Literary Insights: The Crime of Poverty

The “Crime” of Poverty

By Susanne Carter

maid: hard work, low pay, and a mother’s will to survive by Stephanie Land (2019) joins a number of memoirs (among them Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America by Linda Tirado (2015), and The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls (2006)) and non-fiction narratives (among them Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth by Sarah Smarsh (2018) Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America by Alissa Quart (2018) and Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich (2001)) that document the high cost of being poor in one of the richest nations in the world.

These books make an important literary contribution by raising awareness and inspiring empathy for people whose lives are “ruled by scarcity,” as Barbara Ehrenreich writes in the foreword to maid (xii). These are people who often work multiple low-wage jobs but find it impossible to make ends meet. Their familiar circumstances also illustrate how easily one twist of fate could put any of us in their place.

In this essay, I discuss maid with an emphasis on how the book distinguishes itself among others in this genre with its interesting “subplot” that focuses on a comparison between the upper middle-class Americans who can afford to who hire maids and the lower-class Americans like Stephanie Land who clean their houses. In the Writers Notes I describe the strengths and the distinctiveness of this narrative.

The Crime of Poverty

maid evolved from an essay she wrote for Vox in 2015 that went viral. The book recounts her experiences as a single parent who fled an abusive relationship and postponed her dream to go to college when she found herself pregnant. Instead, she began working as a maid and yard worker to support herself and her young daughter. Despite long hours of work and seven kinds of government assistance, Land found it nearly impossible to survive. The degrading experience and associated stigma wore her down both physically and psychologically. “Being poor,” she writes, “living in poverty, seemed a lot like probation—the crime being a lack of means to survive.” (p. 8)

The memoir’s title, maid, and author’s name on the front cover, all written in lowercase letters, “illustrate the undervalued nature of the job,” explains reviewer Jim Swearingen. “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 candid memoir blends the paradoxical “hopelessness and the inexplicable persistence of poor working parents in America,” writes reviewer Ann-Derrick Gaillot. Land did what she had to do to survive as do 40 million people in the United States who currently live in poverty and another 18.5 million who live in extreme poverty.

The Other Side of the Fence

But maid is more than an intimate look at the challenges of being a single parent trying to raise a child on minimum wage. It takes a different twist by also giving readers a glimpse of the people who live on the other side of the fence–those whose houses Land cleaned but seldom saw. To most of her clients Land was a ghost who came and went without notice or recognition.

In an interview with BTW, Land explained her invisible role:

As I was writing the book, I tried to not only point out how invisible I was to the homeowners, but how visible the homeowners were to me, just in cleaning up after them, and how I kind of learned that they were human beings, too.

Land cleverly named the houses she cleaned.  There was the Sad House, the Plant House, the Chef House, the Farm House, the Porn House, the Cigarette Lady’s House, the Clown House, and the Hoarder House.  Each house held hints revealing clues that helped her get to “know” their owners.  “It was very much a job where I got to know people just by the things they left out on the counter,” she said during an NPR interview.

Land learned about her client’s lives through such artifacts as receipts tacked to the fridge; family photos that covered walls; prescription pill bottles of every variety found on bathroom and kitchen counters; Hustler magazines discovered in a nightstand drawer of the Porn House; a nook full of romance novels found in a different bedroom in the Porn House; and a freezer full of Virginia Slims.

In time Land began to realize that despite their outward signs of affluence, many of her clients were no happier than she. While she worked hard just to survive, most of her clients worked hard to be able to afford all of the upper middle-class trappings that gave the appearance of happiness but no guarantee of it.

 Writers’ Notes

maid succeeds in documenting the plight of many people who work minimum wage jobs but cannot escape poverty. It reminded me of Linda Tirado’s Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America with its brutal honesty. Land states: “One of the greatest things about a willingness to get on your hands and knees to scrub a toilet is you’ll never have trouble finding work.” (p. 117)

Land captures the shame and helplessness of single parents whose best efforts are never good enough, who suffer from class prejudice as they are often stereotyped as lazy or unmotivated because they need government assistance just to get by.

Although Land wrote an intensely personal memoir that does not delve into public policy, her experiences clearly justify the critical need for national health care, publicly financed childcare, and safe housing for all Americans. A woman who cleans other people’s toilets every day should not have to worry about how to provide the most basic needs for her child.

maid also differentiates itself from other memoirs of poverty by taking a creative detour that shifts attention from Land’s struggle to get by to the lives of people for whom she cleaned. Even though most of the home owners never knew she existed, Land began to care for them as she pieced together bits of their lives while cleaning their refrigerators, scrubbing their toilets, reading the labels of prescription bottles, and occasionally trying on cashmere sweaters.

These home owners unknowingly helped their invisible maid cope with her own feelings of social isolation as work and child care absorbed most of her time and energy. “My life had become so quiet,” she writes. “These people gave me something to look forward to, people to hope for and want good things for other than myself.” (p. 84)

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