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‘Maid’ author Stephanie Land on what it feels like to be shamed for being poor

Stephanie Land is the author of “Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive.”
Stephanie Land is the author of “Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive.” (Ashley Farr)
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Stephanie Land, 43, is a writer whose memoir, “Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive,” chronicles her struggles as a low-income single mother and inspired the Netflix series “Maid.” She lives in Missoula, Mont., where she is working on her second book

In your late 20s, you left an abusive relationship and ended up living with your young daughter in a homeless shelter, trying to survive while working as a maid and patching together government assistance. What did that experience teach you about the social safety net? You talk about the psychic toll of poverty — how do you help people understand that?

I realized that there really is no net to catch you. You expect to receive assistance and some kind of support. And really, it’s more just a whole lot of paperwork and proving that you deserve it, somehow. As a country, we think that people who deserve it, the “deserving poor,” are the ones who didn’t somehow choose to be there. And there’s a lot of stigma surrounding, especially, single moms. That somehow their bad decisions got them in the place that they are. And so, since they brought it on themselves, then why should we help them?

I describe it as walking on a tightrope over a floor that is constantly dropping out from underneath. It’s really traumatic. I used to not sleep because I was budgeting in my head. I mean, I woke up knowing exactly what bills were coming out, what still needed to be paid, how many hours I was going to work that day, how much I was going to bring home. It’s just such extreme insecurity in the most vital ways. People deserve shelter and food — those are basic needs — and when those are denied, it really affects you. I still have problems with it. Like, I bought a house last summer, and we’ve been here for almost a year and a half, but I still feel like it could all disappear in one candle that turns over or something.

You related some of the things that people would say to you, like, “Just pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” Or how people in line [behind you] at the grocery store would say [snidely], “You’re WELCOME” [because] you used food stamps to buy food. What does that feel like?

It’s really hard to absolutely know how hated you are for needing assistance. There were a lot of memes going around at the time about how people should be drug-tested for welfare, and a lot of my friends would post on Facebook and social media some type of hatred for people on food stamps. And I felt it. I felt like I was a leech on society, honestly. My goal was to one day be off of government assistance, be a contributing member of society. I really felt like the only time I had any value as a human being was when I was actively working. There were times that I’d be sitting in my apartment watching a movie, and even then I had this weird feeling that someone was watching me and I was going to get in trouble because I wasn’t working.

If I needed to buy candy or something for stockings or Easter baskets, I was sure to use the self-checkout line and go when it wasn’t busy. Because you never know when something might happen with the [electronic benefit transfer] card. A lot of times, cashiers would look at me and say “EBT” before I even took out the card. I never figured that one out. I looked poor maybe. But some cashiers were pretty rude about it. It’s really a demeaning position to be in.

Where do you think their reaction comes from?

I got the sense there was a lot of animosity between the working poor and the working class — so people who are just over the income limits for qualifying for food stamps or child care. And the people who do qualify for assistance programs know exactly how much they need to make to stay on it. Because they can’t afford to jump off. And so I think that’s where a lot of the stigmas come from and the assumptions. But really, it’s just people doing whatever they can to survive. It’s not a choice. It’s a situation that they’ve fallen into that they can’t get out of.

Lately I’ve seen a change in conversation. I [wrote] some posts about how anybody should get food stamps if they need it, and that there should not be work requirements or income limits. Like, if your kids are hungry, you should be able to walk into some office and say, “Hey, I need some money for food,” and they just say, “Okay, here you go.” A person commented on the post that he doesn’t think that that should be the case. I asked him, “Have you ever been on food stamps?” And he said, “No. I really need it, but I make too much money.” I said, “Well, then why are you arguing against this?” And he said, “Wow, you’re right.” That made my whole year, just that one exchange.

We have some image in our head of who is using government assistance, and there’s a lot of racism involved in that. A lot of people don’t realize that the majority of the people who are on government assistance are working families. The majority are White. I think we still believe in the “welfare queen” sitting on the couch eating bonbons all day and that people don’t want to work. I’ve heard that a lot with the unemployment discussions. And that’s not the case at all. People just don’t want to work for minimum wage because your wages are so minimal that you rely on government assistance to supplement — I mean, it’s the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, because people are working for minimum wage. I wrote my way off food stamps. I think the last time I was on food stamps was the beginning of 2016. But I had many months where I was really hungry.

Do you think people are more receptive to hearing your story of struggle as a White woman and as someone now on the other side of poverty than that of others who are not White or who are still struggling? And how do you think that that might be useful and also potentially dangerous?

Well, I’ve been encouraged by some of the conversations that I’ve seen just on social media when people of color are having space to talk about how angry it makes them that a White woman is the center of the show and not a woman of color. Because the majority of domestic workers are women of color and immigrants. But it was one of those, with-great-power-comes-great-responsibility moments — seeing that people were listening to me because I was White, and what am I going to do with that?

So what I have tried to do is just talk about that right out the gate. Every one of my keynotes talks about that in the first paragraph. Just acknowledging that I am talking to you today because I’m a White person. And because I’m described as successful and resilient and educated and because I am the person that you appreciate and the one that you listen to. But we don’t listen to angry Black and Brown people. And I hope that it’s one thing that starts to change.

Can you talk about a time when you just thought: “I just can’t do this. This is impossible.”

There were a lot of times where I felt like I wouldn’t be able to get through it, but my vision became so shortsighted. And I just didn’t think about the future. I often didn’t even think about what it was going to take to get to the end of the week because it was just all too much. Everything was just: What do I need to handle today? And how am I going to get through that?

People say, like, “Why don’t poor people save money?” A lot of it is because every time I had some extra money, my car would break down. And I’d start all over again. Every effort just felt so fruitless.

And on the other side, moments you’ve felt like, Okay, this is looking up; I’m going to make it.

I think any time that I could pay all of my bills that month or could afford toiletries or shampoo, or could buy myself a new pair of pants for work without having to max out my credit card again, without having to shuffle around — like, Okay, so I won’t pay this one, and I’ll pay this instead — and wouldn’t have to trade off in some way, those were moments when I felt like I was actually doing it. I was making it through the month. And the times that I did get some extra money, my kid got a Happy Meal. And it was a huge treat for us. And now that I am on the other side of that, I try to remember what that felt like to live with that level of precariousness, and it’s something that I try to stay grounded by.

I saw an article you wrote about what it was like when you hired a maid to help you clean your house for the first time — you had hurt your back or something — and it was something you said you’d never do. What was that like to be on the other side?

So my husband’s a stay-at-home parent and works extremely hard in the home. And I also work. He is having surgery on his spine next month, and so we were talking about getting a house cleaner. And I just thought to myself: Even if I paid them two or three times as much as they ask for in their hourly rate, they’re still on their hands and knees, and I am walking around. And I just can’t do it. It’s not that I don’t respect the job, it’s not that I don’t see that job as dignified. I just have had so many bad experiences with feeling degraded. And it’s from being in that physical position a lot of the time. I just can’t bring myself to do it.

The times that we did, like, moving in and out of houses, felt a little different, like our stuff wasn’t there. But even then I remember how it felt to ask someone to clean my toilet, and I just can’t do that again. Someone reminded me yesterday — I vowed that I would never have a home too big to clean. And that’s still the case.

If you could have people understand one thing about the experience of living at the margins of poverty, what would it be?

I think people need to remember that the working poor are working. They’re working extremely hard. But there are so many barriers that they have in order to get to that job. The biggest one for me was child care. That’s such a necessity, but it was the hardest thing to come by. So it’s not a lack of gumption, or it’s not a lack of wanting to provide for your family. It’s just a lack of access to that ability.

And when people read your story or watch the series, do you think that gets through — or do you think they really just need to live it to understand?

It seems like it gets through. I’ve heard from a lot of people that they felt really stressed out by just watching the show. And I love that. It’s kind of what I was hoping for from the beginning. Like the first episode, where Alex first meets with her social worker. She needs a job in order to get a grant for child care — so that she can work a job. That is so backwards. Poor people are constantly having to prove that they deserve it because they’re working, and really, they’re just trying to get a job. But it’s like that all the time. And she says that line that I love: “Like, what kind of f---ery is that?”

This interview has been edited and condensed.