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3 myths about the working poor

Linda Tirado works to debunk some common stereotypes about the working poor in her new book, "Hand to Mouth."

What started as a Gawker comment created a movement. Credit: Kurtis L. Leany What started as a Gawker comment created a movement.
Credit: Kurtis L. Leany

Last year, Linda Tirado was perusing Gawker when a comment asking why poor people do things that are self destructive ticked her off. As someone who was working poor herself, Tirado posted in the comments, an essay titled, "Why I Make Terrible Decisions, or Poverty Thoughts", which quickly went viral. She was 32, the mother of two kids, and working two low-paying jobs. While she held down her job at IHOP, Tirado expanded the essay into a book, "Hand to Mouth" (out October 2) giving an unfiltered look at what it's really like to be working poor.

Roughly one-third of people living in the U.S. are considered working poor, meaning they work but their total earnings fall below the poverty line (which is $11,670 for a household of one person, or in Tirado's case - a married mother of two - an income less than $23,850).

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We got Tirado to debunk just a few of the myths many people have about the working poor.

Myth #1: It can't happen to you.

Increasingly, more middle class people are finding themselves falling into a lower income group. "Especially after 2008, we started seeing homeless people with Ph.Ds and adjunct professors on food stamps," Tirado says. CNN Money reported earlier this year that the number of people in the military who were on food stamps has increased every year since 2006. In her book, Tirado points out that the Urban Institute found that a full 50 percent of Americans will experience poverty at some point before they are 65. Most come out of it after a relatively short time, but for 25 percent, it is unlikely they will ever get out.

Myth #2: If you work hard enough, you can pull yourself out of poverty. That's the American Dream!

"The majority of people on food stamps are employed," Tirado says. "To be working poor is essentially an endless series of looking for a better [job] or something that will make you a little bit more money. You might get 20 cents more at the next restaurant over and that's worth moving for." In her book, Tirado worked two jobs, often leaving only five hours to sleep and see her kids. The problem is, most working class people are working just to survive.

Myth #3: People on welfare have more kids to get more government aid.

"This is the silliest thing I've ever heard, and I've heard a lot of silly things," Tirado says. "The amount you get in food stamps and WIC is not worth the time and [energy] it takes to raise another child." Tirado says the deeper belief here is that people shouldn't have kids unless they are equipped to raise them. And while she understands that view, she wonders where the line is drawn. "What is the minimum income for me to raise and love my kids? How do you become qualified? And qualified by who?"

Her message to the working poor:

"I can't promise it's going to get better, but I can promise that we can keep fighting and we are allowed to say we deserve better. ... The fact that we aren't being treated like we're valuable or worth it has nothing to do with us. If you are trying, if you are working, and if you are taking every opportunity that you are able to and still not making it, that is the fault of the system we're working in."

Follow Emily on Twitter: @EmLaurence

 
 
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