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Liked Evicted? -- Read Maid

posted by Pamela Foohey

MaidStephanie Land recently tweeted this depressing statistic: "a single parent would have to work 140 hours a week at minimum wage to pay for basic necessities." And Land would know. Her new memoir -- Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother's Will to Survive -- chronicles her time as a single mother working as a house cleaner and just scraping by on the combination of her paycheck and various forms of government assistance. In telling her story of ending up a single mother living in a homeless shelter with effectively no family or friends to turn to for help, of figuring out how to make a little money working insanely hard, and of dealing with the stigma of asking for government "handouts," Land weaves a narrative about life on the financial precipice that sticks with you. And embedded in her story are glimpses into the lives of her clients, through which Land creates portraits of the trials of (usually) better off families who nonetheless struggle in different ways.

In short, read her memoir. It's fantastic. And if you're not totally convinced that you must read it right now, there's more after the jump.

For those interested in life in poverty's shadow, Land describes all the ways that poverty traps American families: chronic fatigue, inability to recover from colds because of fear of missing work, unaffordable housing with serious defects that contribute to illness, and hours spent waiting for help that could have been spent making a few much-needed dollars. She describes the toll on children: going to daycare while sick, learning how to keep quiet and sit still for hours in waiting rooms, and knowing your parent(s) are just scraping by and watching them struggle to afford a carton of berries or a plastic doll. And she describes what it feels like to be poor: painful encounters in grocery stores when she used WIC (today's food stamps), her gratitude when clients acknowledged her circumstances and gave her little extras, the mental energy of keeping a bank account balance in her head so she would know if she had enough money for gas to drive to her next cleaning job, and the emotional toll of a car accident that almost landed her back in a homeless shelter.

Within these descriptions are truths about America's failure to help women fleeing domestic violence and people who work at minimum wage. Setting Americans up for success begins with establishing a livable minimum wage. It continues with creating an employment system that allows people to find a full week of work, with providing good, lower-cost childcare, and with a health insurance and medical system that is affordable. And, just as importantly, it requires fostering a culture that does not vilify poverty, and that does not perpetuate the narrative that the people who turn to the government for help are lazy or should apologize for their circumstances.

Plus, for those interested in glimpses of her clients, the stories that really stuck with me are those inside the sad houses. People who seem unable to climb out of the mountain of mess because their lives are just too complicated (with children, work, and life's general stress). People who cannot let go of their former lives and live in shrines to the deceased. People who live in seemingly perfect homes that deep-down hide their faults -- if that's you, and you employ someone to clean your house, that cleaner knows all. You definitely should tip your cleaner.


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