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"Poverty is fucking expensive"

America's working poor need more help than government is giving them, says Linda Tirado
America's working poor need more help than government is giving them, says Linda Tirado

A year ago, Linda Tirado was working as a cook in an IHOP. And in a couple of weeks, her first book will be released, complete with a foreword from Barbara Ehrenreich and a blurb from Matt Taibbi.

Tirado grew up middle-class, but a series of events including a car crash and a flood sent her into a life of fast food jobs, living in motel rooms, and dealing with major dental problems. She wrote about her experience in a Gawker comment thread, and that rant became a viral essay called "Poverty Thoughts." She also became controversial when people questioned her credibility, based on her middle-class upbringing, combined with her revelation that her essay in part was based on "observations" and not entirely her own experience of living in low-income America.

Tirado has spun her essay out into a full-length book, "Hand to Mouth," which will be released next week. Tirado spoke to Vox about her past struggles to make ends meet and the challenges of dealing with viral fame.

DK: You have a chapter in your book titled "Poverty is Fucking Expensive." Explain what you mean by that.

LT: You're assuming that when you're wealthy you can go buy things when they're in bulk. Because it's the question of startup capital, really: if you can spend your money up front in the right places wisely, then you'll save money in the long term. But if you're constantly struggling just to kind of patch it up and make ends meet, you're taking whatever the most convenient option is, which is inherently going to be more expensive.

A wealthy person can just afford to take [a broken car] to a decent mechanic and make a good repair. A poor person is going to jury-rig that thing with literal baling wire and duct tape, and it's going to do more harm to the car in the long term.

DK: You've come a long way since then, and your book is already getting a good amount of buzz. Do you fear forgetting where you came from, so to speak?

They gave me a book deal, and I wrote a book, and now I'm a published author. It looks very different from here than working at Burger King.

With that said, I don't think you can unlearn some of these lessons. nor do I think you can take the class off that much.

I don't think we have to worry about me deciding that bon-bons are the coolest thing in the world and I'm just going to sit on my happy ass and eat those. Because I literally have been really uncomfortable for the last few months because I don't have a wage-earning job. And I don't know what that means that I do for a living.

DK: So what do you think of things like Paul Ryan's proposal to fight poverty — the one with Opportunity Grants and life plans?

LT: I think that Paul Ryan is studying extreme generational poverty, where people might need things like that. And [his ideas] might actually be helpful. I know people that that would be a helpful thing for. Is that the majority of the people that I know that are on assistance? Absolutely not.

I mean, most of us have jobs. We already have jobs. The trouble is that the jobs don't pay enough to pay our bills. That's why we qualify for food stamps. The majority of people on food stamps work. The majority of people on welfare have jobs, so having us write a life plan about how we're going to get a job is counterproductive and a waste of my time.

DK: You write that it would be great to get poor Americans more engaged in politics. How do we as a nation do that — or is even asking that question missing the point?

LT: I think that's utopia — full participation. And that would be great, because if we had full part we'd have policies that reflect the actual nation, et cetera, et cetera.

Everybody knows the argument. The trouble is you can do as many [get out the vote] programs as you want to, but until [low-income Americans] start feeling like they have some connection to the people that are in auth over them, until they stop feeling like they're condescended to, until they start feeling like anybody actually gives a shit about what they're saying or hears their voice, you're not going to see anybody come out to vote.

You're literally asking us to please take time off work, reschedule our days, figure out what to do with our kids, so that we can go possibly wait in line for five minutes, maybe for seven hours, nobody really knows.

DK: So is it a matter of making Voting Day a holiday?

LT: It would be super-handy; I don't know that it would drive turnout. Turnout is low because we are disenfranchised. We feel separate from the system.

The hubris of people who take millions of dollars from banks, from oil, from whatever special interest you care to name that's your personal bugaboo — we know that they're having these fundraisers. We know what rich folks talk about, and it ain't us, and it ain't our interest. Nobody's taking millions of dollars from Smith and Wesson and then talking about, "How do we make the average McDonald's worker's life better?"

Until you get that gone, until you get the money out of politics, until you get a sense that the nation belongs to its citizens instead of to the people who hold the money, you're not going to see voter turnout go up. I don't care if you have same-day registration. I don't care if you have early voting. I don't care if you take a laptop to every person's house and say, "Would you like to vote?" You're going to get an awful lot of folks going, "I just don't care."

DK: What's the biggest difference you've seen in your life between being in the working poor and having more ample means?

LT: There's two of them. And the physical change is the pillows are really friggin' nice up here, man. The pillows are amazing. I can't even tell you.

But more to the point of your question, I think, I am not accustomed to people actually processing my opinion when they ask for it. I'm accustomed to people saying, "What do you think?" And I tell them what I think, and they don't hear I said it, and they carry on.

And now, people will say, "What do you think?", and then everyone stops to listen, and then we have a discussion. It's insane. People actually listen to my opinion because I have some whatever social standing. Suddenly my opinion is valuable, and it's the same opinion I had a year ago.

DK: You were accused of being a hoax after that "Poverty Thoughts" essay came out. Is that flaring up again now, with your book coming out? What's your response to all that?

LT: I'm a published author at this point, and The Nation did a very, very good job of reporting on that. But most of the criticism I've seen centers around my decision-making processes. What I see a lot of is people talking about like things I have to explain — like why did you do this or why did you do that? A lot of people are confused about how I couldn't, for instance, feed myself when I could pay my electric bill.

DK: Looking back on the blowback you took, would you have written your initial essay differently?

LT: The piece was written as part of a broader conversation with my friends. The fact that millions of people looked at it was wildly unexpected. You don't go onto your favorite message group expecting the entire world to know that you were don't go talk with your friends expecting the entire world to listen in. It's always possible on the internet, but who actually thinks that way?

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.