Opinionista Vashthi Nepaul 6 October 2014

Class shame, and the book no one saw coming

Those poorer than us pack our shelves and bag our groceries; they serve us our food; clean our cars and homes; dress our lawns and tend our children. They beg and hawk at intersections; they call out to us from street corners. But rather than ask, many of us assume we know their story. We don’t, as a shattering new book is about to tell us.

“I guess some people would call all this kind of shameless. And that’s what this whole discussion about civics, and citizenship, and personal responsibility comes down to: self-respect, or a perceived lack thereof. Most privileged people have enough compassion to feel badly for people who don’t have money. But unfortunately, a not-insignificant percentage of advantaged people have a hard time understanding that shame is a luxury item, because there is a point at which things are so bad that you lose all sense of shame. Shameless is admitting that you’re poor and asking for money. It’s being brazen. It’s having sex in public because you’ve got nowhere else to go. It’s openly selling drugs when that’s what you do for a living. And I’ll tell you something else shamelessness can lead you to: selling your food stamps. Is that illegal? Yup. Is it understandable? Yup.”

Three weeks ago Linda Tirado and I were joking online about the mythical figure of the ‘noble poor.’

“I spent a whole decade waiting for my lonely garret with a single candle to study by.” Tirado snarked. “Alas, I never got it and thus was ignoble.”

The noble poor is a concept of the poor that springs from the minds of the wealthy and at its root is the belief that I would do better. Were I poor; I would not be so wasteful, so slothful, so ignorant, so self-indulgent. Instead I would reuse, I would save, I would work hard, I would sacrifice. It is a luxury, this opinion, because owing to the fact that we will never be in this position, the privileged can comfortably live with these perceived foibles of the underclass for the rest of our probably long lives. We will never know, never believe, how poverty and her trappings could befall anyone.

linda tirado book cover

And they could befall anyone. In her book Hand to mouth: The truth about being poor in a wealthy world, Linda Tirado takes care to explain how poverty will be the reality of a full third of Americans at some point in their lives. After reconciling the reader to the prevalence of poverty, Tirado tackles the much harder issue of convincing the reader that the ‘otherness’ the upper classes ascribe to those in poverty need not exist. Tirado candidly walks readers through her own decisions and life experiences while impoverished, complete with the dollar-and-cents calculations, demystifying traits that were previously dismissed as the self-destructive quirks of the underclass.

Having children while poor, having a poor work ethic, disliking authority, using sex as currency, working two jobs but never saving, choosing to eat unhealthy junk food, spending precious money on a smoking/drinking/drug habit – Tirado confronts head-on everything about which the privileged harbour misgivings. This should not sound like a revolutionary action, but it has been. This is Tirado’s first book and it is a first-person account of poverty. There was never going to be book, but according to Tirado,

“After a particularly gruelling shift at work, I was unwinding online when I saw a question from someone on a forum I frequented: ‘Why do poor people do things that seem so self-destructive?’”

In a response that hints at her casual style and sense of humour, Tirado typed up her answer, titled it ‘WHY I MAKE TERRIBLE DECISIONS, OR, POVERTY THOUGHTS’ and hit ‘reply.’ It is unlikely she had any idea her words would have such an impact; shifting many people’s personal relation to poverty from one of sympathy to one of empathy. Suddenly, it really could have been any one of us.

Tirado’s post went properly, insanely viral. It hopped from the underbelly of a website to its front page, it moved to sister sites, people kept sharing it. Quicker than could be understood, her disconnected and very personal thoughts were on the front page on the Huffington Post. The Nation ran her essay. Hell, Forbes ran her essay. This is not being mentioned to document a viral phenomenon. This is being mentioned because of what it tells us about ourselves.

Why, in an age of blogging and vlogging, in an age of user-led reporting and crowdsourcing, in an age of advocacy, was this so singular? Why had no one ever asked about the poor and received a response: cogent and personal and heartbreaking, from the poor? Tirado is quick to point out that she is telling her story and there are multitudes of other poor people who could lend an added perspective. Indeed, in South Africa we have millions living in dire straits. Owing to our dependence on cheap labour, the poor pack our shelves and bag our groceries; they serve us our food; clean our cars and homes; dress our lawns and tend our children. They beg and hawk at intersections; they call out to us from street corners. But rather than ask, many of us assume we know their story.

There are some theories about why we do this. The first is that our assumptions are so long-held and widespread in our own spheres that we accept them as more factual and more honest than the story someone could tell us about themselves. This relies on us assuming the superiority of our opinion; because we are educated and informed, we are best placed to build the narrative of the poor. Even if this were true and we did know better, what is the harm of asking anyway?

The second theory is that we are afraid to ask in case asking places on us the additional burden of doing something about it. All Tirado called for, however, was empathy. She most wanted the privileged to listen and try to understand. She did not ask for help in that first, impassioned essay. She has not asked for it since. It is worthwhile, however, to tackle this fear of being asked for assistance. Why are we so afraid of it? We are fully capable of saying no, so I can only assume that we are somehow disquieted by the experience. What about it discomforts us? What do we stand to learn about ourselves?

The final theory is simply that we do not want to hear because we do not lack empathy. In short: it hurts us. If it hurts us merely to hear about it, how much worse must it be to live it? And how much worse still must it be to live it when everyone better off than you pretends that nothing is wrong?

Across these three theories there also hovers the notion that we spare poor people by not asking them their stories. There is a shame we associate with poverty, even though it is nothing more or less than the condition of lacking resources. The shame that surrounds poverty is a social construct – as harmful to our own understanding of our world as it is to the poor – who are never asked and instead always spoken of. If we want to move away from shame and sympathy to openness and empathy, the least we can do is ask. DM

Hand to mouth: The truth about being poor in a wealthy world by Linda Tirado was released on 2 October 2014 and is available now.

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