“Paycheck to Paycheck” documentary puts a human face to the treadmill of poverty in the US

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“Alis Volat Propilus…It means ‘I fly with my own wings.’ I don’t need anyone else to hold me up.” Katrina Gilbert looks into the camera fingering the tattoo of a bird just above her breast. The ink is a reminder and totem. It is our first introduction to Gilbert, whose story in the documentary Paycheck to Paycheck: The Life and Times of Katrina Gilbert becomes the visual embodiment of the Shriver Report released earlier this year. Gilbert is one of 42 million American women who live at or below the poverty line. It is only a short moment later in the film that we become acutely aware that Gilbert may very well have her own wings, but it is incumbent upon us to generate wind for her and her family to soar. 

The 74-minute documentary, produced by Maria Shriver, premiered on HBO Monday night and is available for free streaming on YouTube this week. We watch Gilbert care for her three small children and handle her insurmountable financial responsibilities with a job as a certified nursing assistant at a local nursing home that pays $9.49/hour. Gilbert puts another human face to the political volleyball around the dwindling safety net, as well as the ongoing struggle to raise the minimum wage and provide affordable health and child care to working mothers.

Gilbert and her family live in Chattanooga, Tennessee. At the time we meet them in the film, she and the father of her three kids are separated (he’s out of work too, lives four hours away, and tries to see his kids regularly). Although Gilbert is the centerpiece of this story of America’s working poor, it is also the story of an interconnected community that sustains them. The Chambliss Center for Children in Chattanooga is prominently featured as well as an exemplary daycare facility that allows poor working moms to pay on a sliding scale. We also meet strangers (doctors, college admissions staff, tax accountants) that exhibit patience and encouragement to Gilbert as well.

In a 1960 essay for Esquire, James Baldwin this to say about poverty: “Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor; and if one is a member of a captive population, economically speaking, one’s feet simply have been placed on the treadmill forever.” As we watch Gilbert pay rent, gas for her car, food, daycare, loans to her ex-husband for gas money, doctor’s visits for her neglected health (her employer does not provide health coverage, her children are covered separately through public programs) and prescriptions, we see how poverty becomes so expensive. We are briefly lifted up and emotional when she gets accepted to college and are equally crushed when she is denied financial aid. We are hopeful after she meets with a tax accountant that the Earned Income Credit from her federal taxes will create the financial solvency she needs. We quickly understand that although conservatives like to argue that EIC is some magic bullet that brings families who are at or below the poverty level into the fluffy world of economic stability, it is simply untrue in practice. When her ex-husband relocates back to Chattanooga to help care for the kids after securing a factory job, we’re equally glad that she’s moved into a house with her boyfriend (now fiancé) Chris and grow frustrated when another setback jeopardizes their housing security.

The treadmill is real for the working poor in America. And it is hard to stay hopeful watching Gilbert’s story. At one point, her daughter acknowledges what we’re all thinking: “Mommy, you need help.” Gilbert yields in agreement to that truth.

We like Gilbert. There’s a sweetness and steadfast determination in her. She is honest with us about choices she regrets; yet she’s still looking forward. She’s affectionate and patient with her elderly patients at work. She’s a good mom. We are rooting for her and her family. We are hoping for good results. LV Anderson at Slate also recognizes the effect of selecting a likable subject like Gilbert — an attractive white woman– for the purpose of dramatizing the findings in the Shriver report and hopefully swaying policy, but wonders if it could backfire:

Yet few people, be they rich or poor, behave with as much forbearance, compassion, and hopefulness as Gilbert does in Paycheck to Paycheck. This isn’t a criticism of Gilbert—she truly is amazing. But the poor people who are less extraordinary and less overtly likable than Gilbert need help, too.

Shriver’s aim with Paycheck to Paycheck is to start a national conversation about minimum wage, paid sick days, and affordable child care and health care—the policies that would help all manner of vulnerable people. But putting such a saint at the center of her campaign (or, at least, only showing Gilbert’s saintly side) is a decision that could backfire.

I sort of disagree. I feel that Gilbert is ordinary and human, and to deify her virtues — to label her extraordinary — is to accept a narrative that conservative policy makers peddle about the character of the majority of poor people in America. Poor people work very hard, make smart decisions in often impossible situations, and are constantly shifting priorities and resources to survive and support their families. Poor people are charming and extraordinary. Poor people are ordinary. One can apply praise and blame of this kind to anyone of any class. Rich people are virtuous. Rich people are ordinary. Poverty is as indiscriminate to character as it is to race. It is colorless and yet, since the Reagan years, conservative policy makers engage in a language that sparks racial animus and division, rather than addressing any real solutions. “Poverty,” “single mothers,” “food stamps” to some detractors immediately becomes racialized code to justify draconian spending cuts, wrapped in politics that ignore statistical facts. Talking points from Tea Partiers call Obama ‘the food stamp president’ to ignite old racial tensions among their base voters, who hail from the states that receive the highest allocation of federal public assistance. Rare is the representation of poverty in national media and popular culture that shows just how inclusive it is. That it affects white families, black families, Latino families, the young and the elderly.

Gilbert’s story is as important as millions of others out there. We should listen and act.

sm-bio Syreeta McFadden is a writer in Brooklyn and believes we can do better.

SYREETA MCFADDEN is a Brooklyn based writer, photographer and adjunct professor of English. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, The Guardian, BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post, Religion Dispatches and Storyscape Journal. She is the managing editor of the online literary magazine, Union Station, and a co-curator of Poets in Unexpected Places. You can follow her on Twitter @reetamac.

Syreeta McFadden is a contributing opinion writer for The Guardian US and an editor of Union Station Magazine.

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