Review: Hand to Mouth by Linda Tirado

It’s easy to judge people less well off than yourself, to comment on why they might be on benefits, or to wonder why they spend money on cigarettes when they can barely feed themselves.

Our television screens are full of programmes about people living on the breadline, but many of them (the programmes) present a one-sided, often snide view. Linda Tirado’s Hand to Mouth: The Truth About Being Poor in a Wealthy World is the counterpoint to all those reality shows, offering intelligent, well-thought out and firm arguments about why poor people are poor, and how society is hard-wired to make it difficult for people to lift themselves out of poverty.

Tirado’s book came about after she replied to a question on a forum asking why poor people did things that seemed so self-destructive. Her response, which is used in the introductory chapter of the book, took on a life of its own, as people responded (well and badly).

In Hand to Mouth Tirado expands on her arguments. She uses examples from her own life to illustrate how poor people are maligned every day of their lives, and how behaviour which passes without comment or judgement when wealthy people do it is seen as terrible when a poor person partakes.

Work takes centre stage, with plenty of commentary about Tirado’s past jobs and the difficulties, and horrors, she suffered – from being propositioned by bosses and customers, to the nightmare that is trying to balance two (or four) jobs, none of which pay well and none of which have bosses who will accommodate the other. From the off, Tirado quashes the stereotype of poor people not wanting to work or being hard workers – it’s clear that she is not the exception when it comes to people in poverty and their struggles with work.

One of the most interesting chapters in the book was that about healthcare, even though, as Brits, we are lucky enough to have the NHS at our disposal and so don’t have the same difficulties accessing healthcare as Americans. Not only does Tirado talk about the expense of healthcare, but she also takes it one step further and shows how a lack of healthcare leads to things like not being able to get good jobs, which spirals into not having enough money and so on. It’s a connection I, naively, never really thought about.

The best thing about Tirado’s book is the humour shown throughout, and the wonderful voice. Tirado is not afraid to use the odd (sometimes more) swear word, or tell it like it is, and that’s refreshing. My favourite part of the book was towards the end, when Tirado writes a letter to rich people, which is so on the mark it’s funny (I had a job where I sat through meetings like the ones she describes and she’s spot on).

Tirado’s book doesn’t have all the answers, in fact, it’s not really a book about answers. It’s a book about questions and about highlighting problems, and about trying to make people understand. We all saw (and perhaps took part in) the Occupy demonstrations, we’ve signed petitions against the cutting of legal aid or against the bedroom tax, but it’s only by reading a considered book like Tirado’s that I’ve come to have the slightest understanding of what problems are faced by such a large number of people every day. Hand to Mouth is required reading for everyone.

How I got this book: From the publisher, Virago. This did not affect my review.

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