Honestly, I can hardly believe that Linda Tirado’s Hand to Mouth exists. I’d probably still doubt it, were my copy of this angry, whip-smart woman’s firsthand account of what it looks and smells and tastes and feels like to be living in poverty not so dog-eared and furiously underlined. One of our great shames as a culture is that we so rarely think to pass the mic to people on the margins. So Tirado, a mother of two with two minimum-wage jobs and a full college course load, snatched it back herself in 2013, writing a blisteringly frank and unapologetic blog post that attempted to answer the sneering question: Why do poor people do things that seem so self-destructive? Her cri de coeur, ”Why I Make Terrible Decisions, or, Poverty Thoughts,” went viral. Out of nowhere Tirado had an audience. So hell yeah, she wrote a book.
Tirado, whose writing is crisp, persuasive, and often profane, sets up her terms early. ”Poverty is when a quarter is a f—ing miracle. Poor is when a dollar is a miracle. Broke is when five bucks is a miracle. Working class is being broke, but doing so in a place that might not be run-down….” And so on. (Dear reader who can afford to buy books in hardcover: Count your almost stupid blessings.) Tirado splits her chapters into the biggest sources of public frustration with people like herself. Her takedowns of the insidious middle-class notions that poor people have brought their crummy lives upon themselves by having a bad work ethic, say, or indulging in vices like indiscriminate sex and cigarettes, are brilliant and to the point. But the book’s triumph is Tirado’s methodical rejection of the idea that poor people in this country are in control of their destinies — what with always being one broken-down car or medical emergency away from ruin — so therefore they should be the ones held solely accountable for their plights. ”We can do better than this. We choose not to.”
Tirado can be repetitive. Her arguments can drift. But you won’t soon forget her voice, or her message. When she wrote the last page of this book, I hope she dropped the mic. B+