Linda Tirado is a genius of a writer whose honest, direct, and unblinking book about what it’s like to be poor in the USA was published recently. Hand to Mouth – The Truth About Being Poor in a Wealthy World describes her life as a young woman struggling to get by – which essentially means little more than to survive – in minimum wage jobs. She’s also funny and dry as a bone.
Her experiences with poor and insecure housing, little money for food or anything that might ever count as a treat, and the struggle to stay in decent health echo many of the accounts of the people I’ve interviewed at this London food bank during the last year and more.
Before she wrote her book, a post she had written went viral last autumn. It was in answer to a question she’d seen on a forum – ‘Why do poor people do things that seem so self-destructive?’ That essay, written after a ‘particularly gruelling shift at work’, nails the array of difficulties that cause poverty, and leads them to make what seem like poor decisions.
We often get academics and think tanks outlining what effect this or that policy might be having on the behaviour of those in poverty. Politicians are fond of speculating about the motivations and needs of various groups – ‘lone parents’, ‘skivers’, ‘hard-working families’, ‘problem families’ and so on. But at last in Linda Tirado we find a woman who has by voicing her experiences, articulated something about the daily struggles of many of those in poverty. These are stories that very seldom get any real exposure in the mainstream media.
She also showed those who have no idea – who literally have either a failure of imagination or have forgotten – what it could be like to not meet their own or their family’s basic needs. It’s also a much-needed challenge to those who have a vested interest in telling us that poor people are lazy and feckless, or who continue to peddle myths about all work or workfare being a sure-fire way out of poverty. In the essay that led in the end to her book, she describes life as a low wage worker, with a husband employed erratically and with two small children to provide for. Some of her truths are (and all the words are Linda’s):
- Rest is a luxury for the rich
- Planning isn’t in the mix
- We’ve 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 (see above)
- Junk food is a pleasure that we are allowed to have; why would we give that up?
- Convenience food is just that
- It’s hard to get a bank account
- Nobody gives enough thought to depression.
- I make a lot of poor financial decisions. None of them matter in the long term. I will never not be poor
- I smoke. It’s expensive. It’s also the best option. You see. I am always, always exhausted. It’s a stimulant
The essay gets things kick-started. The book goes on to talk about a host of issues including sex, having children (‘We Do Not Have Babies for Welfare Money), and the cost of being poor (‘Poverty is Fucking Expensive’). In one chapter – ‘Being Poor Isn’t a Crime – It Just Feels Like It’ – she describes how she is ‘so used to seeing people beng punished for things they haven’t done wrong’.
She describes how in the USA ‘people seem to be increasingly afraid of the poor – building gated communities and taking separate entrances – but it’s not like criminal behaviour as we think of it has suddenly skyrocketed. We’ve just made more shit illegal. And once you have a criminal conviction, best of motherfucking luck getting a job if unemployment is above zero.’ All the chapters in the book resonated – but particularly this one. I thought of what appears to be a growing anti-poor and anti-homeless culture here in London, where ‘defensive architecture’ such as metal spikes have been appearing on alcoves outside buildings where people might try to sleep. A policing operation in parts of London involved seizing tents and sleeping bags to ‘reduce the negative impact of rough sleepers’.
Poverty in the UK is also driving people towards criminal acts. I thought of the people – Kevin among them – that I’ve spoken to at foodbanks and elsewhere in London who say that they’ve broken the law by stealing food. They’ve done this because they’ve had their benefits sanctioned and have ended up with criminal convictions that will make their return to work even harder and with fines that are impossible to pay. They’ve had their benefits sanctioned, you see.
In the UK, programmes such as Benefits Street that purport to show what life’s like for the poor, seem to be designed to fill an empathy vacuum that’s growing between those with enough – or maybe just enough – to live on, and those who need to claim benefits.
Instead of relying on the media to tell you what you should be thinking about those on low incomes, why not get out and have a direct conversation with someone who might be living around the corner from you about their life? Maybe you could offer to help out at your local foodbank? The Trussell Trust, for example, franchises a fast-growing network of foodbanks throughout the UK. Even in the global financial centre and metropolis that is London I can guarantee there’ll be a foodbank closer to you than you ever might have imagined.
If this doesn’t work for you, then please give Linda’s book a go. It’s a real eye-opener of a read.
I’ll leave the last words to Linda: ‘There are poor and working-class people everywhere, guys. You can just have a conversation with one, like a real human being. Give it a try. You’ll like it. We’re entertaining. We have to be; we’re stuck entertaining each other because cable is ridiculously expensive.’