Financial instability up close
Four days of debate in June may yield a progressive Democratic platform focused on addressing systemic inequality. If so, that change will be in no small part because of the ongoing grassroots activism across the country demanding changes. One powerful strategy has been to change the dominant narrative that studiously ignores the systemic undervaluing and exploitation of labor in favor of personalizing poverty as a moral failing.
Changing the narrative matters. The Poor People’s Campaign, working towards their Moral Action Congress in DC June 17-19, articulates this as a central tenet of their work:
“We aim to shift the distorted moral narrative often promoted by religious extremists in the nation from issues like prayer in school, abortion, and gun rights, to one that is concerned with how our society treats the poor, those on the margins, the least of these, women, LGBTQIA folks, workers, immigrants, the disabled and the sick; equality and representation under the law; and the desire for peace, love and harmony within and among nations.”
In partnership with the Institute for Policy Studies, the Poor People’s Campaign has audited efforts made in the fifty years since the campaign was started by Martin Luther King Jr and thousands of others. The Souls of Poor Folk, available free via the PPC and IPS websites, tackles two central myths: poverty is the fault of the poor, and that, in spite of our abundance in the US, there isn’t enough here for everyone to survive and thrive.
The Economic Hardship Reporting Project (EHRP ) is similarly designed to disrupt narratives about financial instability and poverty. Founded in 2012 by Barbara Ehrenreich, EHRP aims to give voice and work to writers and photographers from underrepresented groups, following in the tradition of the Farm Security Administration and the Works Progress Administration. As they say on their website, EHRP’s “aim is to humanize inequality: Our writers and photographers, some of whom may be on the brink of poverty themselves, tell intimate, heartbreaking and sometimes shocking stories originating from their own communities.”
…when a person is too deep in systemic poverty, there is no upward trajectory. Life is struggle and nothing else.
Stephanie Land, author of the memoir Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive, is a writer whose work has been supported by EHRP. In Maid, Lane recounts her experiences living as a single mom in and around Port Townsend and Skagit Valley, making a living cleaning houses. Through her descriptive writing, Land unveils the circumstances of her life as a housecleaner:
“My job afforded me little money to spend on clothes, even for work. I worked through illnesses and brought my daughter to daycare when she should have been at home. 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. We lived, we survived, in careful imbalance. This was my unwitnessed existence, as I polished another’s to make theirs appear perfect.”
Land describes listening to co-workers and parents at her daughter’s preschool and even strangers comment disparagingly on people using food stamps. Most of the time, they exclude her from their judgements:
“When people think of food stamps, they don’t envision someone like me: someone plain-faced and white. Someone like the girl they’d known in high school who’d been quiet but nice. Someone like a neighbor. Someone like them. Maybe that made them too nervous about their own situation. Maybe they saw in me the chance of their own fragile circumstances, that, with one lost job, one divorce, they’d be in the same place as I was.”
She also describes encounters in grocery stores where strangers insult her for choosing organic milk for her three-year old daughter, for presuming she has a right to care about her daughter’s nutrition.
A pervasive theme in the book is the labor of single parenting. The father of Land’s daughter takes care of her occasionally, and for a while, Land lives with another man. However, primary responsibility for caring for her child falls to Land. The work is grueling.
“Single parenting isn’t just being the only one to take care of your kid. It’s not about being able to ‘tap out’ for a break or tag team bath- and bedtime; those were the least of the difficulties I faced. I had a crushing amount of responsibility. I took out the trash. I brought in the groceries I had gone to the store to select and buy. I cooked. I cleaned. I changed out the toilet paper. I made the bed. I dusted. I checked the oil in the car. I drove Mia to the doctor, to her dad’s house…. When I sat down, I worried.”
For several years, Land’s daily circumstances lead her to focus on day to day problem solving with no future orientation. She couldn’t afford it:
“As a poor person, I was not accustomed to looking past the month, week, or sometimes hour. 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.”
What finally allows Land to break out of her day-to-day labor cleaning houses is the risk she takes at Skagit Valley College to apply for financial aid. With that loan, Land was able to stop working as much, complete her associate degree, and move on to Montana to finish a BA in English and writing. In reflecting on her decision, Land writes that it was the legacy of her mother achieving middle-class status (albeit temporarily) through education that let her take a similar risk. As she puts it, shortsightedness kept her from getting overwhelmed, but it also kept her from dreaming: “When a person is too deep in systemic poverty, there is no upward trajectory. Life is struggle and nothing else. But for me, many of my decisions came from an assumption that things would, eventually, start to improve.”
Land’s memoir is worth reading, whether or not you’ve worked as a housecleaner, been a single parent, or have experienced extended financial instability and poverty. Like the Poor People’s Campaign, like The Souls of Poor Folk, Land gives voice to the experiences that any progressive political platform must address.
Emily Lardner lives, works and writes in Grays Harbor County.