Stephanie Land’s memoir comes at an extremely important time in the world’s social and political climate. The very existence of her memoir is in direct defiance of the shame and stigma surrounding poverty. When I saw this memoir appearing in my social media feeds I was extremely excited to know more from Land. Although her experiences speak to poverty and the working poor in the U.S.A. I feel that there are many things relating to the stigma and mistreatment of the poor that are universal around the world.
I would define the concept of ‘the working poor’ as being people who work almost always full-time, yet are not able to make enough money to live above the poverty line and pay for their life essentials (food, housing, healthcare, etc.). It is a tragedy that the working poor still exists in today’s societies. The people who are directly affected by it, often times have no voice or ability to speak out about their experiences. They are also unable to enact change or maintain agency over their lives and the lives of their close family. As pointed out in Land’s memoir, stories like Land’s are just one of many millions of stories that could be told around the world about poverty. What is confronting about her story is that is a silent epidemic.
There are two main points that I feel are extremely important when talking about Land’s work and that is the stigma of poverty and the bureaucratisation of government aid for helping the poor. Firstly, the idea that poor people abuse a system so they can be lazy and not work is a stereotype that comes out over and over again. It is a universal stigma that seems to transcend all geographical lines. The idea that poor people should be eternally grateful to taxpayers is the second half of the stigma. By not actively thanking every working citizen every time a poor person uses food stamps or government benefits means that they don’t care about the benefits they receive. I have to say, that these two stereotypes are just not an accurate representation of poor people. The majority of people in poverty wish to get out of it: they do not wish to be homeless, or wish to live below the poverty line; they do not wish to live in houses and apartments that are so run down their health is affected; and they do not wish to buy and eat expired food because it is cheaper. And this leads me to my next point, that poor people are not ungrateful. I think, having grown up with money struggles in government housing myself, that poor people understand more than most people the weight of a gift or a ‘handout’. The shame of having to admit that you cannot afford things, or that you need to ask for help over and over again whether it be monetary or otherwise is just exhausting. Most poor people feel they are a burden to the people around them, whilst simultaneously knowing that without the kindness of others and the help of the government they would have nothing.
Lastly, the over bureaucratisation of government aid is detrimental to poor people. As Land describes throughout her book, she often had to take time off work—which meant losing significant amounts of money she could not afford to lose—just so she could go wait in line to hand in documents to a government office. Certificates, forms, letters from employers, and letters from landlords to prove a certain level of poverty is extremely draining and exhausting for poor people. It also can hinder poor people from getting jobs and housing. The reason for this is that if landlords or real estate agents know that they need to do extra work for a tenant, usually they won’t want to do this. Compounded by the fact that they need to do this extra work because the person is poor (insert all discussion on stigmas here) will further make people less likely to help. The same can be said for employers. By stating that there is a bureaucracy problem in the way that poverty is handled is also not advocating for the removal of all government regulations and requirements. What it is arguing for is a better and efficient system that allows governments to regulate the way they help poor people, but to also offer poor people the chance to feel human. A recent study in Finland pointed out that:
The recipients of a basic income [without any reporting or bureaucratic regulations] had less stress symptoms as well as less difficulties to concentrate and less health problems than the control group. They were also more confident in their future and in their ability to influence societal issues.For more information about the study, click the link above.
Land’s memoir humanises poverty and tells one of its many stories. It hopefully will open up more discussions about being poor and how we can help and have more empathy. I am so thankful for Land’s testimony and hope this is a watershed moment for classism and poverty around the world. I hope that Land’s is memoir is one of many to come.
Have you read “Maid”? How do you think your community could better help the poor? And how do these sorts of memoirs inspire you to reflect on your own communities? As always, share the reading love.