How “Maid” Shines a Spotlight on the Experiences of Poverty

By Regina Manyara

True Media Representation

Culture and media, and through them the stories we tell, are in a constant state of give and take with society. It is through this state that we try to understand each other and make sense of the world. Because of this, the media we consume are highly influential in shaping our reality, and this can be particularly detrimental if we are offered an incomplete construction of real life.

This has been the case for many years with how people in poverty have been portrayed in the media. In countries like the United States, the public has been led to believe that people in poverty are simply lazy and that all they need to do to sort out their lives is to get a job. Many see this as the true reality of poverty, because the real complexities and complications of poverty are missing from the media’s discussion and portrayal of it. In doing so the media also reduces poverty to a purely monetary issue, failing to capture its multidimensional nature.

The Hidden Dimensions of Poverty

This is what the Hidden Dimensions of Poverty participatory research project addresses. The project, conducted by ATD in collaboration with Oxford University, brought together people living in poverty, practitioners and academics to explore the dimensions of poverty which are often overlooked or misunderstood in policy work. Through the Merging of Knowledge process all participants in the project and the knowledge they brought were valued equally.

Along with highlighting new dimensions which had previously gone unrecognized, the project also foregrounds the interconnected nature of these dimensions.

At the heart of each person’s experience with poverty are the core dimensions: disempowerment; suffering in body, mind, and heart; and struggle and resistance. These dimensions speak to the deep effects of poverty on the individual and are rarely well understood by wider society.

On top of these core experiences are the more external dimensions, relational dynamics which includes: institutional maltreatment; social maltreatment; and unrecognized contributions, and privation which includes: lack of decent work; insufficient and insecure income; and material and social deprivation. These dimensions highlight how the burden of poverty does not rest solely on the individual and that it is greatly shaped by societal misconceptions and institutional inaction.

These nine dimensions are further impacted by five modifying factors: identity; time and duration; location; environment and environmental policy; and cultural beliefs. This emphasizes how each experience of poverty is unique to the individual’s circumstances.

Having these dimensions explored not only brings new light to how poverty policy design should be approached but also how people in poverty and their stories should be portrayed in the media.


The 2021 series “Maid” on Netflix is one such story which brings attention to the multidimensional nature of poverty. This story is based on the memoir, “Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive”, by Stephanie Land. Through her memoir, Land details her experience as a single mother navigating homelessness, cash assistance programs in the United States, and cleaning houses as a way to make ends meet. The Netflix series is a fictionalized adaptation of the memoir, allowing it to be grounded in the reality of Land’s experiences while not becoming entangled with her life.

The series follows Alex and her daughter Maddy, as they navigate many of the same experiences that Land describes in her memoir. From the first episode you quickly begin to understand how complicated cash assistance programs are. Like many of us who probably do not know the ins and outs of these programs, Alex is surprised to learn that she needs a job to prove she needs day care so that she can get a job. This leads her to start cleaning houses as part of a cleaning agency. As the show goes on, we see how these unseen requirements make it difficult for those who need it to get help from these programs.

Here Maid sheds light on the dimensions of privation in poverty. The complexities of work are not just limited to whether or not one can find a job but encompass whether the job is fairly paid, safe, secure, regulated and dignified. There is also the matter of whether the income is sufficient to meet basic needs and maintain a decent standard of living.

Lack of Decent Work

In an interview with NPR in 2019, the American public radio station, Land states that this is one thing she wishes could change about the system. She explains how job requirements are particularly immoral when they come in the way of receiving basic needs like food.

In the interview, Land expands on the many restrictions that come with government assistance. One restriction she describes is how the Women Infants and Children (WIC) checks she received for food required either the mother or the child to be nutritionally deficient in some way in order to be eligible for the grant. Additionally, only certain foods and certain brands were covered by the WIC checks, which made shopping for food even more complicated. Land tells NPR how, “that program almost became not worth it, because the amount in wages I was missing out on just to go to that appointment and get those [checks] wasn’t worth all the hassle involved.”

As Land explains, many people are not paid a living wage and need these programs for their survival and that of their families. For Land, the money she was making cleaning houses started at 8.55$/hour, not taking into account that she had to pay for her own supplies and gas to get to clients. She was also only allowed to work six hours a day. This situation was made worse by the “welfare cliff1”. As she explains, this is the threshold of how much money you can earn before cash assistance programs are either capped or taken away completely. “Food stamps [now called SNAPS] is pretty abrupt [because] if you go over the line then you’re suddenly not getting…two or three hundred dollars a month in assistance”.

In the Front Seat

As you watch “Maid”, you become enveloped in Alex’s story, experiencing the same frustrations and grievances as her with the difficulties she faces. This is due largely in part to the story being told entirely from her perspective. Through visual and auditory apparitions, dream sequences and fantasies, Alex’s point of view constructs how we experience the story.

When she first goes to find out about cash assistance programs, she hears the social worker call her “white trash”. As she realizes this is just something she heard in her head, you begin to understand the influence her own prejudices and fears have over her. Most notably, throughout the show, time and again we see a visual tally appear on the screen whenever Alex loses or gains money, emphasizing just how little she has.

With “Maid” being entirely subjective to Alex’s experiences, we are not only placed in the front seat of the life of someone experiencing poverty, we are also allowed to be privy to their mental state. This helps us to better understand what someone might be thinking and feeling when placed in such a difficult situation.

Another way we come to understand Alex is through her writing. Reflecting Land’s own experience, Alex was planning to pursue writing at university before she became pregnant with her daughter. Throughout the show, we see how Alex uses her writing to make sense of the world and her situation. In particular, she reflects on the lives of the clients whose houses she cleans, mirroring Land’s own reflections in her memoir.

In her interview, Land explains to NPR how she came to know many of her clients simply “by the imprint they left in their bed”.

Depth as a person,

These reflections are particularly important in the story of “Maid” because they give depth to Alex as a person, so that she is not reduced to another poverty statistic. They highlight the inner complexities of someone going through poverty that are unique to them and therefore allow us to better connect and empathize with what they are going through.

With her writing, Land is able to get out of poverty and finally pursue her studies at the University of Montana, which is how the story of “Maid” concludes for Alex. Land’s second memoir, “Class: A Memoir of Motherhood, Hunger, and Higher Education”, goes on to detail her experiences balancing motherhood and work, all while trying to complete her degree.

Women and Poverty

Where the show and Land’s experiences differ more significantly is in the depiction of domestic abuse. Both Land and Alex end up homeless after fleeing from abusive relationships. In Land’s case, her partner made her believe she was mentally ill through constant emotional abuse and gaslighting. It was when he became physically violent that she called the Domestic Violence Hotline and then the police. Land describes to NPR the relief she felt when she made the report, because it was in that moment that she finally felt that she was not crazy.

Alex’s story in the show is more reflective of how many other women experience domestic violence, with her ending up back in the abusive relationship towards the end of the show. Land explains how this is sadly typical of many other women’s experiences in abusive relationships, especially those who are financially dependent on their partners, like Alex in the show. This brings attention to the added complexities for women experiencing poverty, who can end up in vulnerable situations, especially with children to care for.

This emphasizes the importance of considering the modifying factors of poverty. The oppression faced by many women across society culminates with poverty, placing the women who experience it in an even more vulnerable position. Considering such factors is particularly crucial to building more compassionate government programs that can accommodate an individual’s particular needs and circumstances.

Understanding Poverty

“Maid” brings an individual’s struggles with homelessness and poverty into the spotlight, but there are still so many stories of those in poverty that remain hidden from what people see in the media. The memoir and the series show how in-depth, first-hand storytelling about people’s experiences of poverty can be effective in helping the public better understand what poverty entails.

When placed in someone else’s shoes, you cannot help but feel real compassion and empathy for what they are going through. If more people can come to feel that way, then true and lasting change can finally come about.

  1. Another term for this is ‘cliff effect’, that includes lessening of other support programs like SNAP, Medicaid, childcare, and housing subsidies.
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