maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive by Stephanie Land
Hachette Books 288 pp.
By Jim Swearingen
First-hand accounts of living down and out make better reading than vicarious depictions of the working poor. The personal journals of hard-scrabbled workers who can also write well give us a more vivid understanding of their hardships. New to the genre comes Stephanie Land’s first book “maid,” a tense and courageous account of four years struggling to support herself and her daughter on a jigsaw puzzle of slim wages and government welfare programs.
When Land became pregnant at 28, she tabled her dreams of a writing program at the University of Montana to raise her daughter single-handedly. A deadbeat father and a resentful boyfriend filtered through her life offering little to no support. Ultimately, to make ends meet, she became a household maid. The companies that employed her provided neither health care, nor a transportation per diem, requiring her to spend more money than she could afford to earn less money than would sustain her small family.
The front cover title “maid” and the author’s name in lowercase letters illustrate the undervalued nature of the job. To absorb the taxing nature of a maid’s work, we crouch down into soiled toilets and mildewed tubs with Land, follow her into grimy kitchens and filthy living rooms that her clients leave for a paid stranger to put right.
Land’s presence as an outsider in the homes she cleans uncovers the big lie of comfortable middle class life, that money, fancy clothes, and a big house bring happiness. The artifacts of loneliness and discontent pepper many of her clients’ homes: photos of dead spouses, empty vodka and makeup bottles, porn magazines tucked into nightstands. She slowly develops a symbiotic relationship with each dwelling, either drawing energy and comfort from it or leaching her own spirit to its log of pain and disappointment.
Meanwhile, Land captures the nagging anxiety that poverty entails. Knowing that a routine annoyance like catching the flu or wrecking a car could represent the final financial catastrophe that sends her and her daughter back to a homeless shelter eats away at her constantly.
maid will also introduce uninitiated readers to a byzantine welfare bureaucracy. To supplement her paltry wages, Land enrolled in seven different government assistance programs: food stamps, or SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program); WIC (Women, Infants, and Children); LIHEAP (Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program); TBRA (Tenant Based Rental Assistance); Pell Grants, Medicaid, and a childcare subsidy. With these and her meager hourly pay, she barely cobbled together a subsistence living.
Land explains the parsimonious and shaming mechanics of each program. Restrictions on eligible grocery items may force food stamp recipients to purchase cheaper, less healthy items. Required WIC appointments occur during the work day when government offices are open, thereby forcing many subsistence-level recipients to miss work. Section 8 advisers counsel her on how to overcome landlords’ prejudices against renting to her.
And counterintuitively, all of these safeguards against welfare cheating ensure that most recipients will never work their way out of poverty. Every minor financial step forward triggers an immediate reduction in benefits so that the “beneficiaries” can never inch their way out of their circumstances. Add Land’s book to the mounting evidence that America offers a standard of living unaffordable to many Americans.
Land explains in minute detail the indignities, compromises, and defeats that keep all but an extraordinary few mired in poverty. For recipients of government welfare, the path from accountability to suspicion is short and peppered with anti-social stereotypes. She describes her encounters with those who believe government assistance should relegate its recipients to obvious discomfort, including a diet and dress befitting the destitute. We share her shame as shoppers in the checkout line inspect her purchases and elementary school mothers wince at her worn clothing.
Land captures the withering effects on her soul as she gradually internalizes society’s worst opinions about her: a woman lacking character, a single mother unable to keep her daughter healthy. She is held responsible for a condition she is unable to erase, no matter how hard she works.
In spite of this stigma, Land exercises relentless control over her attitude, knowing that an embittered one could rob her of the small, tender joys in her life. From the houses that scream loneliness and desperation, Land takes away a lesson of gratitude for the companionship of her daughter. She also develops a relationship with her future self, taking solace and confidence from the seasoned woman she knows will eventually look on these years as formative. That older, wiser self reaches back into the present to calm Land at her toughest moments.
Stephanie Land’s account of struggling as a maid speaks for a growing population of working people who refuse to give up hope while toiling within a system that increasingly gives up on them. Her book smashes the myth that the poor double as welfare profiteers. And until we realize how shame and accountability keep people on the dole, we need more books like this one.