REVIEW: Maid by Stephanie Land

In brief: Stephanie is a single mother in America, poor and working cleaning houses. It’s not enough to survive, let alone try to improve things.

The good: A look into poverty in America.

The not-so-good: Very sad at times.

Why I chose it: Sounded interesting (I haven’t seen the Netflix series yet).

Year: 2019

Pages: 270

Publisher: Trapeze (Hachette)

Setting: Mainly Washington state, USA

Maid is a haunting look at living in poverty and relying on everchanging government assistance in America. It’s well written and doesn’t pull any punches on the continual need to earn more, save more but never being able to do so.

Stephanie had dreams of studying in Montana when she found out she was pregnant. Her relationship with the baby’s father became untenable and she and her daughter were forced into a homeless shelter. With little money and no higher education, limited job options were available (plus the need to look after her daughter). Stephanie works as a maid, cleaning houses with bathrooms as big as her studio apartment and dealing with unfathomable dirtiness, mould and plain lazy people who happen to have money to spend. When Stephanie is not working, she’s calculating how much money she needs to live and how she can work more. There’s also an overview of government benefits available to her, which involve a lot of form completion and long visits to various offices. If she works more, she gets less child care and health care. But if she doesn’t work more, she doesn’t eat. There are also descriptions of being humiliated by buying food with food stamps with strangers unhelpfully pointing out that their taxes ‘paid’ for her food. (I’m not sure what the American government’s distribution of taxes is like, but in Australia, health is a bigger proportion of taxation than welfare). The American health system is also a minefield to navigate, looking for Medicaid providers for Stephanie’s daughter while she doesn’t appear to be eligible. There are also negative incidents with landlords and some hints at disharmony within her family.

In between this, the narrative tells of the different houses Stephanie cleans and their quirks (from dog hair to porn). She’s very perceptive about her clients, although she rarely sees them, noting their health generally failing by the increasing pill bottles or other tell-tale changes. But overall, the memoir describes how it feels to be on the bottom of the class pile with improvement seeming like an impossible reach. It would have been interesting to know if Stephanie’s white privilege played any role and how she would change the system to improve things. It’s a good insight into poverty, told with emotion but not overwrought.  It raises the questions; how would you manage this situation? How would you try to prevent falling into this cycle? How can we help others caught in the cycle of poverty?

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