Stephanie Land was aiming to go to college in Missoula the night she met her future daughter’s father, Jamie. He had his dreams, too. Both were trying to save money, so it was natural to move in together. What they didn’t foresee was a failure of birth control; Stephanie was pregnant within a few weeks.
Jamie didn’t want to be a father. When Stephanie decided to keep her baby, he started on a course of verbal abuse that escalated to a smashed glass door. Stephanie moved with her baby into a homeless shelter. The crisis set her on a path through the intricacies of the welfare system – shelters, housing vouchers, food stamps and then child-care subsidies so that, as a single parent, she could get a job.
“Maid,” a bestseller, is the well-written story of Land’s struggle to recover and the debilitating work she took on in the process. Becoming a parent is hard enough, but the joy of parenting becomes a nightmare when the social and financial support isn’t there. Stephanie’s story is a fairly typical one about becoming homeless and then gradually working one’s way out of it – navigating through intricate and arbitrary government programs, suffering social isolation and shame about being poor, finding marginal, low-paying jobs that strain the body and the soul, leaving a child in substandard care, living in a small apartment with environmental problems and suffering from unkind remarks about welfare.
In other ways, for anyone who’s familiar with the vagaries of the welfare system and how small events can send someone on a downward spiral, Stephanie sounds more fortunate than many, starting with the fact that she’s able to get out. She eventually gets accepted to that college in Missoula and uses student loans to keep herself afloat until she gets there. But she also avoids the crises that lay so many people low, such as succumbing to the lure of drugs (she sees them lying around in some of the houses she cleans), getting seriously ill and losing her job, or not finding housing after separating from yet another partner.
In fact, except for Land’s critique of the insufficiencies of the social safety net, her description of climbing out of poverty fits the mythic American narrative: She works hard, overcomes challenges, survives crises and eventually succeeds, mostly through her own efforts. Her bosses at the housecleaning business tell her that she’s the hardest worker they have. She attributes her “upward trajectory” to never giving up hope. She writes, “many of my decisions came from an assumption that things would, eventually, start to improve.” This is a narrative that not only liberals, but even many conservatives could love.
There’s nothing wrong with that, but the narrative seems fairly well-scrubbed into this shape. Land tells very little about her childhood. At the beginning, she seems a sweet, somewhat clueless young woman: She apparently falls for Jamie because he likes John Prine songs and reads The New York Times Book Review. But she’s actually almost 30 and has an adult past, including several years in Alaska, which only gets briefly mentioned. Knowing something about how she got to this point would enrich the story.
Land describes herself as being nearly friendless and shying away from social contact. Yet, friends appear and disappear in the narrative. Friends contribute to a GoFundMe campaign and help her furnish her apartment. One even lends her a car when hers is totaled. She connects well with people who have more resources than she does, which is one of the reasons she survives.
She just as clearly doesn’t connect with other people in her situation. She feels compassion for people waiting in the welfare office, but she doesn’t connect with them. Instead, she believes that, unlike her, they may be stuck in poverty: “When a person is too deep in systemic poverty, there is no upward trajectory. Life is struggle and nothing else.” There is no sense of solidarity, common struggle or mutual aid with other poor people in this story; the one time she has a coworker in her mostly isolated housecleaning job, she faults her for working too slowly, taking too many breaks and stealing open bags of chips from the kitchen.
“Maid” may be a good book to hand someone who thinks that it’s easy to survive on minimum wage (or below) or that people getting food stamps and other subsidies are just wasting taxpayer money. It could soften some hearts. But its popularity trades on the false distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor. Stephanie is clearly “deserving”: passionate about motherhood, a hard worker and looking to better herself. She’s also young, White and literate and avoids the common traps — drugs, alcoholism, gambling, a criminal record, bad credit, obvious mental illness — that would make her “undeserving.”
It’s wonderful that Land was able to survive four years of poverty as a single mom and become a successful author. It’s commendable that mainstream publishers are marketing sympathetic books about poor, working-class people. But we have a long way to go before this country recognizes that everybody is deserving of a decent life.
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