American Stephanie Land never expected to be poor, but after leaving an abusive relationship she found herself supporting herself and her young daughter Mia.
She took on as much low wage cleaning work as she could find and tried, unsuccessfully, to find a decent place to live while attempting to navigate the tangled web of government welfare assistance.
She has written a memoir of that time, it’s called Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother's Will to Survive and is the result of her sheer determination to pursue a career in writing after graduating from university four years ago.
An excerpt from her book was published as an essay in Vox and went “wildly viral,” she says.
In the essay, she described some of the sights she saw as a house cleaner and “pissed off a lot of rich people," she says.
The life she describes is miserable, anxious and exhausting.
“Being poor is a scary thing and it’s the most vulnerable thing to suddenly imagine yourself not having a home or losing all of your belongings and having to live out of your car.”
And this isn’t a story of bad choices, she says
“In reality our country is not supporting us by any means, the healthcare system and wages, we just saw a government shutdown and all these government employees weren’t getting pay checks for two weeks, they couldn’t buy food they were selling their belongings – that is supposed to be a really good job.
“I think that was eye-opening for a lot of people, that it is really easy to suddenly find yourself in a position where you can’t afford to buy your family food.”
The dense thickets of the US welfare system are daunting, she tells Kim Hill.
“There’s Pell Grant money that you receive to pay for tuition, to go to college, it’s a small amount and it really does just cover a portion of your tuition, and then Medicaid which is healthcare, coupons for milk and cheese, housing assistance and then you have assistance for paying the electric bill and childcare. It’s a scramble to find all of these resources just so I could pay the bills and work and take classes at the community college.
And the system is far from lavish, she says.
“The average food stamp recipient gets a little over a dollar per meal per person so you’re kind of scrambling for small amounts of assistance.”
Cleaning work is precarious, exhausting, poorly paid and has practically no employment benefits she says.
“I read some statistic recently something like 600,000 domestic workers in this country get paid an average of $11 an hour and it’s extremely common to not have any benefits and to work a little less than full time so you wouldn’t really be entitled to those benefits anyway,” Land says.
It’s also easy to fall off the “welfare cliff”, she says, by earning slightly more and losing benefits.
“A single mother making $10 an hour like I was, where she jumps off the welfare cliff where she no longer qualifies for benefits, if she were to make the amount hourly and make up for all of those resources she’s not getting - she would have to make $33 an hour to have anything close to a living wage.”
A single parent, she says, would have to work 140 hours a week at minimum wage in order to afford basic necessities.
Poor housing added to her stress, Land says.
“We lived in this very old house and there was a vent coming up from the basement and the basement was not finished and it was absolutely full of mould, you could smell it coming up when it got really drafty.
“So all of the mould would grow on the window sills and the edges of the windows, and there was absolutely nothing I could do. We were living in black mould and it made us very sick and I would look over at her [daughter Mia] and her eyes were suddenly bright red.
Mia started to develop serious sinus and ear infections, land says.
“She had ear infections to the point where her eardrums burst several times and she had to have surgery to have ear tubes put in her eardrums.”
Meanwhile Land was battling a spinal condition and, unlike Mia, she had no health insurance.
“I have a condition called scoliosis, it’s where your spine twists and curves and I actually shrunk half an inch and it was painful, and there was a lot of pinched nerves and I don’t have a lot of strength in my right hand.
When you are scrubbing out bath tubs and showers and floors all day at the end of the day I couldn’t carry things with my right hand because it was in so much pain and so weak.”
There were days, she says, when she would take 800mg of ibuprofen a day
“Way more than I should have.”
And taking time off work to look after Mia posed a double threat, she says.
“I didn’t have any sick pay and, not only that, my work was so disposable that, if I became unreliable, then I risked the client not wanting to have me as a house cleaner anymore because I had to cancel too many times or reschedule so not only did I not get paid, I risked being fired.”
Food was scarce, and she often did without so that Mia wouldn’t.
“I kind of survived off protein bars and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and boxed rice type of meals.”
And when she did use her electronic benefit transfer (EBT) card to buy food there was always a sense of judgement.
“There are 40 million people who are living in poverty right now, a lot of those people are using EBT cards - a debit card with food stamps - a lot of the cashiers when you go to pay for your food, you pull out your EBT card to pay and they say, ‘Oh on your EBT?’ That kind of announces to everyone around you you’re using food stamps.”
A hard-to-shift myth informs much public opinion about people on welfare in the US, Land says.
“In America we have this myth that if you work hard you can make it in this country, so the flip side of that is if you’re not making it you’re not working hard.”
So, isn’t she a poster girl for just such this attitude? Her book has been a huge success, and she now makes her living as a writer.
“It wasn’t the welfare system that got me out of poverty, it was a book deal quite frankly, and that’s not something that happens to most people, so I feel very uncomfortable with anyone looking at me that way.”
Maid is set to debut at number three on the New York Times best-seller list, she says and she is in demand as a public speaker.
She’s now not poor, so would she hire a cleaner herself?
“I wouldn’t want to ask someone to clean my dirty toilet, I just couldn’t do that, it’s a respectable job and I was thankful to have the work at the time, but to me personally knowing what a horrible place that is to be in I couldn’t ask someone to do that for me.”
And she hopes other voices emerge to describe the realities of living on the breadline.
“I hope it allows more stories to come out. My book is very privileged, it’s very white and there are not a lot of interactions with people of colour because I was in a very white area, but women of colour have been working these jobs for decades, hundreds of years, and I think it’s time that we hear from them.”
Stephanie Land works as a freelancer and as a writing fellow through both the Center for Community Change and the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Salon, and The Nation.