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Book Review of Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America

August 1, 2016 Eden C. Tullis

Work, civics, attitude, health, coping, sex, parenting, and practicalities. These are the eight areas of life that Linda Tirado addresses to try and break down what we mean when we say “You gotta pull yourself up by your bootstraps!” to one another. I’ve never found that statement to be helpful, and while I struggled with Tirado’s anger that she so bluntly displays throughout the book, I couldn’t help but realize that my struggle with her anger was exactly the point. To project the biases and assumptions we personally have about poor people and how we think poor people should cope with their situation is to forget that our assumptions and the systems of our institutions are part of the problem.

Tirado was and is a great writer but she didn’t go looking for this particular book deal. She was approached by Penguin Books in 2013 after she posted a long response to a question on a Gawker forum: why do poor people do things that seem so self-destructive? Woah. That question could be its own blog post or a webinar, couldn’t it? And yet I’m choosing to focus in on Tirado’s response and book because her storytelling goes far in creating a powerfully sound statement despite its non-professional style. If you take offense to derogatory language, this may not be the book for you, but I urge KC members to at least look into the book’s key points. I was personally not offended by the language and found it to be a frank and honest portrayal of Tirado’s personality coupled with how poverty has taken its toll on her approach to life’s realities.

Now wouldn’t it be great if all the poverty issues could be solved by book deals? Her mobile elevation because of this book is just as important as why a person of low SES is doing the storytelling. And yet, there are still millions of others living in poverty. A book deal doesn’t solve it all, but I do think it is a good place to start. Tirado uses this platform to write about providing for her family (despite America believing that poor people shouldn’t have kids), not being able to properly deal with health issues (despite the fiscal burden), and what may be the most basic yet worrisome: having to ask permission to go to the bathroom at the average minimum wage job (despite working just as hard, if not harder, at not one but two or three jobs at a time). All these give weight to one engrained ideal in our culture: to be poor is less than, and if you can’t provide for yourself and haven’t been able to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” then you have no right to smoke or purchase healthy food options, let alone provide for another human being.

This book may be about the experiences of a poor person, but it taught me more about myself and my biases of the poor. For example, when I see a homeless person on the street with a cigarette in their mouth, I get annoyed that they used whatever currency they had obtained to purchase an unnecessary product. As a smoker, Tirado would argue that smoking is her vice. I now understand that to judge a poor person for how they cope with their stress is just wrong. We all cope with stress using certain vices, and to judge a poor person for anything they might do is more a reflection of what we inherently think is right.

In critique of the book, I will say that Tirado doesn’t dive deep enough into analyzing her own identities, the same identities that may have gotten her the book deal. She’s eloquent and seems to have a good deal of education but just briefly owns up to her white privilege. I finished the book, and attended my campuses book club, and one of the topics that kept coming up was intersections. What about the intersections, Tirado? I wanted to hear her perspective on issues like gentrification and how SES impacts not just while folks but Black Americans, Latinx Americans, and immigrants, too. On that same note, she doesn’t even address the issue of education. “What are Tirado’s thoughts on how education can mobilize people but still keep them buried in debt?” I found myself asking. Whether it was cut in the editing process or Tirado hasn’t given it much thought, this is particularly important to our KC. It’s not fair that gaining access to college isn’t even an option for some folks, but that doesn’t mean we don’t talk about the people not attending. In fact, all the more reason to talk about the people not at the table! It’s probably those same people who aren’t gaining access to college that are being told over and over again that the simple fix is to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” when, in fact, that saying is outdated and problematic. SES is a complex and layered system and if I learned anything from Tirado’s message, it’s to not be fooled by the simplistic and individualistic saying we use as a Band-Aid to silence America’s poverty-stricken population.