Top Review – Hand to Mouth: The truth about being poor in a wealthy world

In our April issue, gr‘s deputy editor Tim Graham reviewed Hand to Mouth by Linda Tirago. She’s a fiery author who experienced first-hand the prejudices and hardships lower-class Americans are subjected to every day, while constantly being told to ‘buck up, keep optimistic, and you’ll get there!’ – most often by wealthier people speaking down at them from atop their steady and sumptuous salaries. Read on below.

Hand to Mouth: The truth about being poor in a wealthy world – Linda Tirado

poorbooks2This book is part of a small genre of first-hand accounts of what it’s like to work in a series of low-paid, low-skilled jobs in the developed world. George Orwell may have kicked it off in 1933 when he published Down and Out in Paris and London, but in recent times American author and political activist Barbara Ehrenreich resuscitated the tradition with her 2001 book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America. Ehrenreich recounted her experiences of working for three months as a hotel maid, house cleaner, waitress and supermarket assistant. Australian journalist Elizabeth Wynhausen wrote a similar account in her 2001 book, Dirt Cheap: Life at the wrong end of the job market.

But what distinguishes the author of this book, Hand to Mouth, from her predecessors is that working in menial jobs was no social experiment for Linda Tirado. Although clearly intelligent – judging by her writing and her insights – she was forced by the circumstances of her life to discontinue her tertiary education
and take whatever work she could find. The countless number of times the f-word appears in this book is also a reliable indicator that this is not a dispassionate and detached analysis of life as one of the working poor but rather a justifiable rant against those who exploit the unskilled and then blame them for the problems that their poverty inflicts upon them.

hand_to_mouth_9780349005485The working poor, we are repeatedly shown, must endure constant pointless humiliations. Whether it’s being suspected of theft and drug use at work, being paid barely enough to live on, not being paid for overtime and being forced to work while sick for fear of losing one’s job, poor workers undergo a range of indignities every working day. Linda Tirado also outlines the Catch-22s that the poor must endure, such as when she damaged several teeth in a car accident and couldn’t afford to get them repaired. She was told that her missing teeth meant that she couldn’t get a better-paying job at the front of a restaurant, but the fact that she was consigned to the lower paid work meant that she could never get her teeth fixed.

Most poor people never receive the kind of education that will make them sufficiently articulate to speak up about and be heard in regard to the workplace injustices they must bear. This book, written by a woman who was on a middle-class trajectory that was derailed in early adulthood, is therefore a fascinating and rare insight into the lies that are perpetuated that consistently blame poor people for their poverty.

4.5 stars – Virago

Reviewed by Tim Graham

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