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Parenting Below the Poverty Line

Stephanie Land is an angry poor person with two kids—don't mess with her. Read her book.



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Land points to the proposed changes to the Farm Bill as an example of increased requirements for SNAP benefits. Although Congress voted for an $867 billion Farm Bill in December, just a week later the Trump administration declared that it would continue seeking more stringent regulations on who can receive SNAP benefits, including increasing work requirements for older workers between ages 49 and 59, and for workers with young children ages 6 to 12. The proposed changes would affect over 1 million households nationwide.

The perpetual fear of living with financial instability and working hard—while constantly proving how hard she worked—wasn't the only thing that weighed on Land. In Maid, she opens up about living in a state of shame for receiving benefits, and the stereotypes and resentment often projected on to poor people, even by friends. She describes people commenting with snide voices, "You're welcome" when they'd spot her using food stamps at the checkout line.

"It seemed like certain members of society looked for opportunities to judge or scold poor people for what they felt we didn't deserve," Land writes. "They'd see a person buying fancy meats with an EBT card and use that as evidence for their theory that everyone on food stamps did the same."

For many, the mere idea of public assistance certainly evokes stereotypes and raises questions about who deserves help (and for those that are deemed worthy of help, how much support they deserve also comes into question). And of course, there's a classist assumption that all moms use their food stamps strictly to buy junk food for their kids, which Land—unapologetically—said she did on special occasions.

"I used to do that for Christmas. I bought candy with food stamps," she says. "I used to buy treats for my kid because that was all I could get her. I couldn't afford to get her a toy or a lot of stuff, but I could buy her a piece of candy with food stamps. To me, I'm giving my child a moment of joy."

In addition to the stress of financial insecurity and the grueling, often degrading experience of scrubbing other people's toilets that Land addresses in Maid, she offers a glimpse into the isolation she often felt raising Mia alone:

Sometimes just walking behind a two-parent family on a sidewalk could trigger shame from being alone. I zeroed in on them—dressed in clothes I could never afford, diaper bag carefully packed into an expensive jogger stroller. Those moms could say things that I never could: "Honey, could you take this?" or "Here, can you hold her for a second?" The child could go from one parent's arms to the other's.

Land eventually left Washington and completed her English degree at University of Montana's creative writing program. She continued cleaning houses until her last year in school, when her second daughter was just a baby. Since graduation, her career path has taken an upward swing; in addition to getting Maid published, Land now works as a full-time writer.

She's been a fellow at Center for Community Change and the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, and has published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Guardian, Salon, The Nation and elsewhere.

"I felt like I had to hold myself accountable to the degree, and I stubbornly kept myself to that—not that there's anything wrong with side gigs or having to go back into cleaning," she says.


According to a report issued by the U.S. Census Bureau in September 2018, there are 39.7 million people living in poverty across the country, and based on the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, there are over 900,000 house cleaners nationwide in 2017, earning an average of $11 per hour. Maid takes these impersonal statistics and the topic of income inequality and gives them a face. Her voice represents millions who are attempting to survive on low wages—and reveals the truth of what it's like for so many single parents struggling to get by, one day at a time:

I would hear the same thing again and again: "I don't know how you do it." When their husbands went out of town or worked late all the time, they'd say, "I don't know how you do it," shaking their heads, and I always tried not to react. I wanted to tell them those hours without your husband aren't even close to replicating what it is like to be a single parent, but I let them believe it did. Arguing with them would reveal too much about myself, and I was never out to get anyone's sympathy. Besides, they couldn't know unless they felt the weight of poverty themselves. The desperation of pushing through because it was the only option.

Land says her book is succeeding, in part because "people are more apt to listen to someone who is on the other side and who is a success story, and I cringe at that, because the system is not a successful system."

In a perfect world, Maid would become required reading in schools across the country. In the very least, it should evoke compassion and stir empathy in people who have never walked in Land's shoes. And hopefully that empathy can lead to big changes in how poor people are treated in America.

"I'm really hoping that my book changes the way people think about the lower classes and working classes," she says, "and I'm hoping it increases their view of humanity, and gives them more compassion. I hope it sets up the stage for more books like mine to come out, from women of color and from more people in the margins.

"I think the world should be ready to hear from angry poor people."


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