By Lucy Wright
‘The poor are no less rational than anyone else – quite the contrary. Precisely because they have so little we often find them putting much careful thought into their choices. They have to be sophisticated economists just to survive.’
Poverty is seldom captured on the screen as it is in Netflix’s Maid. Similarly, Banerjee and Dufflo’s agenda in Poor Economics disproves the assumption that because the poor possess so little, there is little of interest in their economic existence. To omit the poorest in our societies from our research and our interest is to ignore the economic complexities of a large portion of our population; to miss opportunities for more equitable economic growth. Based on Stephanie Land’s memoir of her time as a domestic worker, Maid showcases protagonist Alex’s struggle for survival amidst a scarcity scarcely imaginable in the richest economy in the world.
As Alex bravely escapes from a life of domestic violence and emotional abuse, she enters the precarious world of absolute poverty in the USA, tightroping across the red tape and navigating the maze of catch 22s that constitutes contemporary social security systems. The show is both a moving portrayal of survival following abuse and an exposé into a broken system, offering a glimpse into the fragility of life on the breadline, and the ease by which someone may fall through the cracks.
The visual format facilitates the externalisation of Alex’s financial anxieties, as a running tally of her meagre incomings and outgoings appears in the upper right corner of the screen. This artistic choice forces the audience to appreciate the speed of her mental accounting while making apparent the daunting realisation of the lengths of resourcefulness needed to meet her basic needs. The running total often ticks down to zero before she can secure what she needs – food, petrol for the car she needs for work, the co-pay for her daughter’s daycare. There is no safety net: this is all she has.
In the absence of the state, most people’s safety net comes in the form of familial altruism. Yet for Alex, intergenerational abuse renders her without a support network to lean on. Underneath the bohemian, free spirited artist facade of Alex’s mother, lies deep rooted pain and trauma, she herself having been subject to many forms of domestic abuse: physical, emotional, financial. Alex’s mother, however, comes to represent an alternative approach to managing misfortune. She embodies that stereotypical American trope of libertarian self-reliance, attributing the source of inequality and hardship, not to exogenous forces but to internal deficit. Dependency and asking for help is alien. To cope, she constructs a fantasy world to conceal the reality of her homelessness, “I’ve got my car!”, and invokes shame surrounding assistance, whether that be familial or governmental. Her reluctance to offer support to Alex is vital to the Maid backstory, in which Alex is trapped not only by her own economic circumstance but by generational patterns of abuse, neglect and reluctance to seek help. By deconstructing the ideals of the ‘American dream’, emphasising the impossibility of economic success, and survival, in the face of external barriers, Maid highlights the need for an alternative ideology: one based upon improving the quality of and access to social services, to improve the lives and economic outcomes of those most in need.
Alex instead begins to piece her life back together through grit, the altruism of domestic violence shelters, the occasional kindness of strangers and a cleaning job through an unforgiving woman named Yolanda. Void of empathy and emotional attachment, Yolanda begins to embody the brutal, survivalist side of laissez faire America.
Maid exhibits the precariousness of an existence without safety nets and illuminates the vulnerability of the journey back to stability for Alex and her young child. The show illustrates the power of luck: for Alex, acts of kindness constitute the difference between a roof over their heads and homelessness. Her car becomes a metaphor for freedom. A vehicle for economic liberation, without which she is forced back into the prison of the insidious forms and effects of emotional abuse.
Maid critiques the minimal state help supposedly on offer to individuals in such desperate situations, which is not only unfit for purpose, but requires one to jump through endless hoops to attain the most basic necessities. The tenant based rental assistance (TBRA) which promises dignity and autonomy, violates the vital condition for a medium of exchange: to be widely accepted. The hours she works are not enough to financially literate her, coupled with the endless challenges she encounters, from childcare and the legal system, to a broken housing market. Contemporarily, we are living through huge cuts to social services, which push even more families over the poverty line. The palpable anxieties we see on the screen reflect the economic realities of a growing number in our own societies.
What strikes the audience of Maid is the lengths of Alex’s resourcefulness and intelligence in balancing all of these pressures. It is impossible not to see that the challenges she faces are exogenous, and the extent to which a single bad turn on the wheel of fortune can so quickly snowball into catastrophe. Yet because of this, one may interpret Alex as a flawless archetype of the ‘deserving poor’. Alex feels just slightly too patient and generous with her limited resources to be true. Her strength of character in the face of such hardship is admirable, but should not be a necessary requirement for empathy.
The struggle for survival and fight for economic security portrayed in Maid depicts the ways in which many people trapped within the lower echelons of the economy are constrained by circumstances outside of their control. The poignancy of the show has the power to transform an understanding of life in poverty. Economists, policy makers and politicians speak in the language of statistics. This tender portrayal of a young woman struggling to make a life for herself and her child humanises the very human experience of poverty, and the struggle of too many in developed economies.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.
Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo, Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty (2011)
Stephanie Land, Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive (2019)
Netflix’s Maid (2021)
Image Source: Netflix