When I read this book, I knew right away that the reactions would be polarizing. There will be a lot of people who will hate it, and a lot like me who will identify with it somehow. I think that people who have never been poor will benefit a lot from reading it. The very first chapter of the book drew me in an kept me reading, and it made such an impact on me because the scenario she described there is somewhat familiar. If you’ve ever been poor at some point in your life, many of the things she wrote here will resonate with you.
The book goes back in forth to her past and present. She didn’t grow up poor, but it showed how a series of events and decisions led her to a path of poverty. She shows what being poor in America looks like for many people, and it’s far from the stereotype that people on welfare are all lazy. More often than not, those who work hardest are paid least for their backbreaking labor.
Land writes about the stigma of being poor, that feeling of never doing enough, and the debilitating guilt of not being able to provide better for her child. She writes about some things that some people may not understand or identify with, like why poor people may often spend their money on what others may consider frivolities. She writes about how being poor means that you’re one unforeseen expense away from spiraling out of control. An accident, an illness, any sudden expense may upset the budget that’s already stretched extremely thin and end up in homelessness. Every moment of every day is lived on a precarious edge. For some people, losing a month’s paycheck is a hardship; for some, it sets off a series of events that will take a long time and a lot of effort to recover from.
She writes about the attitude of people towards those like her who are on welfare and uses food stamps, and honestly it made my heart ache. It’s so easy to dehumanize people who are poor without even bothering to learn why and how they got there.
Being from a third world country, it fascinates me how many welfare programs there are in the US. They’re not perfect, and there are so many paperwork to submit and hoops to jump through before you can qualify for them, but they’re there. People can really apply for them and these programs can be very instrumental in helping people get back on their feet. It’s so different from the experience of being “third world poor”, where there’s no single real, functioning welfare program in place. I read about these programs with a hungry heart, wondering if my country will ever get to the point where the government cares for the most vulnerable members of society.
The writer does not romanticize poverty, though she does recognize that the things that are the sources of happiness in her life are those that can’t be purchased with money. It’s not whole chapters of whining, but an appeal to see struggling people as people. To really see and have empathy for them and not just dismiss them. She writes about having to fight for every single dollar as she lives among what seemed like inaccessible prosperity around her. She writes about how alone she feels, not just because she had separated from her abusive partner and is raising her daughter alone, but because practically all of her family had checked out of her life. She also writes about the sprinkling of people she encountered who treated her as their equal, who respected the work that she is doing and the effort she is making to survive. To them, she’s “Stephanie”, not just “the maid”.
I really loved reading this book. It’s one of those books that you wish was a lot longer than it is.