Book Review: Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America
From time-to-time, as we receive career-related and job-hunting books from publishers, the staff of Quintessential Careers will review them to help you make better decisions about the best books to use in your career and job search.
Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America, by Linda Tirado, $25.95. Hardcover. (Also available on Kindle, audio.) 224 pages, Putnam Adult; ISBN: 0399171983
Reviewed by Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D.
Reading this book will open your eyes, mind, heart.
“Our bodies hurt, our brains hurt, and our souls hurt. There’s rarely anything to smile about… This is just what life is for roughly a third of the country.”
Hand to Mouth is book about the working poor that will shock you while also helping you understand a little better the day-to-day lives of the millions of fellow Americans who are barely making it each day, week, month, year — barely making it paycheck to paycheck. You’ll learn how their work — and their lives — are devalued by their employers, as well as by customers.
Full disclosure: I have always been an advocate for the worker, the job-seeker, the person who is trying to earn a decent wage. Add to that career vocation a progressive political mindset, and you get someone on a mission to inform, empower, and improve the lives of others.
We have an embarrassing situation in our country, made worse by politicians and media outlets with an agenda to either embarrass the poor, lecture us on how the government spends way too much money on assistance for the poor, or convince us that in this country (cue flag waving) everyone has an opportunity to become self-made, that we are all upwardly mobile, and that those who choose to work minimum-wage jobs are simply unambitious.
If you believe any of the notions in the previous paragraph, this book will be a major eye-opener for you.
Linda Tirado does not claim to be an expert nor to speak for all of the working poor, but she has lived most of her adult life struggling with working multiple dead-end jobs, living in horrible apartments, and finding ways to make minimum wage (or below when working server jobs) stretch to pay the bills and keep food on the table.
But wait, if she has written a book, isn’t she the perfect example of that boot-strapping mentality? Surely the income from book royalties and her new-found fame proves that all working poor can do something to improve their conditions. The reality is that first, book royalties these days — except for best-sellers — are not all that lucrative. Second, she did not set about writing a book; she wrote a blog post about surviving as working poor and by chance, the post went viral.
Hand to Mouth, in a sense, is part autobiography, part economic lesson, and part a call to action. Her writing is at times harsh, funny, real, and in-your-face. She writes from a place of truth — and her goal is not one of heavy-handed political agenda nor scolding, but a telling of how it really is — with suggestions for how those of us fortunate enough not to be poor can make life a little better for those who are.
How do a third of the citizens of this country end up classified as working poor? Tirado states: “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.”
She adds: “I am not, for all my frustration, opposed to capitalism. Most Americans, poor ones included, aren’t. We like the idea that anyone can succeed. What I am opposed to is the sort of capitalism that sucks the life out of a whole bunch of the citizenry and then demands that they do better with whatever they have left. If we could just agree that poor people are doing the necessary grunt work and that there is dignity in that too, we’d be able to make it less onerous.”
Tirado also allows us a look into the psyche of the working poor: “Responsible poverty is an endless cycle of no. No, you can’t have that. You can’t do that, can’t eat that, can’t choose that. This is off-limits, and that is not for you, and this over here is meant for different kinds of people. More than once I’ve spent money I couldn’t afford simply to state that I could, if only to myself. Just to say it.”
As you might expect in a book of this sort, Tirado takes on big issues such as the minimum wage, government-assistance programs, and the use of credit reports in hiring. She uses her sharp writing to cut to the chase on these issues, shredding some of the tired political baggage associated with them.
My favorite chapter, though, is the one titled, “An Open Letter to Rich People.” This chapter alone makes the entire book worthwhile. It’s a compilation of her observations of the wealthy — along with great tips and advice. Her section on observations of corporate meetings would make Dilbert proud.
Final Thoughts on Hand to Mouth
I would love to see this book become required reading in college economics and political classes, as well as book clubs and other venues in which people want to be educated and debate the issues — not hide behind the politically motivated lies.
Many of us do live the American Dream — either by being born into it or gaining access to the education and resources needed to achieve it… but that does not mean we lose the obligation to treat people fairly, to honor all types of work, and to look for ways to help others achieve the dream we live.
Read this book. Open your mind. Share the book with a friend. Continue the discussion. Vote your conscious. Live your life, but make a difference.
As Tirado says at the end of Hand to Mouth: “I don’t claim to be an expert… what I do know is that we can and have to do better than this… it’s not pleasant to be poor. It’s not a free ride, a gentle swing in the hammock. It’s what’s left when you’ve lost everything, when you’re fighting to survive as opposed to fighting to get ahead.”
One final note: Tirado makes it clear from the beginning that this book is not for the faint of heart; she uses four-letter words throughout and has an entire chapter on sex. Rate this book A for adults only.
Check out all our book reviews in Quintessential Reading: Career and Job Book Reviews.