Hand to Mouth: the Truth About Being Poor in a Wealthy World
The Rich – from Slaves to Super-Yachts: a 2,000-Year History
Little, Brown, 480pp
Inequality and the 1%
During the long boom of the 1990s and 2000s, it became possible to imagine that nearly everyone who wanted to could do well out of capitalism. The rich would be rich—a few, alas, would be richer almost than we could imagine—but the poor could be (and should be) educated, doctored and employed out of poverty. There was much to do, true, but much had been done; the “system," if such a name could be given to the historical agglomeration of habits and institutions that governs our economic lives, seemed to work. And that was why virtually everyone, from the cool Icelanders to the red Chinese, subscribed to it.
Some readers will be shaking their heads, proclaiming their opposition to capitalism or to “neoliberalism.” Perhaps they went on a march in the City against globalisation or attended one of the late Tony Benn’s twinkly, twilit evenings of socialism. But it would have taken an unusual inner certainty—a faith, almost—to have believed that this great, growing cornucopia of riches, from iPods to EasyJet, would be brought to a halt.
In this country, the near collapse of Northern Rock in the autumn of 2007 marked the end of the era of confidence. For the first time in years, the comfortable and the doing-OKs began to look at the world with something of the same continuing anxiety that had been limited to the poor. Indeed, they began to feel poor themselves. Yet they weren’t poor and they haven’t become poor. That much should be obvious to anyone reading Linda Tirado’s Hand to Mouth. Albeit a book by an American (and therefore set in a society that believes anyone can make it if they try hard enough—and its corollary that if you didn’t make it, you didn’t try hard enough), it is nevertheless a book about everywhere in the developed world, too.
The name Tirado is almost an aptronym, because the book doesn’t ever let up its tone of exhausted complaint and makes no attempt to charm its readers. This artlessness may be why Tirado’s original post on the Gawker website in the autumn of 2013 went “viral” in the first place. It was an answer to the complaint that the poor tended to be poor because of the choices they made—because they smoked, took drugs, had children they couldn’t afford and otherwise connived at their own poverty. This is something that Americans say and believe but that British people tend only to believe.
Her post was entitled “Why I Make Terrible Decisions, or Poverty Thoughts.” Within a year, it brought Tirado a book deal and a precarious celebrity. It also brought her plenty of criticism from people who seemed—through attacking her credibility (she comes from a middle-class family) – almost desperate to deny the truth that she was describing.
It is easy to see why. Tirado depicts a life in which hard work—very hard work—often gets you nowhere because you aren’t paid enough to save for the day when you have no work, or fall ill, or the car breaks down. A life in which the smallest budgeting decision makes the difference between buying insurance or having enough to eat. In other words, a world in which the “long term” cannot afford to exist.
This is the world of people who flip burgers by day and wait tables by night, not to get through college but for life. For ever. And, as Tirado makes mercilessly clear, these tend to be the same jobs where we (and therefore the employer) expect a smile from the counter staff, a have-a-nice-day delivered convincingly by someone who has been on his or her feet for six hours—and our orders got right or else we’ll be cross.
The book is not enjoyable, it is not witty and its anger and sense of hopelessness make it hard to like the author. But Tirado doesn’t want you to like her, or even feel sorry for her. More of her book says “F*** you” to the reader than “Help me.” Nor is she particularly interested in her own demons, whose shadows the readers must discern for themselves. Far from everything that happens to Tirado is a necessary consequence of her poverty and you can’t help wondering how a different person would have managed the same problems.
Yet this, exactly, is her strength. She strips away our capacity to avoid the truth, to be sidetracked. Tirado tells us what we all secretly know every time we catch a glimpse of the night cleaner in the early-morning office finishing up and then heading off to a second job, or to take the kids to school, or to college. It’s a harder life than ours.
That Tirado should have been lionized probably says a good thing about us, because generally, I imagine, it is easier to sell books about the lives of the spectacularly wealthy than those about the quotidian existence of the poor. The first category is, after all, about infinite possibility (or as infinite as a human being can manage)—not, like the second, which is about severe limitation. In that sense, it is about fantasy being realized, which is why Mills & Boon heroes are rarely car-wash operatives.
I have to say that, for myself, this lack of limitation makes the super-rich boringly unreal. The furniture and frocks and motor cars in Downton Abbey very quickly become a substitute for plot or insight into character. The man or woman becomes a mannequin, over which are draped distracting furs and jewellery.
John Kampfner, a former editor of the New Statesman, must have encountered this precise problem when writing his new book, The Rich. The riches are interesting but the people may not be. He compounds this problem for himself by looking at the lives only of the male creators of fabulous wealth, when he could have made more drama by examining the biographies of the wives, mothers, aunts and daughters of the super-rich.
Despite this self-imposed limitation, Kampfner’s book is a fascinating series of well-observed vignettes, beginning with Marcus Licinius Crassus, a contemporary of Caesar, and ending up with more generic chapters on the sheikhs, geeks, oligarchs and bankers of our own times. There are some surprises here (I had never heard of Alain le Roux, the Breton who came over with William the Conqueror and took over much of England) and reminders of some of the ever-thusnesses of human history.
We talk easily of how huge wealth must be accompanied by equally huge power. Kampfner’s book reminds us that this is often not the way it feels to the super-rich. Paradoxically the scale of their riches makes them feel unsafe. Rather than thinking themselves invulnerable from state action because they can control politicians with their money, they more often worry about what could go wrong. This is well illustrated by Kampfner in the case of the new Chinese billionaires, who are only too anxious to render under to the communist Caesars that which is the Caesars’.
What they are worried about is envy. I don’t mean by this that all opposition to their excessive wealth is irrational but that—especially in times such as these—what they have and what they are can seem to be almost psychically unbearable.
The political use of that envy is the purpose of Danny Dorling’s chart-littered polemic on the “1 percent.” Everything that is wrong with our society, Dorling argues, is the fault of the top 1 percent of earners taking a bigger and bigger share of our wealth. Tackle them, he writes, and you hardly need to do anything else—or, as he puts it, “Simply concentrating on the share taken by the 1 percent is enough. It may even be one of the best measures of inequality to consider in terms of how simple a target it may be for effective social policy.”
There are three flaws in Dorling’s hurriedly written book (he had another published in February). The first is that the 1 percent doesn’t really exist, which is why again and again in the book he seems to use the term “super-rich” about people who earn above £150,000 per year. The consequence is that he attributes characteristics of behavior, psychology and action to a group, most of whose putative members don’t share those characteristics.
The second problem is that he becomes absurdly determinist. It should be obvious to anyone but the most sequestered that Sir David Attenborough is against what he sees as overpopulation not because (as Dorling strongly implies) he is one of the anti-poor 1 percent but because he is a lifelong and over-passionate naturalist.
The third problem is more serious. Dorling wants to form a coalition against the super-rich that he knows (and argues) is more likely to be led successfully by the well-heeled middle classes than by the downtrodden—by the other Dorlings than by the Tirados. The poor may wave a pike or knit in the shadow of the guillotine but the committee of public safety will be made up of doctors and deputy head teachers.
There is, it seems to me, a more likely consequence—which is that the relatively well-off (certainly those whom Tirado and her cleaner and fast-food comrades would consider well-off, which is almost everyone reading this article) will absorb this argument and say, “Tax them, not me.” Any substantial change in the condition of the poor in any developed nation will only happen with the agreement and the contribution of the middle classes. They will have to agree to pay, one way or another. Theirs is another book altogether.
This piece was originally published on The New Statesman.