Visiting US keynote speaker Linda Tirado (centre) poses with two Q&A audience members at the ABC studios.

‘Poverty poster girl’ pulls no punches

US author, media activist and journalist Linda Tirado gave Australians a sneak peek of her entertaining and provocative style, appearing on the ABC’s Q&A program in the lead-up to her keynote address at the ACOSS national conference in Sydney.

With Q&A host Tony Jones calling her ‘a poster girl for poverty in the US in the lead up to an American congressional election’, Tirado certainly proved popular with both live audience members and TV viewers at home – at least if the Twitter feed was anything to go by.

“The first time I saw you was on a video where you pulling wads of cotton out of your mouth, and showing people how you covered up the holes in your teeth”, Jones told her.

When an audience member asked if solutions could be found, when it was the privileged end of society making the vast majority of decisions affecting the lives of the socially disadvantaged, Tirado countered with another question.

“Are you asking me: Can we make the rich be empathetic?… Yes, yes we can.”

She said in any group of people – rich or poor – there would be those you wish would stop talking, and those you wish would talk more.

“We can’t solve for ass-holery in the human race,” she quipped, to the amusement of both fellow panelists and audience members.

“But you know what we can do? Demand respect and dignity.

“In America we have this idea of meritocracy. If you deserve it you will have it. And if you don’t have it, it’s because you don’t deserve it.

“And the fact remains that 45 million Americans are living in poverty and most of those are in work, holding down multiple jobs and we call them lazy.

“By definition anyone who works three jobs is not lazy…. So the question that you’re asking is how do we make people see that?…We refuse to shut up.

“And we keep saying: I am not lazy and I do not apologise.”

Tirado was attending college and working two jobs when she first published an online essay about the poverty trap in America.

The catalyst was a commentator who saw someone with food stamps and an iPhone, and who asked: ‘How do you justify that?’

“And I said screw you, you don’t get to ask that because you don’t live my life, you don’t understand the economic qualifications. You don’t know what depression is like, you don’t know what it’s like to never have a vacation coming, to not get a single day off in your future.”

The essay went viral, and was then developed into a book called Hand to mouth: The truth about being poor in a wealthy world. 

“When you ask me how I can justify taking government funds to feed my family, I’m going to ask you how you can justify taking government funds for your three-martini business lunch and your tax deductions?

“I want to know what the difference is between welfare and corporate welfare, which we know costs us way, way more.

“I want to know how you morally justify the inequality in our society. How you justify treating other human beings and your countrymen this way…that there are people living in such terrible conditions, in a country that you take such pride in.

“And I think when we flip it around like that, and when we start asking (those questions) it becomes just as uncomfortable for everybody, and then we have to find a solution. Right?

“If it’s not just one segment of the country that’s terrifyingly uncomfortable, if it’s everybody who’s having to morally reckon with the way that we’re living, that’s when we see the solutions.”

When Tony Jones asked her if she was describing a moral revolution, she said she likened it more to ‘moral justice’.

“I think it’s the social dividend, that we all inherently contribute to a society…we are all equally human regardless of the size of our bank accounts.

“And if you want to say that you live in an egalitarian society, you have to provide equality of opportunity, before you can start going around saying ‘You haven’t done well enough’.

“Well if I haven’t done well enough, where was my opportunity?

“If you give somebody else the opportunity to go to college, and you don’t give me the opportunity to go to college, and then you say: ‘Well why didn’t you get a better job’, as we’ve just heard, right?…

“Well it’s because I didn’t get to go to college, because I was too busy working at Burger King, supporting the economy. (By the way, you’re welcome).

“What I want to know is: who do they think is going to scrub the toilets?

“And if toilets need to be scrubbed, why can’t we have jobs with dignity for the toilet scrubbers. Because honey, there ain’t nothing worse than that. There is no work harder in this world than cleaning a public restroom.”

Q&A audience member and University of Sydney PhD student Abi Taylor (pictured right), whose area of research is the biopolitics of human suffering said she related to Tirado’s point about choosing to speak out about the growing inequality divide, and to make those happily reliant on corporate welfare feel uncomfortable with their life choices.

“The poor, like migrants and refugees, have become the scapegoats for social, political and economic anxieties in a 21st century, characterised by fears of national security and economic crises; the resultant increased governance of welfare payments, migration and the like, is demonstrative of the modern states’ unwillingness to extend compassion and refuge to certain minority groups.”

For ACOSS national conference program information Click here.

Posted in aspa eNews, aspa eNews Edition 2.