What it’s like to navigate life below the poverty line

A new book humanizes the work America’s poor must go through to try and stay afloat.

 

When she discovered that she was pregnant, Stephanie Land ripped up her application for the University of Montana’s creative writing program. Yet her dream of being a writer in Missoula endured, shining like a beacon above the daily grind of poverty she now found herself trapped in as a single mother. She yearned for Missoula, a laid-back, picturesque college town, but knew that good-paying jobs there were hard to come by, and housing costs disproportionately high. She told herself that, once in Montana, she could reinvent herself and set an example for her daughter by becoming “the person I expected myself to be.”

But it would be years before Land managed to escape. Her debut memoir, Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive, takes place mostly in Washington’s Skagit County, a rural area north of Seattle. Like many of its Western counterparts, it suffers from the ripple effects of a nearby big city’s lack of affordability without any of the benefits of urban living — reliable public transportation and a geographic concentration of jobs and amenities — that can help offset housing costs.

Land gives little more than a paragraph to her decision to have a child, and it can be tempting for the reader to judge her choices. But Land’s openness highlights the injustice of our culture’s eagerness to criticize the personal decisions of poor people, particularly of women. (How many women are judged equally harshly for not having children?) Poor women have it especially hard; at least their more privileged sisters have a chance of keeping their private lives private. Often it’s only the maid who sees the struggles they hide from the world.

A self-portrait of Stephanie Land and her daughter, Mia, in their Mount Vernon, Washington, studio apartment.
Courtesy of Stephanie Land

Land’s intimate first-person perspective sets Maid apart from other nonfiction about poverty in America. Readers who have never lived close to the poverty line or navigated the maze of public-assistance programs will have their eyes opened by Land’s careful breakdowns of her household budget and her maddening dealings with bureaucracy. A sense of deep loneliness often left her aching for a normal life, for the person she used to be or could have become. “I was starved for kindness,” she tells us. “I was hungry for people to notice me, to start conversations with me, to accept me. I was hungry in a way I’d never been in my entire life.”

Land experiences the invisibility common to poor people in America: Cleaning houses, she works like a ghost in homes while the owners are away; in the waiting rooms of government offices, she is nothing but a number in the system; when she buys groceries with her EBT card, customers and cashiers dismiss her as just another lazy food-stamp recipient. But in other settings, her poverty itself is invisible: “People I talked to rarely assumed I needed food stamps to survive, and they always said ‘those people’ in conversations. Yet ‘those people’ were never people like me. They were immigrants, or people of color, or the white people who were often referred to as trash. When people think of food stamps they don’t envision someone like me … Someone like a neighbor. Someone like them.”

With 42 million people — about one in eight Americans — currently receiving food stamps, there’s a good chance many of them are your neighbors; maybe you’re one of them. Under President Donald Trump’s proposed 2020 budget, nearly a million people would lose their food stamps altogether, and almost everyone would see their benefits reduced. The budget guts several other programs that were vital to Land and her daughter’s survival: housing vouchers, the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, Medicaid. In showing how much poor people rely on these programs to survive, Land exposes the injustice of a rigged economic system that uses government assistance as both a political football and a Band-Aid for systemic inequality.

“My paychecks made me feel like I didn’t work at all,” Land writes. She’s not alone: Today’s low unemployment rate obscures the number of Americans joining the ranks of the working poor. Of the 58 percent of adult workers who receive hourly wages, one-third earn less than $12 an hour, and nearly half make less than $15. Land made $9 an hour cleaning houses, and took home only about half that after the cost of the gas it took to get to work.

Many Westerners live in the places we do because of a strong sense of shared values: access to open space, investment in local economies, vibrant creative culture, the perpetual promise of starting over. But the growth of inequality in these sought-after communities threatens to destroy that promise for more and more of our neighbors. Maid invites us into one of the real lives hidden behind the statistics, prompting us to consider what this loss of opportunity means, both for our communities and our collective conscience. 

Claire Thompson is a freelance writer based in Montana. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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