Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive by Stephanie Land
My rating: 4/5 cats
fulfilling book riot’s 2018 read harder challenge task #14: A book of social science
this one might be more memoir than social science, but it’s ehrenreich-approved and that’s good enough for me!
okay, so i would say this is definitely more memoir than social science, but i went into it with good intentions, and it’s too close to the end of the year* for me to be a stickler for reading challenge precision. if the bookriot police wanna come for me. i’ll be here, trying to accomplish my remaining annual reading goals. i do not know why this year was such a difficult one for my reading. or, i do, but this is not the place to moan about it. although part of it is actually a good segue into reviewing this book – finding work that pays the bills has become my most prolonged struggle.
my situation is in no way as difficult as the author’s, but the fears that keep her up at night, the distance she perceives between herself and those of even average financial means, the anxiety and shame and sacrifices – i found myself relating to it more than was pleasant to relate:
Most of my friendships had faded over the last year because I’d isolated myself and hidden from the embarrassment of my daily life.
again, and i cannot stress this enough – my situation is in no way as dire as hers was. i’m not comparing – i’m empathizing with the way it feels to work hard and still be struggling, to exhaust yourself for barely enough to get by.
The child support I received barely covered the cost of gas. The entire $275 a month went to the trips back and forth so Mia could see her dad.
i am only responsible for my ownself and i can’t imagine having to care and provide for a child on what i’m able to earn, nor can i imagine having to navigate the truly byzantine web of government assistance agencies, especially having to navigate them in the condition motherhood and poverty can leave a person – depleted by anxiety attacks, hunger, illness, exhaustion, and perpetual physical pain from hard manual labor.
so much of her account is exasperating, illuminating the ways that logic is broken:
The most frustrating part of being stuck in the system were the penalties it seemed I received for improving my life. On a couple of occasions, my income pushed me over the limit by a few dollars, I’d lose hundreds of dollars in benefits. Due to my self-employment, I had to report my income every few months. Earning $50 extra could make my co-pay at day care go up by the same amount. Sometimes it meant losing my childcare grant altogether. There was no incentive or opportunity to save money. The system kept me locked down, scraping the bottom of the barrel, and without a plan to climb out of it.
and how degrading and soul-killing the cycle:
I thought of how many times the police, firemen, and paramedics had come to our building in the last couple of months; of the random checks to make sure living spaces were kept clean or to make sure broken-down cars in the parking lot had been repaired; to patrol us so that we weren’t doing the awful things they expected poor people to do, like allowing the laundry or garbage to pile up, when really, we lacked physical energy and resources from working jobs no one else wanted to do. We were expected to live off minimum wage, to work several jobs at varying hours, to afford basic needs while fighting for safe places to leave our children. Somehow nobody saw the work; they only saw the results of living a life that constantly crushed you with its impossibility.
so, it’s a memoir with social science appeal. it absolutely leaves an impression about what it’s like to be trapped in the struggle, trying to stay healthy enough to work a thankless job when even ibuprofin is a luxury, to take online courses after a full day’s work on an empty stomach, to sacrifice, to swallow pride, and to work really hard, whether people “see” the work or not.
i’m going to be annoying and type out a whole thing now, but i think this part of the book does the best job at highlighting both the social science bits (how unreasonable the system) and the memoir bits (how humiliating to endure the perceptions of needing the system). it also gives you a good sense of her writing style, and you can always not read it if you don’t like reading.
Even though I really needed it, I stopped using WIC checks for milk, cheese, eggs, and peanut butter — I never seemed to get the right size, brand, or color of eggs, the correct type of juice, or the specific number of ounces of cereal anyway. Each coupon had such specific requirements in what it could be used for, and I held my breath when the cashier rang them up. I always screwed up in some way and caused a holdup in the line. Maybe others did the same, since cashiers grew visibly annoyed whenever they saw one of those large WIC coupons on the conveyor belt. Once, after massive amounts of miscommunication with the cashier, an older couple started huffing and shaking their heads at me.
My caseworker at the WIC office even prepared me for it. The program had recently downgraded their qualifying milk from organic to non-organic, leaving me with a missing chunk in my food budget I couldn’t afford to make up. If at all possible, I tried to give Mia only organic whole milk. Non-organic, 2 percent milk might as well have been white-colored water to me, packed with sugar, salt, antibiotics, and hormones. These coupons were my last chance for a while to offer her the one organic food she ingested (besides her boxes of Annie’s macaroni and cheese).
When I’d scoffed at losing the benefit to purchase organic whole milk, my caseworker nodded and sighed. “We just don’t have the funding for it anymore,” she’d told me. I somewhat understood, since a half gallon had a price tag of nearly four dollars. “The obesity rates are going up in children,” she added, “and this is a program focused on providing the best nutrition.”
“They don’t realize that skim milk is full of sugar?” I asked, allowing Mia to climb out of my lap so she could play with the toys in the corner.
“They’re also adding ten dollars for produce!” she added brightly, ignoring my grumpy attitude. “You can purchase any produce you want, except potatoes.”
“Why not potatoes?” I thought of the large batches of mashed potatoes I made to supplement my diet.
“People tend to fry them or add lots of butter,” she said, looking a little confused herself. “You can get sweet potatoes, though!” She explained I’d have to purchase exactly ten dollars’ worth or less, and I wouldn’t be able to go over, or the check wouldn’t work. I wouldn’t get any change if the produce I selected rang in under ten dollars. The coupons didn’t have any real monetary value.
That day at the store, with it being the last month of organic milk, I wanted every bit I could get.
“Your milk isn’t a WIC item,” the cashier said again. “It won’t ring up that way.” She started to turn to the young man bagging our other groceries and sighed. I knew she was going to tell him to go run and get the right kind of milk. It happened to me with the eggs all the time.
My checks weren’t expired, but the store had already updated their system. Normally, I would have cowered, taken the non-organic milk, and run out, especially with two old people shaking their heads in annoyance. I glanced at them again and caught the man standing with his arms crossed and head tilted, eyeing my pants with holes in the knees. My shoes were getting holes in the toes. He loudly sighed again.
I asked to speak to the manager. The cashier’s eyebrows shot up as she shrugged her shoulders and put up her hands in front of me, like I’d pulled out a gun and ordered her to give me all her money.
“Sure,” she said, evenly and coolly; the voice of a customer service representative faced with an unruly shopper. “I’ll get the manager for you.”
As he walked over, I could see his flustered employee following behind him, red-faced and gesturing wildly, even pointing at me, to explain her side of the story. He immediately apologized and overrode the cash register. Then he rang up my organic whole milk as a WIC item, bagged it, and told me to have a wonderful day.
As I pushed my cart away, my hands still shaking, the old man nodded towards my groceries and said, “You’re welcome!”
I grew infuriated. You’re welcome for what?” I wanted to yell back at him. That he’d waited so impatiently, huffing and grumbling to his wife? It couldn’t have been that. It was that I was obviously poor, and shopping in the middle of the day, pointedly not at work. He didn’t know I had to take an afternoon off for the WIC appointment, missing $40 in wages, where they had to weigh both Mia and me. We left with a booklet of coupons that supplemented about the same as those lost wages, but not the disgruntled client whom I’d had to reschedule, who might, if I ever needed to reschedule again, go with a different cleaner, because my work was that disposable. But what he saw was that those coupons were paid for by government money, the money he’d personally contributed to with the taxes he’d paid. To him, he might as well have personally bought the fancy milk I insisted on, but I was obviously poor so I didn’t deserve it.
ugh, right? don’t go over, don’t go under, buy this, don’t buy that, jump through hoops and get it all right and people will STILL look down on you for the fun carefree life you’re having living hand to mouth. good grief.
so, yeah – it’s just one woman’s experience, but it exposes a lot of systemic cracks and maybe it’ll make one old man at a grocery store less of a jerk someday.
* you are not time-traveling! i started this review months ago and got distracted by shiny things.