Publishing is impoverished when it comes to firsthand accounts of the working poor, notes Stephanie Land, author of Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive.
“There are no first-person narratives of people who are struggling,” says Land, a Barbara Ehrenreich mentee, through the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, and a Center for Community Change writing fellow, “and that’s exactly what we need.
“People are saying the personal essay is dead,” she says, “but I think it’s most vital right now. If you have distance in the writer, there’s distance for the reader. The only way we’re going to build compassion for people under this huge umbrella of government assistance is by [listening] to their stories.”
Maid, which was the talk of BookExpo America 2018, poignantly renders Land’s experience as a single mother living below the poverty line in Washington State. Forced to flee an abusive relationship, Land and her toddler, Mia, joined the more than 47 million American families receiving government assistance.
Land was not just forced to navigate the exacting, invasive requirements of homeless shelters, Section 8 housing, and food stamps. She also endured the scorn of strangers, some of whom would snidely say “you’re welcome” when she paid for groceries with an EBT card.
“I didn’t feel lucky,” Land writes, when a well-intentioned caseworker tells her transitional housing is immediately available. “Grateful, yes. Definitely. But having luck, no. Not when I was moving into a place with rules that suggested that I was an addict, dirty, so messed up in life that I needed an enforced curfew and pee tests.”
“Being poor, living in poverty, seems a lot like probation—the crime being a lack of means to survive,” she writes.
To make whole the insufficient funds provided by public assistance, Land took low-paying, physically demanding jobs, primarily with various housecleaning services. Her wealthy clients never knew she repaired at night to a small studio apartment whose mold kept Mia constantly congested. Nor that one unforeseen expense could send mother and daughter tumbling.
“My job offered no sick pay, no vacation days, no foreseeable increase in wage, yet through it all, still I begged to work more,” she writes. “Wages lost from missed work hours could rarely be made up, and if I missed too many I risked being fired. My car’s reliability was vital, since a broken hose, a faulty thermostat, or even a flat tire could throw us off, knock us backward, send us teetering, falling back, toward homelessness. We lived, we survived, in careful imbalance. This was my unwitnessed existence, as I polished another’s to make theirs appear perfect.”
“For readers who believe individuals living below the poverty line are lazy and/or intellectually challenged, this memoir is a stark, necessary corrective,” Kirkus writes in a starred review. Maid is “an important memoir that should be required reading for anyone who has never struggled with poverty.”
“[This book is about] breaking out of the caricature of poverty, breaking out of the stereotypes we’ve created for people in poverty,” Land says. “Even ‘poverty’ is a loaded word that comes with a lot of images in our head, when in truth...this could happen to anybody. I hope that makes readers feel a little more vulnerable and possibly empathetic.”
Megan Labrise is a staff writer and cohost of the Fully Booked podcast.