I picked up Stephanie Land's Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother's Will to Survive at BookExpo last year as it was touted at the Adult Book Buzz panel as one of the hottest releases of the year.
Stephanie is like many in America, but in ways that you might be uncomfortable speaking about. She grew up in poverty, and in early adulthood, she was working service jobs when she meets Jamie, who will become the father of her child. They agreed that their romance would be a fling — Stephanie had dreams of college in Missoula. When she becomes pregnant, she wants to give Jamie the chance to be a father, but instead she finds herself in a domestic violence situation with nowhere to turn. When she finally gets away, she finds herself dependent upon government assistance for everything from rent and electric to childcare — this while working long hours doing manual labor. Even while keeping her head up and trying to stay afloat, she deals with people remarking, “You’re welcome,” to her while she checks out in the grocery store with her EBT card. Her story is one that is repeated all across America — an entire swath of our population lives on less than $2 a day.
Land is a profound writer who hits the shapest notes of strength and pride while still baring her soul for her readers. This book is no pity party; rather, it’s the story of a woman of tremendous strength who wants her reader to understand that when you live in poverty, there is never any getting ahead. The moment you do, you find yourself knocked down again — something as simple as a car not starting wreaks havoc for months on the loves of those living on an hourly minimum wage. Savings is a pipe dream. Land weaved her tale for us in a tight knit that made me empathize with her plight and angry at her circumstances. While you may feel there’s not much you can do, this is inaccurate.
You can’t hate social programs and then say we can’t, as one of the wealthiest countries in the world, gauantee a living minimum wage for workers in every sector. Welfare is dead, and it has been for years. If you are paying attention, you know this to be true. Land goes into tedious detail explaining what life is like when you are on assistance — it’s almost a full-time job just to get what you need to be able to work. It’s a different application for everything (occasionally you get lucky and some applications double up), and each visit to each office takes hours on end. This is assuming that you never get sick and don’t need to take off work to go to a doctor. These minor inconveniences to people with salaried jobs are major catastrophies for people — mostly women, mostly single mothers — who fear losing what difficult-to-find work they had in the first place.
That’s if you are lucky enough to have a regular work schedule, which Land finds when she begins working for a cleaning company. My heart broke for her when she entered into a relationship destined to fail — when it finally ended I was hopeful that she could make it on her own. I was angry when the doctors called her a bad mother for her living conditions — we are all trying to do our best with the circumstances we have. I rode for her when her car went out of commission, the circumstances of which you will need to read for yourself. Land is an outstanding writer, and she brings us along on the journey that starts when her daughter takes her first steps in a homeless shelter.
I’m always amazed when I listen to how some people speak of those on government assistance, and the coded language they use to describe those they feel are below them. Little do they know that the summer I lost my job, I sought out SNAP to help ease my financial burden. I qualified, but the process of obtaining them was so time consuming that I wouldn’t have been able to work what jobs I could find babysitting. It was an eye-opening moment for me, as was my visit to the unemployment office for a mandated job-training course. We were all treated like absolute morons. It was sobering to be sure.
This isn’t a plea for empathy so much as it is a call to give Land’s book an open-minded read. Live in her world for a few hours, and imagine yourself in her shoes.