The Poor Don’t Need Pity

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Joanna Scutts reviews Linda Tirado book, Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America, in In These Times (Photo by Lisa F. Young via Shutterstock):

This is scary to admit. In a country with vast resources but a social safety net that’s been shredded to ribbons, “the layer between lower-middle class and poor is horrifyingly porous from above,” Tirado writes. “A lot of us live in that spongy divide.” Our finely tuned class distinctions are a way of trying to order that “spongy divide” and predict who will fall—not us! Tirado’s distinctions, on the other hand, are rooted in experience: “Poverty is when a quarter is a fucking miracle. Poor is when a dollar is a miracle. Broke is when five bucks is a miracle.” Working class, you have a place to live; middle class, that place is secure, even “nice,” and you can buy furniture and toys; and “rich is anything above that.” This is not about the 99% and the 1%, terms Tirado doesn’t use. When she addresses “rich people,” she means the people who can afford to buy this book and have the leisure to read it—not Koch-level plutocrats. People whose lives are relatively stable, who might have a decent credit score, health insurance, a bank account, retirement savings, the basic requirements of civic life that we have redefined as luxuries for the luckiest.

This important redefining of “rich” means that when Tirado addresses a final chapter to “Rich People,” the reader has to line up with the straw men: right-wing hypocrites who think the poor are lazy, or smug urbanites who believe that a lack of organic kale equals child abuse. I’m not a rich person, you want to protest—I don’t think it’s superior to get drunk on claret in a restaurant rather than on moonshine at the side of the road. But Tirado keeps tapping your knee and she’ll find a place that makes you jerk, where you find yourself thinking, I wouldn’t do that. You should make a different choice. Her refusal to flatter the reader gives the book its urgency and its force. It’s not a sob story (though it could make you weep with frustration); it’s a confrontation with the way that poor people are seen and judged day after day—by good liberals as well as evil Republicans, by the 99% as well as the 0.01%.

Tirado’s stories, her calculations, and her statistics are not new. When you reach a chapter called “You Can’t Pay a Doctor in Chickens Anymore,” you take a deep breath, because you know what’s coming. It’s still shocking, though, that an expectant first-time mother on Medicaid can’t find a clinic to give her care and has to rely on books, friends and Google until she shows up at the ER to give birth. Dental care, mental health care, vision care, preventative care—it all costs money, and its lack is written on the bodies of the poor. We might imagine that people who clean toilets or fry fast food are exhausted and demoralized; we might not appreciate that they probably have to ask their boss for permission to pee, since American workers aren’t guaranteed bathroom breaks. We might not always register that the service worker speaking in perky inanities is reading from a script and can be fired if she misses a word. We might not do the math to calculate that the earnings from a 40-hour-a-week job on minimum wage, after half go to housing, equal $7,540. Per year. Even a more generous calculation—10 bucks an hour, one-third on rent—gives you 10 unallocated dollars a day, so “the world is your oyster.” In case the tone’s too subtle here, Tirado clarifies: “The math doesn’t fucking work.”

More here.

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