A Perfect Topic for Saturday: Poverty in America

Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America

By Linda Tirado

We know we have poverty in the U.S.A., still the richest nation in the world. It’s been with us for a long time. And we might even solve it someday, if we all pitch in a little. Of course, that’s a big IF, since it will require personal effort and sacrifice, as well as the acceptance of the idea that the poor need and deserve our help, both on practical and moral grounds. However, we’re much better at tossing out a bit of help when somebody twangs our heartstrings or makes us feel guilty enough to part with our bucks. We’re certainly better at quantifying and mapping poverty in our country (see, for instance, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’s interactive map; you can drill down to the county level in every state).

Perhaps part of our problem is how we know our poorer citizens. Most of us know them via a whole set of notions nurtured over the years by media, family, and friends: welfare queens, bums, trailer park trash, hillbillies, beggars, and probably much worse.

Which leads to Linda Tirado’s book. In its own small way, it helps us understand how people really no different from ourselves, except for a set of unhappy circumstances, find themselves at the bottom of the economic barrel. Let’s face it: nobody chooses poverty, proven by the fact that many will do anything to leave it behind them. You should consider reading her book some Saturday. It won’t take long, some of what she says will make you laugh (hey, there’s humor in pretty much every aspect of human life), and you’ll learn something.

For many, Tirado delivers a powerful message from the increasing ranks of the American poor. Our humanity demands we as a society find better ways of lifting up everybody and treating all with common decency and respect. For many others she just sounds like a whining crybaby for a bunch of people who should suck it up and bootstrap themselves into a mansion in Malibu if they are so unhappy with their lives the U.S.A.

We certainly hope the latter are a small minority and that most people will agree we have a problem here, and the capacity and humanity to fix it. But to do so, we have to understand the issue at the most visceral level. Some got to experience much of what Tirado discusses when the financial world imploded in 2008. For the rest, there’s Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America. Here’s not only what it is like to be poor in a land of riches, but why people are poor, why they remain poor, and how we all contribute to limiting their advancement.

Sure, Tirado’s tone is at times bitter and angry. But once you read what she’s endured, wouldn’t you be too?

Tirado answers pretty much all of your questions about the poor in America, things about which you have probably wondered. You know, like why do they insist on having so many babies, and buying junk food with food stamps, and, oh yeah, rubbishing our streets with their belching rolling junkyards on wheels. Those kinds of questions.

And she lays into the rich (defined only vaguely, but pretty much anybody who can afford to have a car repaired without blinking an eye) and many of our institutions, among them banks, the medical profession, government services, landlords, and idiotic bosses.

You’ll find it an eyeopener. Be forewarned, plenty of off-color language, you know, the kind you hear more and more on the streets today.

Should you read this book? You should if you find this question bizarre, a question common in Tirado’s world, and probably common in the world of the fast-food worker who hands you your order through the takeout window:

“How badly do I have to pee right now, and do I need permission?”

Oh, and how about realizing all you self-made people that everybody and every company in the U.S.A. is on the government dole. Not to get your blood boiling even before you pick up her book, she does a compelling job of making this point stick. c/w

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