Spotlight Exclusives

Perceptions of Poverty: A Conversation with Stephanie Land

Stephanie Land, Community Change Stephanie Land, Community Change, posted on

Stephanie Land’s “Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive,” tells the story of her struggles to support her daughter while working as a maid and the glimpse that her profession gave her into the lives of the upper class. The book has generated significant praise and attention, including a spot on the New York Times bestseller list, since its publication in January. Spotlight spoke with Land about the book and the importance of humanizing poverty. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

This book has seemed to resonate with people. Why do you think that is?

The story is universal in nature. We all have kids or have been children ourselves. I think the mother/daughter aspect of the story is something a lot of people are connecting to as well.

There is also a bit of timeliness. We went through watching this government shutdown happen and saw how many Americans are living paycheck to paycheck. These were supposed to be good jobs, and now, two missed paychecks and they can’t afford to buy groceries. It created a sense of empathy with those who are struggling.

Additionally, we like success stories. And we like to hear from white people who have had a hard time. If I was a person of color and was frustrated with the system of government assistance the reaction would be different. This is a bummer. However, hopefully because they are paying so much attention to my story, they will look to pay attention to the stories of others as well.

Can you say more about this? How do you address the ways in which your background or appearance influence people’s perceptions of you?

I make sure to highlight it as much as possible. People are listening to me in part because I look like them. I am not the kind of person you would expect to experience homelessness and poverty.

A lot of well-intentioned older white ladies are confused as to why I was a maid. I have to bite my tongue and explain it was hard to find a job. There is a lot to my story that is surprising to much of the middle class. The image of poverty they have is a welfare queen or trailer park trash. All of these stigmatized conceptions of what it means to be poor.

You’re on tour now and getting the chance to engage with a wide variety of readers. What has that experience been like?

I hear a lot of stories from people who have lived experience with my story. And it’s not just at events. I get messages through my website and from across social media. There’s probably twenty messages a day saying, “I’m a single mom and I read your book and can’t believe how much of myself I saw in your story.”

Are you hearing from people who don’t have this same lived experience with poverty?

You get more of that in the questions at events. There are teachers, or social workers, or people running food banks. These are are advocates wondering how they can help this population. Of course, I’ve gotten a few out of touch questions as well.

Many of the events also have wealthier attendees. At a recent reading, the event attendant commented to me that every person in attendance probably had a house cleaner.

What inspired this book? And what message were you trying to get across?

When I started, I wanted to change stigmas that surround single moms. It’s assumed that we are taking advantage of the system, or we don’t work hard, or we are all making so many bad decisions that put us in the situation we are. I wanted to show that poor people work very hard, and that the government assistance system is broken and works against you.

But I didn’t think this would be the selling point. I thought people would buy the book because it’s about a housecleaner, and there have been hardly any mainstream memoirs about that. I thought people would buy it for the voyeurism and wanting to know what it’s like to be a maid. I was really surprised people are paying attention to the stuff I wanted them to pay attention to.

Can you say more about the stigma around poverty?

I think the core problem is that poverty is really scary and that it’s a vulnerable place to imagine yourself in. Imagine living out of your car and struggling with a family. That’s a really scary thing for a lot of people to consider.

I think as a defense system they point out bad decisions people made. Like for me, I didn’t go to college right out of high school, and I didn’t get married before I had a kid, and I bummed around for a lot of my 20s. There is a sense of wanting to separate yourself from it. I will never be like her. But it also allows you to feel like you don’t need to help her because she brought it on herself.

These stigmas allow people to distance themselves from poverty and not worry about it as much. And this goes back to the American myth, we assume if people aren’t making it, they aren’t working hard.

It sounds like hearing directly from those in poverty is crucial for changing the narrative?

Yes, but it’s hard to step forward. You’re already used to having your life and choices picked apart by so many people.

When I was about to turn in the first draft of the book, I was terrified about being the person to step forward. At that point, I thought the book would not do well. My only experience was internet comment sections. I thought people would respond like they normally do online. But someone else who also had experience with poverty said you have to tell that story. You have to help people see what it is like.

I have thick skin, but it’s really hard for a lot of my friends who are also freelance writers and single moms. One friend has an incredibly hard time with these kind of trolls on twitter. Here day is ruined as soon as she gets a horrible comment.

But we need more first-person narratives out there. Because I think it’s the only way we are going to get change and take the shame out of struggling. But we need to realize what we are asking people to do by coming forward and being open. And we need to help people through that process.

Stephanie Land is a writing fellow through the nonprofit Community Change. She lives in Missoula, Montana.

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