Review: Hand to Mouth, by Linda Tirado

Russ Allbery eagle at
Sun Oct 11 20:31:34 PDT 2020

Hand to Mouth
by Linda Tirado

Publisher: G.P. Putnam's Sons
Copyright: October 2014
ISBN:      0-698-17528-X
Format:    Kindle
Pages:     194

The first time Linda Tirado came to the viral attention of the Internet
was in 2013 when she responded to a forum question: "Why do poor people
do things that seem so self-destructive?" Here are some excerpts from
her virally popular five-page response, which is included in the first

  I know how to cook. I had to take Home Ec. to graduate high school.
  Most people on my level didn't. Broccoli is intimidating. You have
  to have a working stove, and pots, and spices, and you'll have to do
  the dishes no matter how tired you are or they'll attract bugs. It
  is a huge new skill for a lot of people. That's not great, but it's
  true. And if you fuck it up, you could make your family sick. We
  have learned not to try too hard to be middle class. It never works
  out well and always makes you feel worse for having tried and failed
  yet again. Better not to try. It makes more sense to get food that
  you know will be palatable and cheap and that keeps well. Junk food
  is a pleasure that we are allowed to have; why would we give that
  up? We have very few of them.


  I smoke. It's expensive. It's also the best option. You see, I am
  always, always exhausted. It's a stimulant. When I am too tired to
  walk one more step, I can smoke and go for another hour. When I am
  enraged and beaten down and incapable of accomplishing one more
  thing, I can smoke and I feel a little better, just for a minute. It
  is the only relaxation I am allowed. It is not a good decision, but
  it is the only one that I have access to. It is the only thing I
  have found that keeps me from collapsing or exploding.

This book is an expansion on that essay. It's an entry in a growing
genre of examinations of what it means to be poor in the United States
in the 21st century. Unlike most of those examinations, it isn't
written by an outsider performing essentially anthropological field
work. It's one of the rare books written by someone who is herself poor
and had the combination of skill and viral fame required to get an
opportunity to talk about it in her own words.

  I haven't had it worse than anyone else, and actually, that's kind
  of the point. This is just what life is for roughly a third of the
  country. We all handle it in our own ways, but we all work in the
  same jobs, live in the same places, feel the same sense of never
  quite catching up. We're not any happier about the exploding welfare
  rolls than anyone else is, believe me. It's not like everyone grows
  up and dreams of working two essentially meaningless part-time jobs
  while collecting food stamps. It's just that there aren't many other
  options for a lot of people.

I didn't find this book back in 2014 when it was published. I found it
in 2020 during Tirado's second round of Internet fame: when the police
shot out her eye with "non-lethal" rounds while she was covering the
George Floyd protests as a photojournalist. In characteristic fashion,
she subsequently reached out to the other people who had been blinded
by the police, used her temporary fame to organize crowdfunded support
for others, and is planning on having "try again" tattooed over the

That will give you a feel for the style of this book. Tirado is blunt,
opinionated, honest, and full speed ahead. It feels weird to call this
book delightful since it's fundamentally about the degree to which the
United States is failing a huge group of its citizens and making their
lives miserable, but there is something so refreshing and clear-headed
about Tirado's willingness to tell you the straight truth about her
life. It's empathy delivered with the subtlety of a brick, but also
with about as much self-pity as a brick. Tirado is not interested in
making you feel sorry for her; she's interested in you paying

  I don't get much of my own time, and I am vicious about protecting
  it. For the most part, I am paid to pretend that I am inhuman, paid
  to cater to both the reasonable and unreasonable demands of the
  general public. So when I'm off work, feel free to go fuck yourself.
  The times that I am off work, awake, and not taking care of life's
  details are few and far between. It's the only time I have any
  autonomy. I do not choose to waste that precious time worrying about
  how you feel. Worrying about you is something they pay me for; I
  don't work for free.

If you've read other books on this topic (Emily Guendelsberger's On the
Clock is still the best of those I've read), you probably won't get
many new facts from Hand to Mouth. I think this book is less important
for the policy specifics than it is for who is writing it (someone who
is living that life and can be honest about it) and the depth of
emotional specifics that Tirado brings to the description. If you have
never been poor, you will learn the details of what life is like, but
more significantly you'll get a feel for how Tirado feels about it, and
while this is one individual perspective (as Tirado stresses, including
the fact that, as a white person, there are other aspects of poverty
she's not experienced), I think that perspective is incredibly

That said, Hand to Mouth provides even more reinforcement of the
importance of universal medical care, the absurdity of not including
dental care in even some of the more progressive policy proposals, and
the difficulties in the way of universal medical care even if we solve
the basic coverage problem. Tirado has significant dental problems due
to unrepaired damage from a car accident, and her account reinforces my
belief that we woefully underestimate how important good dental care is
to quality of life. But providing universal insurance or access is only
the start of the problem.

  There is a price point for good health in America, and I have rarely
  been able to meet it. I choose not to pursue treatment if it will
  cost me more than it will gain me, and my cost-benefit is done in
  more than dollars. I have to think of whether I can afford any
  potential treatment emotionally, financially, and timewise. I have
  to sort out whether I can afford to change my life enough to make
  any treatment worth it — I've been told by more than one therapist
  that I'd be fine if I simply reduced the amount of stress in my
  life. It's true, albeit unhelpful. Doctors are fans of telling you
  to sleep and eat properly, as though that were a thing one can
  simply do.

That excerpt also illustrates one of the best qualities of this book.
So much writing about "the poor" treats them as an abstract problem
that the implicitly not-poor audience needs to solve, and this leads
rather directly to the endless moralizing as "we" attempt to solve that
problem by telling poor people what they need to do. Tirado is
unremitting in fighting for her own agency. She has a shitty set of
options, but within those options she makes her own decisions. She
wants better options and more space in which to choose them, which I
think is a much more productive way to frame the moral argument than
the endless hand-wringing over how to help "those poor people."

This is so much of why I support universal basic income. Just give
people money. It's not all of the solution — UBI doesn't solve the
problem of universal medical care, and we desperately need to find a
way to make work less awful — but it's the most effective thing we can
do immediately. Poor people are, if anything, much better at making
consequential financial decisions than rich people because they have so
much more practice. Bad decisions are less often due to bad
decision-making than bad options and the balancing of objectives that
those of us who are not poor don't understand.

Hand to Mouth is short, clear, refreshing, bracing, and, as you might
have noticed, very quotable. I think there are other books in this
genre that offer more breadth or policy insight, but none that have the
same feel of someone cutting through the bullshit of lazy beliefs and
laying down some truth. If any of the above excerpts sound like the
sort of book you would enjoy reading, pick this one up.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2020-10-11


Russ Allbery (eagle at             <>

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