Linda Tirado - Down and Out in Utah and Washington DC

From Sunday Morning, 8:40 am on 22 May 2016

In her book Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America Linda Tirado writes eloquently of the millions of people in her home country the US who work hard, yet still struggle. She knows because she was once one of the working poor.

Linda Tirado

Linda Tirado Photo: RNZ/Dru Faulkner

Linda's first-person blog post about living in poverty in Utah, Why I Make Terrible Decisions, or, poverty thoughts, went viral in 2013. She subsequently raised tens of thousands of dollars to fund the writing of the book. Then, almost inevitably, some in the media began to question her story and her right to speak on behalf of the downtrodden.

An edited extract of their conversation:

The long hours – it puts to rest the idea that all you need to do to get ahead is work hard.

Linda Tirado: Yeah. I had three jobs and people called me lazy. Now I’m a writer and I feel like that’s not actually what words mean. Unfortunately,  people say all you need to do is work hard. What they mean is you need to work hard, have been born fairly wealthy, gone to a decent school, had a shot at an education, not have had anything disruptive in your life and found a decently well-paying job. Now, if you do all of those things and you work hard you’re going to be just fine.

It’s almost like lotto, isn’t it? Who really does have everything perfect going for them?

Linda Tirado: John Key. I think it’s adorable that a man with that much wealth is casting himself as an everyman. I think that it’s much akin to Hillary Clinton, who started her campaign saying I understand the plight of the working poor because my grandparents didn’t have indoor plumbing. I think to myself two things one, nobody’s grandparents had indoor plumbing, it was 1890. Secondly, you’ve been living in a mansion for longer than I've been alive.

So regardless of your roots, at some point you have to accept you’re going to lose touch with what it is. And I've actually faced that myself because it’ll be three years this… Spring for you guys, in October, since all this has happened. I have scars, but I don’t have any fresh bruises or cuts from work. When I wake up, if I have a headache it’s because I drank too much last night and not because I haven’t had enough sleep for 60 days running.

What I’m facing now is that I have to remember that I will forget. And that’s how you stay in tune with what you should be saying. So you have a prime minister who gets up and he goes ‘Oh, I worked hard, so I get it.’ No, sir, you do not. You do not understand it unless you have recently lived it or unless you are mates with people who have.

Why did this one post [Why I Make Terrible Decisions, or, poverty thoughts] touch such a nerve, Linda?

Linda Tirado: Because when poor people speak we’re supposed to be apologetic. We are not supposed to be intelligent, we are not supposed to be capable of higher moral thinking. We are supposed to be quiet and quiescent and happy for what we can get. Because if you’re the sort of person who needs charity you’re meant to be grateful.

I am not grateful, I never was grateful. I challenge a system in which I was forced to beg for charity when I hold down four jobs and people call me lazy. I will not apologise for that. I will not apologise for my poverty. Up until there are enough jobs to go around you cannot blame the unemployed. If there are not enough houses to go around you cannot blame the homeless. If there’s a systemic problem you cannot blame an individual for being trapped in that system.