Maid by Stephanie Land is a single mother’s personal, unflinching look at America’s class divide, a description of the tightrope many families walk just to get by, and a reminder of the dignity of all work.
Barack Obama, in his social media post announcing his summer reading list, 2019.
My job offered no sick pay, no vacation days, no foreseeable increase in wage, yet through it all, still I begged to work more. Wages lost from missed work hours could rarely be made up, and if I missed too many, I risked being fired. My car’s reliability was vital, since a broken hose, a faulty thermostat, or even a flat tire could throw us off, knock us backward, send us teetering, falling back, toward homelessness.
Stephanie Land, Maid
Her book has the needed quality of reversing the direction of the gaze. Some people who employ domestic labor will read her account. Will they see themselves in her descriptions of her clients? Will they offer their employees the meager respect Land fantasizes about? Land survived the hardship of her years as a maid, her body exhausted and her brain filled with bleak arithmetic, to offer her testimony. It’s worth listening to.
From the New York Times Review of this book by Emily Cooke
It’s been a lot of years since I read the modern-day classic, Nickel and Dimed: On Not Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich. It is an honest look at the work of the people in low-wage jobs. Barbara Ehrenreich, a woman with a Ph.D., went “undercover,” working as a house cleaner at a motel, a server at a diner-type restaurant, a stocker at a Walmart. It is a book still very much worth reading.
A more recent book is Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive by Stephanie Land. Barbara Ehrenreich, by the way, wrote the forward. I presented my synopsis of this book at the October Urban Engagement Book Club, for CitySquare. This book is the perfect follow-up read to Nickel and Dimed.
This is a memoir, with plenty of insight about the life and struggles of a single mother who had very, very little money and few resources, working as a “maid’ for a house cleaning company, and a few “private” clients.
At the center of this story is the love Stephanie had/has for her daughter, Mia.
It is a very good book to read.
As always, I ask What is the point? The point is this: listen to the story (stories) of a single mother struggling to make it. This provides a journey into a class of people struggling daily, in a country of plenty.
And I ask: Why is this book worth our time? Here are my three reasons for this book:
#1 – This book will help you see, in a graphic way, how someone struggles to work, and juggle benefits, to make it. To make it pretty much alone; on her own…
#2 – This book will remind you how invisible the everyday worker seems to be.
#3 – This book puts a very human face on the struggles of those invisible among us…
I always include a few dozen Quotes and Excerpts from the book. Here are the best of my selected highlighted passages:
• Many things I learned from therapists throughout the turmoil Mia and I endured with Jamie said that, in order for children to develop emotional intelligence and be resilient, it’s important, if not vital, for them to have one stable caregiver in their life, one adult person who doesn’t waver in being there when they say they will. …as long as one pinnacle person remained.
• I had looked under every stone, peered through the window of every government assistance building, and joined the long lines of people who carried haphazard folders of paperwork to prove they didn’t have money. I was overwhelmed by how much work it took to prove I was poor.
• She treated me like a person, tucking her short, copper-red hair behind her ear as she spoke. But my thoughts were stuck on when she called me “lucky.” I didn’t feel lucky. Grateful, yes. Definitely. But having luck, no. Not when I was moving into a place with rules that suggested that I was an addict, dirty, or just so messed up in life that I needed an enforced curfew and pee tests.
• I was grateful for programs that fed my family, but I’d also carry back home a bag of shame, each time mentally wrestling with what the cashier thought of me, a woman with an infant in a sling, purchasing food on public assistance.
• Though I didn’t know it then, the government had worked that year to change the stigma surrounding the twenty-nine million people who used food stamps by giving it a new name: the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). But whether you called it SNAP or food stamps, the assumption that the poor stole hardworking Americans’ tax money to buy junk food was unchanged.
• The months of poverty, instability, and insecurity created a panic response that would take years to undo.
• To the government and everyone else, it was inherent they shouldn’t trust me.
• Decisions over what to keep and what to donate or attempt to sell weren’t easy. Things I stored were equally useless and priceless.
• I needed a hug from a mom so badly I could easily see myself choking on a few tears and asking for one.
• I’d been there for Mia, but I’d needed someone to hold my hand, be there for me. Sometimes mothers need to be mothered, too. …If I started crying every time something hard or horrible happened, well, I’d just be crying all the time.
• As the night stretched out before me, I created a vision of a “happy” life. There would be a large yard of freshly cut green grass and a tree with a swing hanging from a branch. …Most of my clients had these things—the things I yearned for in those dark nights sitting up alone—and they did not seem to enjoy life any more than I did.
• I didn’t know what to do. I had no resources, no parents to call, no parenting coach or therapist or even a group of moms I’d connected with. …How would a stay-at-home mom, whose child had tantrums for normal things, understand my daughter’s anger? …I couldn’t provide her with a home, or food, and accepted handouts to help with the tiny space we occupied.
• I compartmentalized my life the same way I cleaned every room of every house—left to right, top to bottom. Whether on paper or in my mind, the problems I had to deal with first—the car repair, the court date, the empty cupboards—went at the top, on the left. The next pressing issue went next to it, on the right. I’d focus on one problem at a time, working left to right, top to bottom. …but it also kept me from dreaming. “Plan for five years from now” never made it to that top corner.
• One weekend, I pulled The Alchemist off my shelf to read. The short book took two whole days to get through, since almost every page had a line that I’d underline, read again, and had to stare out the window to think about for a while. …the main character’s journey to find his destiny, only to discover it had been at home all along.
In my synopsis, I included these points and lessons from the book:
- What you don’t have
- a place to put stuff
- My lack of living space afforded me room only for things that were useful.
- money for escape – even to McDonald’s
- money to bring joy to your daughter
- a partner; or, anyone to call for help…anyone…
- I craved a mom, someone I could trust.
- I wished there was someone I could call to help or even talk to.
- the ability/freedom to make more money – because, the more money you make, the more they take away from your benefits…
- More in wages meant I received a smaller amount of food stamps
- 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.
- a safe place to live – (mainly about physical health; i.e., living with dangerous mold…)
- You need seven different kinds of assistance to survive:
- If I had stopped to add it up, the Pell Grant, SNAP, TBRA, LIHEAP, WIC, Medicaid, and childcare would total seven different programs I’d applied for. I needed seven different kinds of government assistance to survive.
- The work of a maid (house cleaner)
- when she worked for the “company,” she did not get to know the clients; and she made only slightly better than 1/3 of the money charged by the company
- Classic Clean charged $25 an hour to have me work in a home, but I still only made nine.
- she had to clean things “a certain way” — with limited resources.
- I had to clean the house in a specific way, the exact manner and amount of time as the person before me, to prevent any differences between cleaners being noticed.
- Here’s a lesson – that other person’s meanness may not be at you, but from within them…
- I understood now why she’d fired me. It wasn’t my incompetence. She’d fired me because she couldn’t afford the barter anymore, or wanted to do it herself to save money, and tore me down in the process.
And here are my six lessons and takeaways:
#1 – It takes great courage to keep going when times are truly tough. Let’s applaud those with such courage.
#2 – The system is tough to navigate. You have to make enough money; but not too much.
#3 – People can cause great heartache with their intentional, and unintentional, meanness, and lack of empathy (or even simple sympathy).
#4 – No matter how bleak, one has to have some hint of a dream — a dream of hope — to keep going.
#5 – In the end, you can only rely on yourself. But one can find help along the way. Welcome it; be grateful for it. – (Maybe The Alchemist had been right. Maybe if I took the first step toward my own dreams, the Universe would open and guide the way).
#6 – And, we probably all need to read a few more books like this. It will do our hearts good.
Here is one thing that comes through in both this book, and in Nickel and Dimed. These jobs are demanding. They require serious hard work, and a good work ethic. Stephanie Land was praised, by her clients, and her books, for her work ethic. She was not a lazy worker!
If you are a person with resources, then read this to remind you of those who do not have such plenty. If you struggle with too few resources, read this to find a fellow traveler; and, maybe, to find a little courage.
This is a good book. It is worth your time to read it.
I am so happy that Larry James, CEO and President of CitySquare, will be our guest presenter at the December 7 First Friday Book Synopsis.
Larry has most graciously agreed to substitute for me while I attend the annual communication of the Masonic Grand Lodge of Texas, in my capacity as a member of the Education and Service Committee.
Many of you will remember his stunning presentation of Rudolph Guiliani’s book entitled Leadership several years ago.
This time, he will present Jon Gordon’s best-seller, The Energy Bus. This book was written in 2007, but continues to appear on business best-seller lists. It has had a 12-week run on the Wall Street Journal list. You will enjoy the practical advice that Gordon shares in this book, and perhaps even more, the presentation and spin you will hear from Larry James.
We have an exciting bonus program for you following the synopsis. Randy Mayeux will present a synopsis of a best-seller about poverty, and CitySquare officials, including Larry James, will participate in a discussion with you afterwards. All of the proceeds from this program will go directly to CitySquare. I am so impressed with what they do, and I am thrilled to have them as one of our charities that we support annually.
The organization’s website touts the fact that it goes after the root cause of hunger, not a quick-fix. It says: “We don’t fight poverty for the poor—we fight poverty with the poor. Our 24-year commitment to addressing the root causes of poverty, both on an individual and systemic level, combined with our unyielding commitment to stewardship (over 92 cents of each dollar goes directly to services for those in need) makes CitySquare a proven leader in our community and beyond.” You can read more about this amazing organization at: http://citysq.org/
I appreciate your attendance and contribution to the bonus program. It will be well worth your time. If you cannot stay, can you contribute? We will take your tax-deductible donations at the registration desk that day.
You can register for this event at: www.firstfridaybooksynopsis.com
For practically every family, the ingredients of poverty are part financial and part psychological, part personal and part societal, part past and part present. Every problem magnifies the impact of the others, and all are so tightly interlocked that one reversal can produce a chain reaction with results far distant from the original cause.
If problems are interlocking, then so must solutions be. A job alone is not enough. Medical insurance alone is not enough. Good housing alone is not enough. Reliable transportation, careful family budgeting, effective parenting, effective schooling are not enough when each is achieved in isolation from the rest. There is no single variable that can be altered to help working people move away from the edge of poverty. Only where the full array of factors is attacked can America fulfill its promise.
The first step is to see the problems, and the first problem is the failure to see the people.
David Shipler: The Working Poor (Invisible in America)
How does anyone live on the wages available to the unskilled?
Something is wrong, very wrong, when a single person in good health, a person who in addition possesses a working car, can barely support herself by the sweat of her brow. You don’t need a degree in economics to see that wages are too low and rents too high.
Barbara Ehrenreich: Nickel and Dimed – On (Not) Getting By in America
News item: Non college graudates are seeing their job opportunites completely disappear. From Do You Have a Job? by Daniel E. Slotnik:
For many young people in America, steady work is far from guaranteed. A new study shows that only one of six high school graduates is now employed full time, and although 73 percent think they will need more education, only half say they will enroll. Are you now employed? What jobs have you had in the past? Do you think you could find work after high school, if you choose not to attend college?
In her article “More Young Americans Out of High School Are Also Out of Work,” Catherine Rampell writes:
Whatever the sob stories about recent college graduates spinning their wheels as baristas or clerks, the situation for their less-educated peers is far worse, according to a report from the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University scheduled to be released on Wednesday.
Today is Urban Engagement Book Club day. Twice a month, I present a synopsis of a book that deals with social justice or poverty at this event hosted by CitySquare. This is one part of a multi-part life I am living. On one day, I present a synopsis of a best selling and challenging business book. On the next day, I present a synopsis of a book that deals with some aspect of human struggle, even human misery – books on social justice and poverty. (I also do some presentation skills training; some keynote speaking, and a few other kinds of corporate-training-like activities). I like everything that I do, and believe it is all useful to the folks that I interact with regularly. I really do want to help people get “better” at what they do.
But it is the social justice part of my schedule that probably wins the “what matters most to you?” top spot. I care about these issues deeply. I’ve read too many books; I’ve read Isaiah and Amos from the Bible. Caring about the neediest among us really is a big human deal. To fail to do so makes us a little less human.
Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!
These words come from Amos 5, and here are a few of the other words that precede that famous “climax” in the chapter:
You levy a straw tax on the poor and impose a tax on their grain. Therefore, though you have built stone mansions, you will not live in them; though you have planted lush vineyards, you will not drink their wine.
For I know how many are your offenses and how great your sins.
There are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes and deprive the poor of justice in the courts…
Seek good, not evil.
Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts.
Caring for the poor; helping the cause of the poor; seeking and providing justice. These may not be needed all that much by those with great means. But as for the neediest… these matter a great deal. And the neediest among us seems to be a growing group at the moment.
Today’s book at the Urban Engagement Book Club is Family Properties: Race, Real Estate, and the Exploitation of Black Urban America by Beryl Satter. This is a book about a specific injustice, the “exploitation” of black people in Chicago. But that story has been replicated in city after city. This may be the key quote in the book:
When a seller in the black market demands exorbitant prices and onerous sales terms relative to the terms and prices available to white citizens for comparable housing, it cannot be stated that a dollar in the hands of a black man will purchase the same thing as a dollar in the hands of a white man.
The book is really about how people with means find ways to make a lot of money – a lot of money — off of black people without the same level of means. It is a story overflowing with racism. But there is a warning in here for all folks.
I fear that we are in for much more of this kind of exploitation. People with inadequate means is a growing demographic. High school graduates (and those who did not graduate from high school – some 23-27% of all high school students) are simply unable to find work (see the news item above). The situation is going to be increasingly dire. And this book chronicles just how adept some folks are at making a lot of money off of the exploitation of the poor. The poor black people were the victims in Chicago. And such racially charged abuse is still present in far too many places. But the plight of all types of people without adequate means is a story that I think we need to know, and give some serious thought to.
May I make a suggestion? As we read business books, and as we think about improving our own business, and getting ahead financially – let’s not forget the needy among us. And not just with an occasional charitable gift. Let’s give this issue some real attention. Consider reading an occasional book that deals with such social justice issues. (Start with the Shipler book, The Working Poor. He is a Pulitzer Prize winning author, and this book is honest, thorough, well-written).
Could anything help our country more than for all of us to set our minds to some solutions – to help create a better set of work possibilities for those now in such need, those without that college education to rely on?
It may be that the most patriotic thing any of us can do right now is to help the under-skilled and undereducated find work.
There are people with plenty. There are others with far from plenty. The poor are always at the top of mind at the Urban Engagement Book Club (sponsored by CitySquare). Today, I am presenting my synopsis of Teaching with Poverty in Mind: What Being Poor Does to Kids’ Brains and What Schools Can Do About It by Eric Jensen for this very different book discussion/community conversation gathering.
The book is good. It is focused on the school environment — but it provides a good reminder of the overall impact of poverty on people and the larger society. Here are two excerpts that summarize the essence of the book:
35 percent of poor families experienced six or more risk factors (such as divorce, sickness, eviction); only 2 percent experienced no risk factors. In contrast, only 5 percent of well-off families experienced six or more risk factors, and 10 percent experienced none. The aggregate of risk factors makes everyday living a struggle; they are multifaceted and interwoven, building on and playing off one another with a devastating synergistic effect. In other words one problem created by poverty begets another, which in turn contributes to another, leading to a seemingly endless cascade of deleterious consequences.
It’s safe to say that poverty and its attendant risk factors are damaging to the physical, socioemotional, and cognitive well-being of children and their families.
Moving toward Solution:
The worse off kids are, the greater the potential gain. If students come from good home environments, not much more than good teaching is necessary. But if students come from disadvantaged backgrounds, enrichment can have a dramatic impact on learning. And in these cases, an enrichment mind-set is crucial: every staff member must be on board and fully believe that every kid can succeed.
You’ll know when everyone at your school is on board. You’ll see it in the hallways, hear it in the classrooms, and feel it from the kids. You’ll notice that students enjoy their classes and overall school experience and are hopeful about the future; that teachers share information and strategies with colleagues and discuss issues constructively; that the staff lounge area airs more success stories than complaints; and that the teachers give affirmations and support to kids all day.
The first prerequisite for change is your belief in it – and your willingness to change yourself first. We can help kids rise above their predicted path of struggle if we see them as possibilities, not as problems… Students brains don’t change from more of the same. We must believe that change is possible; understand that the brain is malleable and will adapt to environmental input; and be willing to change that input.
We are all busy people. But I hope we will make some time in our schedule to think about those with the greatest needs. What we read, what we think about, what we pay attention to… all of this can lead us to do good things, better things, with our time and our resources.
And the need is so very great.
We can’t do everything at once. Literally, we cannot do everything at once. And so, a lot that needs to be paid attention to; a lot that needs to get done; a lot that is important, maybe crucial; is simply never dealt with. And the advocates of such concerns speak, and write, and yell, and scream, and yet, the issue is still ignored.
Because we can’t do everything at once.
There is a very old piece of folk-wisdom about this: “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.” And there is always a squeaky wheel, and the other wheels that need some grease simply do not get any until the squeak becomes almost unbearable.
I thought of this all this as I began to dive into the book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michele Alexander. This book is the selection for the March Urban Engagement Book Club (sponsored by CitySquare), a book club which focuses on issues of social justice and poverty.
Near the end of the book, Ms. Alexander writes this:
Change in civil rights organizations, like change in society as a whole, will not come easy. Fully committing to a vision of racial justice that includes grassroots, bottom-up advocacy on behalf of “all of us” will require a major reconsideration of priorities, staffing, strategies, and messages. Egos, competing agendas, career goals, and inertia may get in the way. It may be that traditional civil rights organizations simply cannot, or will not, change. To this it can only be said, without a hint of disrespect, adapt or die.
The book is an indictment of the new “caste” system in this country, a change that she backs up with an overwhelmingly clear argument, and data, like this:
There are more African Americans under correctional control today — in prison or jail, on probation or parole — than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.
This presents a serious challenge to all of us interested in issues of social justice and racial equality.
But the quote from the book also presents a reminder to all “set in their ways, blind to reality” companies and organizations. “Adapt or die.”
I have written before about this simple concept: you get what you pay attention to. (read this earlier blog post). I am convinced that this is as true a maxim as you can find. What gets attention determines the areas in which progress is made. What is ignored goes downhill… pretty quickly.
My friend, Larry James, is a genuine expert on poverty issues. The CEO of CitySquare (formerly Central Dallas Ministries), Larry has a terrific blog. (Larry James Urban Daily: read it here). In a recent post, he excerpted an article about the fight against poverty in Brazil. Here’s a key portion:
Today, however, Brazil’s level of economic inequality is dropping at a faster rate than that of almost any other country. Between 2003 and 2009, the income of poor Brazilians has grown seven times as much as the income of rich Brazilians. Poverty has fallen during that time from 22 percent of the population to 7 percent.
Contrast this with the United States, where from 1980 to 2005, more than four-fifths of the increase in Americans’ income went to the top 1 percent of earners.
Why is Brazil making such progress in its struggle against poverty? Because… this is what they are paying attention to. The people at the top pay attention to this problem – with serious focus.
Consider this portion of the inaugural address from the new President of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, delivered Saturday, January 1, 2011. (find the full text here: )
My Dear Brazilians,
My government’s most determined fight will be to eradicate extreme poverty and create opportunities for all.
We have seen significant social mobility during President Lula’s two terms. But poverty still exists to shame our country and prevent us from affirming ourselves fully as a developed people.
I will not rest while there are Brazilians who have no food on their tables, while there are desperate families on the streets, while there are poor children abandoned to their own devices. Family unity lies in food, peace and happiness. This is the dream I will pursue!
This is not the isolated task of one government, but a commitment to be embraced by all society. For this, I humbly ask for the support of public and private institutions, of all the parties, business entities and workers, the universities, our young people, the press and all those who wish others well.
What do you pay attention to? Whatever it is, it is likely that that is the area where you will make the most progress.