Author Linda Tirado was recently in New Zealand. Her book, Hand To Mouth, has been described as the book that explained poverty to America. Maybe its got something to say to New Zealanders as well.

Hand To Mouth : The Truth About Being Poor in a Wealthy World
Linda Tirado (Virago)
The New Statesman's Laurie Penny alerted to me to this book some time ago. I made a note, and promptly didn't do anything about it. 

However I was reminded of my negligence a couple of weeks or so ago when the author of Hand To Mouth, Linda Tirado, was interviewed on Wallace Chapman's Sunday morning show on RNZ National. So here's a review.

The book that this draws comparisons to is Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed, which I reviewed a few years ago. Ehrenreich, a seasoned journalist of socialist persuasion, spent a year doing crap, minimum wage jobs and then wrote abut her experiences in Nickel and Dimed. It's a damning and angry indictment of the shite that working class people are expected to endure under capitalism.

Ehrenreich has written the foreword to Hand To Mouth. She makes the observation that while she could opt out of the misery of low wage retail and service jobs once she had the material she needed, Linda Tirado is 'the real thing'.

Ehrenreich spent the next decade talking about her book at union conferences and church meetings, but mostly on college campuses. She says that time and time again, her audiences had just one question: "What's wrong with these people? Meaning the workers not their bosses... .Why do 'these people' have children, lack savings, fail to go to college, eat junk food, smoke cigarettes, or whatever else is imagined to be holding them back?'

You strike the same attitudes here. When confronted by women with their children living in cars or a cheap motel at $190 a night (courtesy of a 'loan' from Work and Income) the response from some was to criticise and condemn the women concerned for having too many children, The obvious implication is that poverty is a product of a irresponsible lifestyle or a character defect - or both.

They should read Linda Tirado's book but, unfortunately won't. Hand To Mouth, which had its genesis in a blog post titled 'Why I make Terrible Decisions, Or Poverty Thoughts' is an angry, but also darkly humorous account, of what its like to be poor in the land of free enterprise.

This book is a description of how the poor  live their lives, unfiltered by the opinions of well off media commentators and academics, opining on how best we can manage poverty under an economic system that created the poverty in the first place.

Tirado's response to people who like to moralise about the poor?

"The logic is that if you've got excess money and throw it away on booze and cigarettes, then that's your business. But if you're poor, then that's a sin and a shame...Once you take a penny from the government, a morality clause goes into effect, where you're never allowed to have anything you might actually enjoy. It's the hairshirt of welfare.'

And while the denizens of talkback radio berate the poor for how much they are costing the government, Tirado makes the point that the rich get far more in the way of assistance than the poor - capital gains, tax concessions and other forms of assistance that talkback radio doesn't feel inclined to talk about. She writes:

"You know how I could justify relaxing sometimes when I was on benefits? The same way you justify blowing a reckless amount of money on a really nice dinner while you take a business deduction because you talked abut work for ten minutes."

 Hand To Mouth isn't a call for revolution but Tirado, from what I've read, is rooting for Bernie Sanders right now. But she says in her book that she accepts why many poor people 'couldn't give a shit about any of it."

"That person hasn't been given a whole lot of proof that her vote will matter anyway; voting hasn't resulted in policy shifts toward a more equitable distribution of government services...Poor people have got the message loud and clear: The powers that be are not concerned about us."

John Steinbeck said that there are no poor people in America, only “temporarily embarrassed millionaires” and if that's the case there are a lot of temporarily embarrassed millionaires in the United States right now.

Some fifty years ago President Lyndon Johnson ''declared an unconditional war on poverty in America" but, today, more people are living in poverty than ever - 46.5 million people, or around 15 percent of the population, lived at or below the poverty line in 2014 , according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Linda Tirado's story isn't unique or exceptional because millions of other Americans are living similar kind of lives to the one she describes in her book. Poverty is not character defect but the defect of a fundamentally flawed economic system. Marx described it as the general law of capitalist accumulaton: "Accumulation of wealth at one pole is, therefore, at the same time accumulation of misery, agony of toil, slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation, at the opposite pole..."

It's time to consign this economic system to the dustbin of history where it belongs and end the unacceptable situation where more and more people are being forced to live hand to mouth.


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