“It is impossible to be good with money when you don’t have any.”
—Linda Tirado, Hand to Mouth
In an essay called Why I Make Terrible Decisions, Linda Tirado explained how behavior that seems irrational or irresponsible might actually be sensible and smart if you are poor and the only options available to you are bad ones. That essay has been expanded into a book, Hand to Mouth, and it’s sharp, funny, and foul-mouthed in a manner entirely appropriate for the subject matter. It’s not “too angry” as one reviewer suggested, nor is it “vindictive.”
Hand to Mouth is, instead, indignant: Tirado is outraged not merely that so many people can work so hard for so long and still have so little to show for it, but that those same struggling people are then blamed for their state — dismissed or demonized by demagogues and hacks as lazy or irresponsible. There is only passing mention of Rep. Paul Ryan, but the book might as well be a long subtweet directed at him and others who insist, against all evidence, that if you are poor in America it is because of your own failure to be sufficiently diligent, chaste, sober, or thrifty.
Tirado’s own experiences with poverty are an eloquent rebuttal to such claims, but don’t conclude that this is merely a memoir or a collection of anecdotes; her story shows us in powerful, personal terms what the evidence reveals to be true for millions of other people too.
Here’s some of what we can confirm about the obstacles to getting by in the United States today, all of which can be gleaned from Tirado’s book:
- Working hard does not mean that you will get ahead: Where you are born, and to whom, is a better predictor of how you’ll do. Mobility rates are lower in the U.S. than in many other rich democracies, and we actually have a fairly rigid class structure.
- Jobs are scarce, wages are often too low to live on, and employers steal income from employees. It’s worse in the service sectors, and especially bad for women.
- This is why so many people can work, even at multiple jobs, and still be poor.
- If low-wage workers get sick, they work anyway, since they’re less likely to have paid sick days.
- Childcare is scarce and expensive, hobbling efforts at steady employment.
- Health insurance, even after the Affordable Care Act, is unaffordable for millions; untreated illness (or disability) can limit your ability to work, making you even poorer. Forget about dental care. Or mental health care. And sick people who cannot access treatment will self-medicate with alcohol, drugs, sex, or cigarettes.
- Most who receive food stamps work (including active duty military families), and almost all who receive means-tested benefits fall into categories historically identified as “deserving” — 90 percent are workers, children, elderly, or disabled.
- Means-tested benefits are low and fraud is uncommon, while badly designed eligibility standards exclude many in need.
- Poor households generally spend their cash grants with care.
- Spending on wealthier households via the tax code dwarfs traditional relief programs, yet this “submerged” welfare state typically goes unremarked when people complain about expenditures.
- Low-income people really are more charitable, and always have been.
- At the same time, they pay more for almost everything, and are exploited by payday lenders, rent-to-own schemes, and check cashers.
- College degrees are held only by a minority of adults, mostly wealthier ones, and higher education remains expensive and especially hard if you must work or care for kids. Meanwhile, many Americans working at minimum wage have a degree.
- Children born into poor neighborhoods begin at an educational disadvantage, and poverty itself is so stressful it alters your cognitive abilities.
- Poor people often have low expectations and avoid risk to shield themselves from the pain of continual disappointment.
- Welfare is hard to get, benefits are low, and women do not make choices about when or whether to have children based on its availability.
- Unintended pregnancy rates are higher among poor women because birth control costs money; abortion is expensive, too. Despite simplistic rhetoric, marriage is not a sure-fire path out of poverty; besides, government renders many men unavailable for marriage with draconian, discriminatory criminal justice policies. Despite that, black fathers are no less involved in the lives of their children than others.
- Insecurity is the condition of modern American life, and 1 in 4 have no savings at all, putting many one crisis away from poverty.
- As a result, spells of poverty are common: over a three-year period, almost one-third of all Americans will be officially poor for at least two months; perhaps half will be poor at some point in their adult life.
- Our political system is utterly unresponsive to the needs of poor and low-income people; they cannot be counted on for campaign contributions, after all, don’t hire lobbyists, and are less likely to vote — not because they are apathetic, but because the U.S. makes voting complicated and time-consuming, and they don’t think it matters anyway.
- It doesn’t have to be this way: other countries do better for their citizens, and we used to, too.
In sum, Tirado is right and Ryan is wrong: The majority of all poverty in the U.S. is the result of forces beyond individual control. This is not ideology or bias but social science, and it is time we stopped humoring ignorance out of misplaced concern for “fairness” or “objectivity”. Just as we dismiss those who deny the evidence of global climate change, so should we mock those who insist that if people only tried harder they wouldn’t be poor. It’s a lie, and Hand to Mouth shows in painstaking human detail how it is a lie and why it is a lie.