits. I've seen people sent to the hospital with heatstroke") and recounts her own mishaps ("My arms and hands are covered in scars from the fryers. Oil at nearly 400 degrees doesn’t tickle when it hits your skin, and you can’t avoid the spatter entirely. I’ve burned my hands because the oven gloves had worn through and the owners were too cheap to spring for another pair. I’ve sliced my fingers open nearly to the bone when knives have slipped”).

Tirado also offers these provocative comments to privileged folk: “You don’t need a titanium stroller” and “Science disapproves of your anti-bacterial-spray fetish.” In relating her story, Tirado goes from funny (“You can’t pay a doctor in chickens anymore”) to angry (“It’s pretty enraging to poor people when rich people, who get preventative care and can afford vitamins and gym memberships, look down on us as if we don’t have a clue how to take care of our bodies. We know --- we just can’t afford it”) in 0.2 seconds. And understandably so, because poverty is downright bleak, requiring the “stamina of Sisyphus” to keep going.

Reviewed by Miriam Tuliao on October 17, 2014

Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America
by Linda Tirado

  • Publication Date: September 1, 2015
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction, Sociology
  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Berkley
  • ISBN-10: 0425277976
  • ISBN-13: 9780425277973