Linda Tirado struck a responsive chord in November 2013 with her Huffington Post blog post about being poor, “Why I Make Bad Decisions — Some Thoughts about Poverty.” It went viral and within two weeks she had received 20,000 emails, the majority supportive, but some questioning her authenticity as a “poor person,” a belief reinforced by conservative commentators who (erroneously) claimed she’d gone to the same prep school as Mitt Romney, had been a political operative and wasn’t really poor.
Some of the conservative backlash was based on bias about poor people: That poor people are a different breed from the rest of us, mired in their own dysfunctional culture, and that someone who is articulate, educated and has some fashion sense could not possibly be poor. They also didn’t understand that for most people poverty isn’t a steady state: Things get better, things get worse. Sometimes people get a lucky break.
That’s exactly what happened with Tirado. Her blog post led to contacts that brought her a journalism job in Washington, D.C., and suddenly she was no longer working in the fast food industry for minimum wage. On the way, though, she had to prove her credentials as a bona fide poor person by taking out her dentures on a YouTube video to show she really had bad teeth.
“Hand to Mouth,” Tirado’s recent book, moves from the simplicity of the original blog post into the complications of being poor. Tirado takes on criticism of poor people with an in-your-face attitude: Basically, “you don’t know anything about my life, so shut up and listen.” She explains that poverty is expensive — you can’t afford to buy bulk because you don’t have extra money lying around; you can lose your car and then your job (say, if your car is towed, you can’t afford to get it back and you need it for work); you can lose your home (if, say, you’re too sick to work for a few weeks); you can lose your benefits through bureaucratic snafus.
Tirado addresses how judgmental rich and middle class people can be about poor people, particularly in terms of sex. As she points out, sex is one of the few activities that costs nothing and leaves people, at least for a while, happy.
She asks how many rich women go around with the proverbial aspirin between their knees. She points out that it doesn’t make sense to restrict poor people’s access to birth control and then condemn them for having babies. She argues that poor women have children to collect more welfare about as often as rich women have children to get more tax deductions.
The book is addressed to middle class and rich people and is an argument for those classes to treat poor people with respect. So, when I emailed her a list of questions, I included one about what she’d put in a book directed to poor people. As she points out in her response, when poor people demand change en masse, change will happen.
When did it first occur to you that poor people were treated with less respect than the rest of society?
I’m not actually sure. I sort of always knew, but it wasn’t until a woman threw a cheeseburger at me and called me names that you can’t print, in front of a lobby full of customers, that I really got it. The thing that struck me was that nobody would look at me. Dozens of people watched a pregnant woman suffer assault by cheeseburger, and nobody said a word. That was when I realized that I didn’t count as fully human somehow because of the uniform I had to wear at work.
Better wages aside, what would be the biggest changes that employers you’ve had could make to keep their workers happy?
It would be lovely if employers understood that we are humans. Things like knowing your schedule in advance, being offered insurance that actually counts. I’ve always hated that people would say they had insurance, but the premiums equal your paycheck and the deductible equals your yearly income. We can do math. I’d love to see an end to employee “morale builders” like pins and mandatory group cheers. Just pay me my wage and don’t make me tell you that I love you.
Should employers and landlords be restricted in how they use credit checks to decide whether to hire someone or take them on as a tenant?
I understand why you’d need a credit check to work at a bank. I don’t understand why you’d need one to work as a mechanic. Your outstanding medical bills have nothing to do with your character, and I think it’s a sin and a shame that you can actually tell people that they’re too poor to get a job. And then turn around and tell them to get a job, just to add to the insult.
You mention that not everything about your life has been misery. What are some of the good times you have had?
There are few things in this world better than everyone coming over on a weekend to drink cheap beer and hang out listening to the radio. You get creative about your entertainment without disposable income. Once my friends and I got out all our old nail polish and redecorated someone’s car. It took us weeks, and it was a blast. And you know? You couldn’t do that with a shiny new car; that’s for the $400 beater car that’s only going to run for another year anyway.
Do you think education makes a difference when you’re poor? How?
It’s been interesting to me that so many people are shocked that I know things like philosophy or economic theory. I think access to education helps. I think libraries and the Internet are amazing. And I think it’s ridiculous that the richest country in the world hasn’t figured out universal broadband access.
It’s clear that a degree gets you more earning power over the course of your life. That doesn’t mean everyone should get a degree. It means that we’re requiring degrees for too many jobs. You don’t need a bachelor’s to be a decent worker. And it’s silly to expect people who have trouble paying rent to take out tens of thousands in loans. Not to mention, a degree is no guarantee of work these days.
You talk about how poor people trust neither Democrats nor Republicans to help them economically, and therefore poor people tend to vote based on their beliefs about social issues. What are the economic issues that poor people care about the most, and what kind of proposals should the political parties make to address those?
People care about fairness. This is supposed to be a country where if you work hard you can manage your expenses. I’d like to see the parties creating tax incentives for companies to create decent jobs instead of any jobs at all. I’d like to see workplace safety laws enforced instead of ignored.
People die every year because someone didn’t want to pay for some reasonable safety precaution — look at the Massey mines [Massey Energy operated the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia, where, in 2010, 29 miners were killed in a mine blast; an independent investigation by the state held Masey responsible for the accident] or Amazon workers needing an ambulance staged outside the warehouse because Amazon wouldn’t air-condition the building and people got heatstroke. Those things should be illegal if they aren’t and enforced if they are.
Work isn’t a question of only money: I’d take a really good but low-paid job over a crappy but slightly higher-paid gig.
Your book is directed to middle class and rich people. If you wrote a book directed to poor people, what would you say? What can poor people do about the situations they’re in, other than persuading middle class and rich people to treat them better?
When I speak to the working classes I generally say one thing: Stop blaming yourself. Sure, you made a bad call or two.
But when half the country is financially unstable, when half our children qualify for free lunch, the problem isn’t with any one person’s mistakes. It’s with a system that guarantees that a mistake means disaster.
We don’t need to ask the upper classes for anything. Asking for the respect due us is beneath our dignity. We hold these truths as self-evident, that all men are created equal.
Just because someone’s decided that a big bank account makes them a better person doesn’t make it true.
I don’t know exactly what’s to be done, but I do know that when people demand to be taken seriously, en masse, it generally happens. Band together and bargain with your employers.
Call the health department on slumlords. Report exploitation. Refuse to stay silent.
How has your life changed since you became a social media celebrity?
For one, I use Twitter. I never did before really. And I am blessed to be able to talk to people all over the world about this stuff, to try to find solutions.
Also —and here’s the best bit as far as I’m concerned — I can work in my pajamas if I want to.