Author: Linda Tirado
APA Style Citation
Tirado, L. (2014). Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America. New York, New York: Penguin Group.
Telling a similar story to that of Nickeled and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich, (a journalist) in which she goes “undercover” as a minimum wage worker to determine if one can actually live off of minimum wage, Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America addresses firsthand the challenges of minimum wage workers. Linda Tirado has been a minimum wage worker for many years and unlike Ehrenreich cannot go back to a different life after her data-gathering period has ended. Ehrenreich acknowledges the legitimacy of Tirado’s voice in the forward of Hand to Mouth. This book evolved from a post Tirado made in an online chat that was later featured on the front page of the Huffington Post. In Hand to Mouth, Tirado addresses many of the misconceptions and judgments made by outsiders regarding life for the working class poor in America. The issues she addresses include health care, education, family, and work ethic and she puts forth a compelling argument on all accounts. Regardless or whether one agrees with Tirado’s conclusions, recent reports show that half of American children are growing up in poverty and educators have a social responsibility to learn more about the homes and situations experienced by many of the students who arrive in their school each day. Tirado indicates that she is speaking for the 800,000 adults (over the age of 25) who work for minimum wage and the thousands of others who make just over minimum wage. Tirado herself grew up middle class, graduated from high school, and began college at the age 16. She was too young to be on her own and admits making a series of poor decisions including dropping out of college which eventually led her to her current circumstances. Her husband is an Iraqi veteran who was denied benefits (temporarily) because of a clerical error, who also works in the same types of positions at Tirado.
Tirado has worked as a server and bartender and addresses some of the challenges with these types of positions. Because these workers depend on tips, they are often paid less than minimum wage. If they are busy and assigned to a shift with much business, they can make enough money through tips to pay their bills. If, however they are assigned to a slow shift or receive poor tips, they are stuck at their job making less than $5.00 per hour. In some cases if business is very slow, they may be sent home with no warning. Even if they are working full time, this might vary from week to week depending on how busy the restaurant/bar is each week. Those who have been there the longest are assigned to the best shifts and have the opportunity to make the most money, and those who are new are assigned the slow shifts. Tirado explains that she has frequently tried to get a second job to make up for lost wages, but balancing two service jobs is often difficult. If her first job is busy, she may be asked to stay longer. Staying longer can help her make good money, but as a result she will need to call off her second job, putting her position with that employer in jeopardy. If she leaves her first job when they are busy she will be putting that job in jeopardy. In some cases, employers ask workers to sign an agreement that they will not take on a second job and make themselves available at all hours. Tirado quit one such position because the part time hours the job was offering was not enough to cover her bills.
The yearly income for a 40-hour per week minimum wage worker is $15,080 and the poverty level for a family of four in the United States hovers around $40,000 per year. Even with two full-time workers, a family of four would still fall roughly $10,000 sort of the poverty line. Tirado explains the difficulties of long-term planning when one is making close to minimum wage. If the car breaks down, employees must live near public transportation or quit their jobs because they do not have a dependable way to get to work each day. Tirado explains that sometimes she is able to save $50 a week if everything goes as planned, but a sick child, a broken down car or any other unexpected expense can quickly dry the well. While she wanted to return to school, the hours of her job and the expense of made college out of her reach.
Tirado has two children and is often judged for having children without having the means by which to bring them up “properly”. She counters that she knew she wanted to have a family and her socioeconomic status should not prohibit her from reaching that dream. She explains that the poor do not love their children any less than others, but because of their circumstances they must often be raised differently. She explains that her children do not care if their clothes are from a second hand store or that they have to share a room or eat generic foods, but they do care about feeling loved by their families. While child-care is a challenge, she explains that the working poor create networks of friends and neighbors who assist one another when necessary and may trade services with each another rather than cash. Tirado was working as a manger of a chain restaurant when she had her second daughter and received only eight days of unpaid maternity leave. As an hour-to-hour worker there are no benefits, days off, or vacation days. A sick day is an unpaid day and Tirado explains that many in the service industry are forced to go into work even if they are ill, handling food and beverages for others because staying home is simply not an option. Tirado also addresses the myth of the “welfare queen” who has children simply to collect the welfare check. She points to the tremendous amount of work it is to raise children and that the small amount of money provided by the government is hardly equal to the amount of time any parent must devote to raising children. Because the working poor are often concerned with getting through their daily lives, they do not have time to become involved in community programs, politics, or extra curricular activities.
Without any health care or only minimal coverage, preventative medicine is not an option. Tirado explains that she does not smile because she is missing several teeth and has a broken jaw as a result of an accident with a drunk driver without insurance. She does not have the money for the reconstruction, and although her condition is painful she sees no other option. She had no prenatal care prior to the birth of one of her children because of her minimal health care benefits. Minimum wage workers are often characterized as part-time workers making them ineligible for health benefits even if they cover others shifts and are asked to work extra hours which can exceed 40 hours of work in one week.
Tirado explains that because the amount of money she and her husband make, they must look for housing in neighborhoods that can be dangerous. She explains the problems of learning to walk in these neighborhoods, trying to fit in, and living in apartments that are not well maintained. In one instance, when her apartment flooded, the landlord placed dryers in the unit to dry the soiled carpet, but did no remove any of the mold that had developed as a result of the flood. Tirado refused to move her children back into the apartment and was sued for breaking the lease by the landlord. Tirado explains that often she must decide which bills are necessary to pay and which can wait a bit longer, the extra money that she might otherwise save in a “good month” then goes to pay off these debts. When her bills are not paid on time her credit score goes down making it even more difficult to find an apartment or home in a respectable neighborhood. Tirado was able to eventually buy an older home with the help of her parents, but explains that many members of the working poor do not find themselves in this fortunate situation.
Eating and Drinking
Tirado resents when wealthy people who have a glass of wine and a healthy dinner each night ridicule to poor for drinking or eating poorly. She admits that the poor eat an unhealthy diet, but it is because this is the most inexpensive way to eat. She explains that she needs to shop at discount stores where she can find off brand and “seconds” of food products. She addresses the recommendation of “buying in bulk” to save money, but indicates that the poor often cannot buy in large quantities because their grocery money is coming from last nights tips that may be only enough to buy food only for one or two days. She drinks beer and indicates that she enjoys doing this as a way to relax but that she does not drink to excess. She does however know those who do use alcohol or drugs as a way of escaping their harsh realities.
Tirado is speaking not just for herself, but for the many working poor about whom many assumptions are made but often little in known. She is abrasive at points and angry at her jobs and the way she is treated by others, but is unapologetic in her views. This book can lead to an interesting conversation regarding stereotypes and socioeconomic class.
Other Related Resources
Why I Make Terrible Decisions, or poverty Thoughts
The original online essay that led to the writing of Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America.
NPR On Point: Podcast with Linda Tirado
Link to Linda Tirado’s articles on the Huffington Post
Good Books Radio interview with Linda Tirado
National Poverty Center
In These Times: The Poor Don’t Need Pity
Psychological Figures and Concepts